By Greg Markley
My column of Oct. 30 2019, “Opelika is for sale-the one in Texas, that is!” was one of my most popular. It mentioned Opelika and Auburn thru the prism of Texas cities with the same names. So I decided to find out about the other eight counties called Lee: their populations, main cities, histories, and trivia.
People get attached to their counties depending on how long they lived there, and whether their experience was pleasant. A person can meet someone from the largest Alabama county (Jefferson with 658,000 people) who likes it and another resident who wants out quick.
The same mixed views apply to Greene County, population 9,500; our least populated.
“Employers hire as Lee County booms,” was the headline in a Lee County newspaper on Dec. 22, 2016. The story began: “Lee County is booming and employers expect to hire more people in the coming year.” That article was from the Fort Myers, Florida News-Press, but it could have easily come from the newspaper you are reading.
Fort Myers is the county seat but Cape Coral is the largest city by population. The Cape had an estimated population (2018) of approximately 189,000 to the Fort’s 82,000. It is one of nine counties (including our own) that are named for Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia in the Civil War. Graduating from the USMA at West Point, he served 32 distinguished years for the U.S. Army before the Civil War.
You might have heard of the Lee County in southwest Georgia. Albany is both the seat for Dougherty County and the most populated city there, with about 77,000 residents. A high point for the city was racial progress made in the 1960s with the Albany Movement. A low point was reached in 1988 when Albany made national headlines as the “Murder Capital of America.”
This meant the Lee County city, amid economic hard times, had the most murders per capita.
You might have heard of the Lee County in southwest Georgia. Both Leesburg, GA (28,000 residents) and Opelika, AL (30,000 citizens) are county seats. Leesburg is part of the Albany Metro Area. Its population has swelled for 30 years. People scurried away from a violent crime wave that made Albany the 6th most dangerous city in Georgia.
In Dougherty County, I worked for the Albany Herald for two years. I wrote a profile of a man who started an evangelical church. As a Navy Seal in 1969 he was the “frogman” opening the door for the Apollo 11 astronauts who landed on the moon. Also, I covered a visit by Gov. Roy Barnes who later lost the 2002 gubernatorial race to Sonny Perdue. The “hidden” factor in the upset was Barnes’ plan to change the Georgia flag from its Confederate design.
In Lee County, Arkansas, population declined by 53% for Marianna, the county seat and largest city. That is since the 1990 U.S. Census. A loss of jobs led to more crime and “white flight.” Marianna’s population by 2018 dwindled to 3,477. That is a third of this particular Lee County’s population— nearly 10,000. One thing that hasn’t changed is the popular Jones Bar-B-Q Diner. Founded in the 1910s, it may be America’s oldest black-owned restaurant. Robert McFerrin, a great opera singer and father of Grammy Award-winner Bobby McFerrin, lived there. So, Lee Countians should chant “Don’t worry, be happy.”
Another music icon was born in Tupelo, Lee County, Mississippi; his name was Elvis Aaron Presley. He was born in a two-room “shotgun house” and as a young child was attracted to singing at the local Assembly of God church. Tupelo is the county seat and recorded a populace of 38,000 (2018). This Lee County had 82,000 people as of 2018. Lee County, Mississippi is famous for the Battle of Tupelo, also called the Engagement at Harrisburg. This Civil War battle July 14 to 15 was a major Union victory. It enabled General Sherman to have secure supply lines during the Atlanta Campaign in the summer 1964.
Another historic event was when a monstrous tornado killed 216 people and injured 700 othern (April, 1936). Today it would rate F5 on the Fujita scale, experts say.
Back to the headline question: “Is our Lee County one-of-a-kind? No, not literally.” The answer is No of course, that our Lee County is not the only one, in the literal sense. Factually there are eight other Lee Counties in America. Yet figuratively, or imagined, our Lee County has a strong case for being No. 1.
I mean compared not only to the eight others with the same name, but to the other 66 counties of Alabama. We are making progress, growing fast, yet honoring the county’s heritage, diversity, and natural beauty. On April 8, I will look at the Lee Counties of Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas.
Greg Markley has lived in Lee County for 18 of the last 23 years. An award-winning journalist, he has master’s degrees in education and history. He has taught as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama.