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.
The videos on Youtube.com show a family in happier times. They are roaming areas of both Russell and Barbour counties – exploring their roots. But since those times shown, their roots have been severed for the most part even though there are roots not as deeply embedded in the soil of the area.
Most people were unaware of the ties this family had to Russell County, but they would begin to learn of them on June 25, 2009 – the day music’s King of Pop died in Los Angeles, Calif. Yes, Michael Jackson had ties to the County of Forts on the western bank of the Chattahoochee River.
In 1907 – Oct. 16 to be exact – Prince Albert Screws was born in Jernigan, an unincorporated area in southern Russell County. He married Martha Upshaw, also of Russell County, and had two daughters Hattie and Katie. The family moved to Barbour County for a while before moving to East Chicago, Ind., where Prince Albert decided to get a fresh start by changing the spelling of his name from Screws to Scruze. He also changed his daughter Katie’s name to Katherine.
Katherine Scruze married Joe Jackson and had 10 children – five of which excelled in musical talent and became known as The Jackson Five. Their son Michael became the most popular and most talented of the group – eventually becoming the world’s No. 1 entertainer.
In later years, Katherine’s mother, Martha, separated from Prince Albert Scruze and returned to Alabama where she married John Bridges. Bridges lived in a small house on Wende Road about halfway between Hatchechubbee and Hurtsboro. He lived there until his death in 1985 at Cobb Memorial Hospital in Phenix City on Oct. 25 – the same date as the date of Michael’s death in 2009.
The Jackson Family attended the funeral of John Bridges, the children’s step-grandfather who they also referred to as Papa or Uncle Johnny. Though he remained married to Katherine’s mother Martha, he had a mistress the Jackson’s called Aunt Georgia and John had a woman that helped take care of him who lived across the road they called Sugar Babe. Martha spent her final days living in Barbour County.
In the home videos taken by Michael on trips to Russell County, he loved to explore the old houses which appeared to be in disrepair, but he insisted people still lived in them. He found that fascinating he said in the video.
“It’s a whole different way of life down there,” Michael Jackson said.
In one portion of the video taken on Wende Road, he found some children playing and went to meet them. He also attempted to get the children to join him in a dance, but found they were too shy to do so on camera.
“I love meeting people I don’t know. We found these kids, and I tried to get them to dance with me. They had incredible rhythm, but they were shy and did not want to do the dance while it was being videoed,” Michael Jackson said.
Later in the video at John Bridge’s home, the camera was on Aunt Georgia eating an apple. She was not happy about being videoed while eating and told the boys to “get that thing off me.” Trying to change the subject while continuing to video the moment, they asked her if they really ate “opossum” in the South?
“They ate opossum, but I wouldn’t have any because I knew it was in the rodent family. They are very cute. They have little pink noses and big eyes and very inviting, but I wouldn’t want to eat one,” Michael Jackson commented.
Michael Jackson talks a little about “Uncle Johnny” on the video.
“Uncle Johnny was a real character. I loved listening to him talk. It is like he was speaking a whole another different language down there. He had this drink he called White Lightning. This drink was so strong that one sip will get you drunk. My brother Tito took a sip and went ‘Wow,’ I wouldn’t drink any. Sugar Babe was there and she was dancing. They say she loves to dance. All I know is that she started after she drank some of the White Lightning,” Michael Jackson said.
In the video, you can see an older model Cadillac, which John Bridges drove until he was no longer able to drive. The vehicle was a present from the Jackson brothers. It sat next to the home until John Bridges died. Where it went after that no one seems to know.
Before that particular visit to Russell County to see John Bridges, the Jackson Family visited Barbour County. In Eufaula, they toured the Governor John Gill Shorter Mansion. Michael Jackson commented on how he loved the old homes. The youngsters were videoed, the group of them walking away from the Governor Shorter Mansion and stopping on the sidewalk to pretend to thumb for a ride. They waved at the people passing by – none of which appeared to realize they were seeing the country’s top pop group.
Of the entire trip, Michael Jackson said he had a “phenomenal” time.
The last trip Michael Jackson made as far as anyone knows was for John Bridges’ funeral. The family was prepared a meal at the JET Center in Hurtsboro.
In 1984, the Jacksons decided to use the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center for rehearsals for their Victory Tour. They used the time to prepare for the tour and to slip into Russell County to visit family without any fanfare. That was the usual case for the family. They loved to visit the area, but did not want publicity. They used the time for rest and to revive themselves from their busy schedule.
While in Birmingham, the Jacksons were mostly unseen except for an appearance on a hotel balcony to wave to fans. A devout Jevovah’s Witness, Michael Jackson disguised himself and spent two hours going door-to-door in Trussville to hand out pamphlets. With a fake mustache, an afro wig, a hat, and black suit, Michael Jackson handed out the materials on his religion. No one knew it was him until the next day when it was printed in the local newspapers. Well, he was not recognized by most people, some did know.
“It was pretty easy to fool the adults, but the kids would look at me and say to their parents that ‘he is Michael Jackson.’ The parents laughed it off and told the children I was not. I enjoyed that,” Michael Jackson said.
Michael Jackson continued to make explorations into the area to learn of his family’s roots until the death of his step-grandfather John Bridges.