Historic blaze consumes some of Tuskeegee’s downtown

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 12, 2004

One of the largest fires in the history of downtown Tuskegee consumed much of the town’s rich history as the offices of The Tuskegee News, the Community Action Agency and the law offices of Fred Gray Sr. were destroyed.

The blaze, which was reported at 3 a.m. consumed half a city block and also threatened a large tire warehouse. Fire departments from seven cities and one federal agency responded to the roaring fire, just across the street from the historic Macon County Courthouse.

The State Fire Marshall was on hand early Wednesday morning to start a probe into the cause of the fire.

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Gray, a lifelong champion of the civil rights movement in Alabama and across the nation, stood in the pre-dawn drizzle with his wife and watched as a lifetime of memories and historical documents went up in smoke.

“We talked just last week about moving those documents to another location so that the records of the civil right movement would be preserved forever. Now, they’re all gone,” he said.

Paul Davis, owner and publisher of The News, stood with Gray and watched the inferno grow in intensity.

The old heart pine flooring and rafters seemed immune to the thousands of gallons of water poured onto the blaze.

The Tuskegee News, established in 1865, had as some of its earliest columnists George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington, farmed educators at Tuskegee University.

“The News has been recording the history of Macon County for almost 140 years. We go to press every Wednesday morning, and we’ll go to press this Wednesday morning,” Davis said.

“We’ve had The Auburn Bulletin, The O-A News, Boone Newspapers and the Alabama Press Association, the Auburn University Journalism Department all offering to help. People with ink in their blood form a very tight bond,” Davis added.

The fire started in The Tuskegee News building and despite brick walls, some 18 inches thick, spread to the Community Action Agency and then by 4 p.m. burned through into the Gray law offices.

Fire trucks from the city of Tuskegee, the Veterans Administration Hospital, Franklin, Shorter, Macedonia, and Auburn were called to fight the fire that threatened the whole block.

No injuries were reported.

The Tuskegee News will open Monday in a temporary location. Phones calls and faxes to the News will be routed into the company’s Auburn offices, according to Guy Rhodes, editor.

The law offices of Fred Gray will move to 104 West Northside St. in downtown Tuskegee, next to Alabama Exchange Bank. The phone number will remain the same.

“We will be open Monday, if not before,” Fred Gray said.

The Tuskegee News had been in that same building since its beginning in 1865. It was published for many years by the late Neil Davis, also owner and publisher of The Auburn Bulletin.

The Bulletin had a printing press and several area papers, including The Auburn Plainsman and the Tuskegee News were printed on the Auburn presses.

When the paper was purchased in 1975 by Boone Newspapers, some job printing was still being down in Tuskegee – stationery, business cards, envelopes. That was done with hot metal and handset type.

Stan Voit became publisher in 1976 and it was in that year that the first full-color pictured graced the paper’s front page. Voit said customers came in and asked if the price of the paper was going up with the advent of color photographs. It didn’t.

The newspaper has hundreds of subscribers across the United States, including a Yale University professor and famed Commodores singer Lionel Ritchie of California.