Editor’s Note: Russell County has a long history that is important to the State of Alabama and its evolvement from an area described in the book “Russell County in Retrospect” by Anne Kendrick Walker as a “barbaric land” to what it is today. Many of the people who set their roots in the county in its early days including the state’s first Territorial Delegate to the United States Congress, important Native Americans who paid with their lives to cede land that created the county, a family that started a place of higher learning in south Russell County that later led to the establishment of one of the state’s most known institutions of education today and a former slave who placed a monument to honor his former owner, are very much important to the formation of Alabama. The story that follows is another of a series to inform you – our readers – about the history of Russell County.
Claude Bertram Gullatt Sr. was born in Russell County on July 5, 1881, and died in Phenix City on October 22, 1950. He was one of 10 children born to Robert Benjamin Gullatt, a farmer and Confederate soldier, and Cynthia M. Coleman. He was the grandson of George Washington Gullatt and Jane Glaze. He married Margaret Mae Rutledge and they had three children – son Claude Bertram Gullatt Jr. and daughters Mary Cynthia and Winslow Lanae.
Claude Bertram Gullatt Sr. never shied away from hard work whether he was working as an expert doffer at a textile mill or serving his community in political office.
His link to Russell County’s early history is tied to his four terms as the mayor of Phenix City and three terms he served in the Alabama Legislature, twice from Lee County and once from Russell County. During his terms in office, Phenix City was divided between Lee and Russell Counties. Gullatt was the only known person in the state at the time to hold two public offices – mayor and state representative – at the same time.
Some of the most important decisions concerning issues of local concern came during Gullatt’s years of elected service. Gullatt was mayor when Phenix City and Girard were consolidated on August 9, 1923 by Act of the Alabama Legislature. He was a leader in the movement to consolidate the two communities. As a state representative from Lee County, he co-sponsored a bill which traded the Marvyn Community to Lee County for a portion of Phenix City which placed all of Phenix City in Russell County. The traded came about in 1932. He was elected to represent Russell County in the Alabama Legislature in 1943.
Gullatt also co-sponsored legislation to move the seat of Russell County government from Seale to Phenix City in 1934. The change was approved by an overwhelming vote in a county-wide referendum.
Before he entered the public arena, Gullatt was a hard worker who became an expert doffer at a textile mill in Columbus, Ga. He later operated a small grocery store, established Gullatt Furniture Company, and became one of the founders of First Federal Savings and Loan Association of Russell County in 1934.
His son Claude Bertram Gullatt Jr. served as probate judge of Russell County. His granddaughter Jane Gullatt followed in her grandfather’s footsteps and became mayor of Phenix City and later as an Alabama Legislator in the House of Representatives. She was the first woman elected to both of those positions. Her first elected position was as the at-large representative on the Phenix City Council, the first woman elected to city government.
Gullatt’s daughter Mary Cynthia married William R. Belcher, who was elected in 1958 to serve as Circuit Judge of Russell County. His daughter Winslow Lanae married Leonard A. Coulter, who served as a Phenix City Commissioner including as mayor in 1957 and 1958.
It is interesting to note that Claude Bertram Gullatt’s first dive into politics was somewhat delayed until a decision was handed down by the Alabama Supreme Court. In 1928, Gullatt joined with Walter E. Sherrer and Eugene L. White as the Workingmen’s Ticket to fill the seats of the first three Commissioners of Phenix City. The city had changed its form of government from the Mayor and 15 Alderman form of government which was deemed inefficient by the city’s electorate.
The Workingmen’s Ticket defeated the Citizen’s Ticket of S. Lauderdale, Homer D. Cobb and J.N. Nevels in eight of the city’s 10 wards by an average vote of 1,023 to 744. The group was to take over control of the city on October 1, 1928 from the mayor-alderman government which was led by Mayor Ashby Floyd, a well-respected doctor in the community.
However, a citizen of the Girard community – E.C. Smith – filed suit against Mayor Floyd and the all of the Phenix City aldermen to prevent them from turning over control of the city to Gullatt, Sherrer and White. The trio had already taken over the city before the suit was filed. The new commissioners appointed new department heads in their first meeting.
Smith filed for injunction writs were granted against the mayor and aldermen by Judge Walter B. Jones of Montgomery. Smith argued the act passed by the legislature in 1923 provided that an election on the question of changing the form of government to the commission could be held on petition of three electors to each 100 population based on any municipal or federal census subsequently taken. He maintained that no such census had been taken since the passage of the act and therefore the election held on the question of changing the form of government and for naming of three commissioners was illegal and invalid.
Gullatt said at the time that the action was “spite work” on the part of advocates for the Citizen’s Ticket that lost the election for the commission seats.
Judge J.S. Williams was to rule on the case in Seale in October. He ruled in favor of Smith when it came to the commissioners-elect request to have the case dismissed. He did not at the time rule on the merits of the case. Judge Williams later ruled in favor of the commissioners-elect, but Smith appealed the ruling to the Alabama Supreme Court, leaving the mayor and aldermen in power to run the city until the matter was decided.
The Alabama Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Montgomery on November 1, 1923 in the appeal of E.C. Smith asking that the ruling by Judge J.S. Williams be set aside Judge Williams had ruled that the election to change the form of government in Phenix City had been legally held and the three commissioners-elect could assume office immediately. The Alabama Supreme Court was expected to rule on the matter in the near future.
On November 22, 1923, the Alabama Supreme Court made its decision known. The court ruled in favor of the commissioners-elect. Smith had 15 days to file a petition for a rehearing.
Dr. Floyd and the aldermen were in agreement with the commissioners-elect and were ready – as they had always been – to work for an easy transition from one group to the other. In fact, Dr. Floyd, while retiring as mayor, agreed to serve as city court recorder.
The department heads appointed by the commissioners-elect in October were expected to fill the positions as soon as the Alabama Supreme Court’s writ arrived in Phenix City. The writ arrived within the week and the matter of which governmental group had the power to rule the city was settled.