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Monday, Jan. 16, 2017

Fighting corruption in Phenix City

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Third of a five part series of Jack Culpepper's memories of growing up in Phenix City, Ala., widely known for years as the most corrupt city in the nation until 1954. Culpepper, 83, now resides in Tullahoma.

One large house of prostitution, located 10 miles south of Phenix City, was believed to have been tied to a nationwide white slavery racket, placed in an isolated area behind a poor black community, which made it difficult for young girls being broken into the immoral business to escape. From 1945 to 1954, the town was the home of over 1,000 prostitutes.

"Everybody stayed out of there," Jack Culpepper said. "The first two blocks off the bridge ... you just didn't go there.

"It was rough."

Notifying the authorities wasn't a smart move ... likely leading to a taste of "southern hospitality," courtesy of cops equipped with brass knuckles. More than once, any soldier who complained too much ended up sleeping with the fishes in the Chattahoochee.

Jack recalled that several times when the river level was low, human remains would be found wedged in the boulders.

The other dangerous area was around the Dillingham Street bridge, more commonly known as the part of town where African-Americans lived (although it went by a more racist title in those days). Jack witnessed one of the most terrible events in the city, the collapse of the Ritz Cafe, also known as the Bug House, in April 1938. Of those jammed inside taking part in an illegal lottery, 24 were killed and another 83 injured.

One image that has stayed with him for all these years is the sight of a pregnant black woman, with her intestines and unborn child knocked out of her by a falling beam during the building collapse.

By the time the 1950s rolled around, the crime syndicate not only controlled all the politics and law enforcement in Russell County, but influenced neighboring counties as well, with its sway even reaching the state capital in Montgomery.

Fed up and gunned down

During these years, Jack was far away from Sin City, leaving to test aircraft during World War II, eventually joining the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, (NACA) which was later turned into NASA. He had been trying to get into the service since the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but his request for service was constantly deferred.

Jack started working in the aviation field as part of a recruitment campaign aimed at young men who had been building model aircraft for two years or more. They offered $25 a week for the work, which at that time "was like taking a pig to a bucket of slop," Jack said.

Jack, his friend Joe Freeman and others across the country joined the program. Among those entering the program was Charlie Folk, who would later found Microcraft in Tullahoma. Folk was Jack's immediate supervisor before he went on active duty in the Army Air Corps.

Jack had been working as a wind tunnel technician in Langley, Va., following his stint in the service, but he dropped back in when he could to visit family in Phenix City during a period of time that residents were fighting to save the town from itself.

Many of the local citizens were God-fearing, hard working people and were fed up with the corruption, trying repeatedly to rid Sin City of its gangsters and politicians, which were mostly one and the same. But these efforts at reform went nowhere.

That was before lawyer Albert J. Patterson got involved in cleaning up the town. In 1946, the local attorney was elected to the state senate, with the unwanted backing of the "Phenix City Machine," as the racketeers were called. He even helped defend gambling kingpin Hoyt Shepard in a murder trial, which he won, and after losing a case in 1949 involving another gambler, he vowed never to help them again.

Patterson had already begun to distance himself from the drug lords and gambling kingpins who ran Phenix City over the years. In 1951, he joined forces with sporting goods merchant Hugh Bentley, who had been pushing for a city-wide clean up since the end of World War II. Trips to the state capital by concerned citizens did no good; someone there would be on the phone to Phenix City to report who was talking to state officials and a "welcoming committee" would be waiting for them.

Jack described Bentley as a personal friend and "a great guy." Bentley's mother lived three blocks away from Jack when he was growing up. "He tried to get Joe [Freeman] and me to come back and help with that clean up," Jack said, but they were both in Virginia at the time doing wind tunnel work.

"We were both entrenched in our careers," Jack said. "There was no point in throwing all that away."

Along with Patterson and 10 others, Bentley formed the Russell Betterment Association in a futile fight against corruption. In 1952, Patterson's office was set on fire and Bentley's home was destroyed with 36 sticks of dynamite while his wife and children slept inside. Fortunately, they all escaped with their lives.

Joe and Jack were in town the night Bentley's home was destroyed. They had stopped by the house to visit two hours before the dynamite went off, but Bentley was not at home. It was on their way back to Virginia when they heard the news about the bombing.

Later that same year Bentley and several others, including a Columbus Ledger-Enquirer reporter, were beaten at a polling place while trying to expose massive vote fraud that was underway. Bentley and the others demanded that County Judge Harry Randall arrest the offenders, which he refused to do. When they returned to watch the polls, they were attacked and beaten in broad daylight while police stood by, watched and did nothing to stop it.

Wednesday: Newly-elected Alabama Attorney General Albert Patterson continues his "man against crime" campaign.

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