Editor’s Note: This guest blog was written by Historic Huntsville Foundation Executive Director Donna Castellano. The Historic Huntsville Foundation’s FREE Rooted in History exhibit shares the history of Alice Boarman Baldridge at Harrison Brothers Hardware, 124 Southside Square, Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Alice had a decision to make.
The Alabama Legislature passed a law during its 1915 session letting women run for seats on local school boards, but there was a catch. They also voted down a bill letting Alabama voters decide the women’s suffrage issue through an amendment to the state’s constitution. As the 1916 election approached, Alice’s colleagues urged her to run for a seat on the Madison County School Board, in an election that would be decided solely by male voters.
Alice doubted she could win. She thought that a woman holding elected office was so new that the prejudice against it would be insurmountable. But there was a reason to run. She believed that even if she lost, she would serve a good purpose if she made it easier for the next woman. Alice held her breath and announced her candidacy.
Alice did not lose. In fact, Huntsville’s Alice Boarman Baldridge was one of six Alabama women who won political office 1916. During her two years on Madison County’s Board of Education, Alice showed that women’s political skills went beyond the educational sphere. A speech given by Alice in 1916 is credited with Huntsville winning a lucrative road project. And Alice’s deft approach allowed her to touch the third rail of Alabama politics: race and education.
Unafraid to challenge convention, Alice unabashedly cut her own path. At the age of 44, Alice became Madison County’s first female attorney in 1918. With few career options in Huntsville, she moved to New York City, practicing law at Wall Street firms for 35 years. In New York as in Huntsville, Alice opened doors that other women walked through.
Her call to action
Born in 1874, Alice was part of a generation of southern women who exchanged their pedestals for a platform built around women’s rights. A native of New Orleans, Alice’s worldview was shaped by her undergraduate degree from Sophie Newcomb College and postgraduate studies at Wellesley College. The curriculum of both schools reinforced progressive ideals of the day, teaching that women could be regenerative forces in society and politics. While a student at Newcomb, she met Felix Baldridge, Jr., a Tulane medical student from Huntsville. He asked her to marry, and she said yes. After their January 1895 wedding, they moved to Huntsville.
Alice’s life in Huntsville followed the pattern of most affluent southern women. She and Felix started a family; they had a son, Milton, and a daughter, Vira. The couple lived with relatives for a bit before settling into their Victorian-style cottage on Adams Avenue. Alice hosted parties, bridge clubs and even participated in a basketball league. Judging from newspaper reports, basketball was the only activity in which Alice did not excel.
She joined civic organizations, and when a group formed to establish a Carnegie Library in Huntsville, Alice signed up for the cause. When the library opened in 1916, civic leaders asked Alice to serve as vice president on the library’s board of directors.
No matter how many civic causes women initiated, they could never bring lasting change to their city or nation without voting rights. A strong advocate for women’s rights, Alice served as secretary of Huntsville’s Equal Suffrage Association. A compelling speaker, she delivered speeches at meetings throughout Alabama and in Washington, D.C. When Huntsville leaders sought a woman to run for the Madison County Board of Education in 1916, they asked Alice. When she won, The Huntsville Times declared, “Everybody happy over Mrs. Baldridge’s election” and proclaimed that she would rid the county of illiteracy.
Civic leaders recognized her combination of intellect, wit and charm made her a valuable asset for Madison County, especially as city and county leaders recruited investors and development projects to the region.
Her most stunning victory came just a few months after her election, when she helped ensure that the route of the Jackson highway would run through Huntsville. The Jackson highway is a network of roads that connect the Gulf Coast with Chicago, Illinois and Cleveland, Ohio. The completed highway would bring economic development to all the towns along the way, courtesy of travelers who would stop at local hotels, restaurants, gas stations and other businesses. Cities and towns vied with each other to have Jackson highway officials choose a route beneficial to them.
At a dinner for road officials at the Twickenham Hotel, Alice gave a rousing speech credited with securing the Huntsville route for the road. One of the highway officials stood at the dinner to announce, “There was no way to extricate themselves from the hypnotic spell placed upon them by Mrs. Baldridge.” The Huntsville Times proclaimed that “Mrs. Baldridge ‘got’ the Jackson highway for Huntsville.” Today, people know the Jackson highway as Highway 231 and Highway 431.
Breaking new ground
Alice explored more controversial issues after her Jackson highway victory. She worked with Black leaders on educational and social reforms to better conditions in Madison County’s Black community. Relationships between Black and white citizens in Huntsville functioned within the confines of a segregated society. Within this system, Black leaders formed organizations to help Black residents, and progressive-minded Alabamians often lent their support to the cause.
The Alabama Orphan Home School brought Black and white Huntsvillians together over a shared mission. The Reverend Junius Blunt founded the Alabama Orphan School for Children, Alabama’s first orphanage for Black children, around 1912 on his farm just west of Huntsville. Alice served on the school’s board of directors and helped file its charter of incorporation. Professor P. C. Park, director of agricultural programs at Alabama A&M University, and Frank Fackler, a successful Black businessman, also served on the board.
Alice challenged the conventions of Jim Crow and spoke at a public fundraising event for the school in May 1917, sharing a stage with Black civic leaders. One of those speakers was Willis N. Huggins, a history professor at Alabama A&M. Huggins founded the Community House, an establishment that offered programs similar to those of the YMCA to Madison County’s Black residents. As a representative of the Madison County School Board, Alice spoke on the importance of Black education.
Standing on that stage, Alice broke new ground in the rocky landscape of Alabama race relations. Her actions were consistent with reformers, both Black and white, who worked to improve conditions for Black Alabamians. But Alice was the first Alabama woman holding elected office to take this stance publicly. Alice’s advocacy for education served the purposes of Black leaders, who knew that education and entrepreneurship would help Black Alabamians resist and eventually challenge laws that legalized racial segregation.
Sadly, Alice’s involvement with the school and Huntsville politics was cut short through an unexpected event. Her husband passed away from pneumonia in June 1917. Now a single mother with teenage children, Alice charted a path that unleashed her intellect and ambition.
Alice’s second act
Sometime around 1914 or 1915, Alice began law school and signed up for correspondence classes offered by a Chicago law school. The year before her husband’s death, Alice joked that she took up law as a “bombardment against an uninteresting old age” spent “darning hubby’s socks.” Now, she threw herself into her studies, passing the Alabama State Bar exam in 1918. At 44, Alice became Madison County’s first female attorney. Her second act was just beginning.
She kept her family home on Adams Street but explored career options in cities that offered more opportunities for women. She moved to New York City and joined the Wall Street firm of Laughlin, Gerard, Bowers and Halpin in 1923. She excelled and water later recognized as an “Outstanding Woman Lawyer” in the 1937 Woman’s Almanac, Facts For, By, and About Women. Alice practiced law until 1957, when she retired at the age of 83, returning to the Adams Avenue house where she raised her children.
Her enduring legacy
As a testament to how Alice changed the perception of women in politics, the Huntsville City Council appointed a woman to the Huntsville City School Board in 1918. The Huntsville Weekly Democrat stated that the Council followed the lead of Madison County voters and their election of Alice. In 1920, the Council appointed two women to the school board.
Today, Huntsville is a place where women not only regularly win elected office but lead projects that take our nation to Mars. On Sunday, Oct. 30 at 2 p.m., at the site of Alice’s family home at 703 Adams St., the Historic Huntsville Foundation and City of Huntsville will dedicate a historic marker honoring Alice.
By inscribing Alice’s accomplishments on our City’s landscape, we honor a Huntsville woman who made history while inspiring future generations of changemakers to face challenges with the courage of Alice.