Alabama Middle District Preserves Its History

by Reginald T. Hamner

The Frank M. Johnson, Jr. Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse is itself on the National Register of Historical Places, having been so designated in 1998. The building was authorized in 1931 and occupied in 1933. An annex was completed in 2002. The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit occupy space in the complex along with other court family units. Following the completion of the new court facilities in 2002, the Frank M. Johnson, Jr. Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse was renovated and many of its architectural features were restored to their original beauty and design. As the need for government space had grown through the years, the General Services Administration had modified much of the original interior design and installed air conditioning.

The building, originally designed to house a single U.S. District Courtroom and judicial chambers, plus a Court of Appeals courtroom and chambers for a single U.S. Circuit Judge, as well as a post office, congressional space and space for other federal agencies, had been modified through the years and much of its original design was lost. It housed five U.S. District Judges, four U.S. Circuit Judges and four U.S. Magistrate Judges, the U.S. Marshal, and a U.S. Senator when the new facility was begun.

The Middle District of Alabama was created as the Federal Judiciary grew from Alabama’s early territorial beginnings to its present day jurisdiction. It has a rich history in both the cases originating in the U.S. District Court in Montgomery and the many judges who served on the court through the years.

Mindful of its past, the U.S. District Court made a conscious decision, as the new complex was being built and the renovations planned, to preserve the court’s history. It began with the establishment of a Historical Committee composed of lawyers, judges and historians in 1999. The committee was to determine how best to organize material in court files, gather material that was missing during certain periods and preserve these historical artifacts for future generations. Then-Chief U. S. District Judge W. Harold Albritton, III, and the committee’s first chair, Montgomery attorney John B. Scott, Jr., and the committee began work that can be seen at the complex today.

Panels were installed in the atrium of the public spaces in the new building. One chronicles the history of the court itself and is focused on the cases the court has decided. The other panel depicts the history of the various courthouse buildings used through the years by the U S. District Court in the middle district. Museum cases are located beneath the panels and courthouse artifacts, pieces of evidence, and items personal to court personnel are displayed and rotated. In addition, portraits were acquired from court archives, family members, and other sources. These line the galleries of the second floor. All judges who have served on the court and are not in active service, along with their biographies, are included. A judge’s portrait is placed there upon assuming senior status or otherwise leaving the court.

A written history of the court from 1804 through 1955 was published by the University of Alabama School of Law, Bounds Collection, in 2010 by R. Volney Riser. This project was supported by a grant from the Alabama Law Foundation. In addition, a colorful booklet was published by the committee at the time of the new building’s dedication in 2002. It presents the U.S. District Court Judges, U.S. Magistrate Judges, U.S. Bankruptcy Judges and Court Clerks who have served the court to present day. It includes a history of the court’s building and records those who have served as U.S. Attorney and U.S. Marshal in the Middle District of Alabama.

The newest feature in the court’s historical preservation project is the Frank M. Johnson, Jr. Collection. It is housed in the Joint Use Conference Room on the second floor of the Frank M. Johnson, Jr. Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse. The space formerly was used as the office of the U.S. District Court Clerk. The space can be used for training seminars, law clerk orientation, court committee meetings and visitor orientation.

Mrs. Ruth Johnson presented to the court a veritable treasure of personal items associated with Judge Johnson. With the capable help of professional museum curators, David and Frances Robb, the Historical Committee has been able to preserve for generations to come these gifts that chronicle the life of Judge Johnson from his earliest childhood in Winston County; his service in WWII (his purple heart and Bronze Star); his Jasper, Alabama law practice; his appointment as U.S. Attorney, NDAL; as well as his service as both a U.S. District Court Judge and U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge.

The collection contains photos, newspaper articles and editorials, honorary degrees and editorial cartoons. His law clerk reunions, his fishing and woodworking hobby and the precedent setting decisions rendered by Judge Johnson are included. A centerpiece of the collection is the 48 star silk flag that hung in his U.S. District Courtroom. His reverence for the flag is noted in one of the many books written about Judge Johnson. His wit is displayed when he compares this special flag to the nylon flag he had as a U.S. Circuit Judge. This flag was discovered in his chambers closet, after his death, preserved in a dry cleaning bag with a 1971 ticket still attached.

Special to the collection is his Presidential Medal of Freedom presented by President Clinton to Judge Johnson, the Third Annual Devitt Award, the program noting his election to the Alabama Academy of Honor, the Alabama Lawyers Hall of Fame enshrinement plaque, the American Bar Association’s Thurgood Marshall Award, the Time magazine cover and the cover of the Alabama Lawyer on which he (and Mrs. Johnson) appeared. He was the first non-president of the Alabama State Bar to be so honored. The flag that draped his casket is also in the collection.

Judge Johnson’s desk will occupy an area in the room where people desiring to research his opinions may sit. This conference room is a unique and special place to meet. The meeting space is surrounded by an incredible display of history of the man for whom the courthouse complex is named. A special feature of the cases holding the collection is the sensor controlled lighting system, which is activated by the presence of the person standing in the particular exhibit area. This system will preserve the displays from heat and excessive light exposure.

The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama assumed responsibility for preserving its storied and distinguished past. The judges, court staff and many lawyer volunteers are proud trustees of the court’s past and encourage future generations to update this preservation effort.