March is Women’s History Month. That’s why I think now is a good time to tell y’all a little story that I’ve been saving for quite some time. It’s the story of how my granny rose up from farm girl to bank president and nearly died along the way.
Audrey May Rowell was her name, and yes, I am named for her. Born in 1903 on a farm a few miles outside of Citronelle, Ala., she was the eldest of Ada and Andrew Joseph Rowell’s four children. Ada was a school teacher and, by all accounts, the most educated woman in the area. And it was Ada who instilled in Granny and her two sisters a strong work ethic, a love of education, and the idea that a woman did not have to be resigned to her station in life.
Just after her 16th birthday, Granny graduated from high school. She went to Mobile, about 45 miles to the south, to spend the summer with relatives while she obtained her teaching certificate. That fall, certificate in hand, she found herself at a school in Vinegar Bend, Alabama, about 15 miles north of Citronelle. She discovered pretty darn quick that she didn’t like teaching at all, because, as she said, there was too much “back-biting” in teaching and she felt like she’d never get anywhere.
That’s why the very next summer, she went back to Mobile, back to stay with her uncle and his family, and attended the Twentieth Century Business School. While she was away at school, her mother talked with Claude Hurt, the president of the Citronelle State Bank, to see if Granny could help him and his wife, Linnie, out at the bank. After all, they were the only two employees. The Hurts did hire her, and she came to work with them in about 1920. Granny would have been 17 years old at the time.
Granny was a hard worker, and the Hurts were kind people who grew to think of her as their daughter because they had no children of their own. She quickly learned the business and gradually the Hurts gave her more and more responsibility. They also gave her the option to buy stock in the bank, which she did every time she had a little money saved up.
Fast forward to 1928. It’s July. It’s Saturday. There’s a big wool sale being held on the platform at the train depot, right across the street from the bank. Granny is wearing a new dress. Everyone is in town for market day so you have to look your best.
Only she and Mr. Hurt are working at the bank because Mrs. Hurt has traveled to California to visit her sister. It’s busy in town and busy in the bank. Granny and Mr. Hurt are in the front at the teller windows.
Suddenly, two men barge into the bank pointing pistols at them and demanding cash. Granny is frozen in fear. Mr. Hurt, who had once been a policeman, lunges for the gun he kept hidden behind the counter. When he moves, the younger of the two robbers shoots. The bullet whizzes past Granny and hits Mr. Hurt.
The two robbers begin to argue about the shooting. The older of the two, the ringleader, already antsy and agitated, is now furious that the younger man has shot Mr. Hurt. They run from the bank without getting any money and, on the street, the older man shoots the younger, killing him instantly. The ringleader runs away followed by a much younger boy, who was posted as a lookout, and they escape by car. Inside, Granny tends to Mr. Hurt. Her new dress is soaked in his blood.
There was no organized police force in Citronelle at the time, so the men of the town gather a posse together to chase the robbers. The robbers head toward Earlville to cross the Escatawpa River to go to Mississippi, but the bridge is washed out. They double back trying to cross on the Beverly Jeffries Highway, but that bridge is flooded too. And that’s where the posse catches up with them. There’s nowhere to run.
The ringleader, whose last name was Jarvis, and the boy are sent to jail in Mobile. Jarvis is ultimately electrocuted. Mr. Hurt dies in the hospital but not before his wife can make her way back to Alabama to see him one last time. And Granny is left to keep on working at the bank.
The story doesn’t end here though. Check back on Thursday to see how my Granny became, for a time, the only female bank president in the state of Alabama.