Mack Commins, part two of two


The Vagabond recently received a call from State of Alabama Historic Commission archeologist Stacye Hathorn, who was going to be at the old Sixth Street Cemetery in Gadsden and asked if I would accompany her. Stacye was checking on the status of the cemetery where a cleanup had been done.

Also called the Southern Hills Cemetery, the area was a black cemetery for years, going back to before the Civil War. Many slaves and well-known blacks are buried there. 

One of the graves that we stumbled upon was that of Mack Commins. The Vagabond did some research and found Mack was very well known. 

More about Mack Commins:

Back when the U.S. and all of Alabama were getting ready for war with Spain, the Etowah Rifles unit was recruiting for that purpose. Mack Commins, the black barber, announced that he would raise a company of blacks if President William McKinley would permit. Mack had over 500 applications from those who wanted to serve under him. There were many others who started out to organize military units, but the war ended before they could get ready.

Mack was also known to copyright and patent several hair tonics for which he used in his barbershop. He filed a well-known hair tonic on May 23, 1918, for a brand called “Dandruff.” Mack was known for this tonic all throughout the country, and the American Perfumer and Essential Oil Review wrote about the tonic in 1920.

Mack Commins introduced the “Cake Walk” to Gadsden at the old courthouse on Fourth and Broad Streets on the night of Oct. 12, 1899. He brought down from Chattanooga, Tenn., a troupe of high ‘yaller’ steppers along with an athletic pianist and put on a good show for all.

Mack also entertained the barbers of his shop and some leading barbers of Birmingham at a barbeque at Spurlock Springs in the Country Club area. About a dozen of his friends in this city were invited. Mack made a speech of welcome and directed the preparations of the barbequed meats. He was a recognized expert in that field.

Back in the middle 1900’s, the state legislature undertook to amend the statewide prohibition law so as to permit the clamoring public – most of it, anyhow – to buy a limited amount of liquor and beer outside the state. The limit was two quarts of whiskey and two cases of beer a month.

The legislature thought that amount would relieve the drought and prove to be enough for “making camphor and for medicinal purposes.” As a result, hundreds of people had their alcoholic beverages shipped by express from various wet territories. 

One Gadsden man put up a wholesale house in Chattanooga. He was said to have become a millionaire by shipping his wares into this dry state. Most of the liquor, if not all of it, came by express.

The express office was located in what was the clerk’s office in the City Hall Building located on 5th Street, next door to police headquarters. It was easy for the police to find out who was getting the stuff. One of the funniest things to happen in those days had Mack Commins, the well-known barber, for its victim.

Having decided to give a barbecue to some of his white friends, Mack sat down and wrote his friend, the Chattanooga wholesaler, to ship him two cases of beer.  He knew the shipment would arrive the next day. 

When he went around to the city hall for the beer, he ran into a squad of policemen waiting for him. Instead of having two cases, which was lawful, he had 22 cases. Mack was a very embarrassed man but a checkup showed that the mistake was made by the shipping clerk in Chattanooga.

Mack later took the notion to open a restaurant for whites only, and for some time he conducted a fine eating place at the southeast corner of Fifth and Locust streets near the old city hall across 5th Street from the Cultural Arts Center. Mack made a specialty of chowders.

The following want ad appeared in the local newspaper: “Will pay the highest price, spot cash, for the next 10 days, for 100 nice, fat squirrels. Must be well dressed. Bring them at once to Mac Commins’ barbershop.”

Mack later opened a restaurant near the corner of Third and Locust streets, where he made a specialty of green leaf sandwiches. 

Also in the local paper, it said, “Mack Commins, one of the leading Blacks of the city and perhaps one of its best-loved citizens, will celebrate his 90th birthday, Aug. 16 1943. He is the oldest living businessman in the city. He is proprietor of a barbeque restaurant that serves white only. He is a man of good character and is universally respected here and wherever he is known.”

The restaurant continued to bear Mack’s name long after he died in 1945. As one Gadsden citizen said, “He (Mack Commins) is one of Gadsden’s institutions.”

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