Wade Hall Teacher, author, scholar, collector, and philanthropist Wade H. Hall (1934-2015) is best known in Alabama for his 1999 book, Conecuh People: Words of Life from the Alabama Black Belt, and for his donations of books, folk art, quilts, sheet music, postcards and other items to major institutions in the state. Hall also wrote, edited, and compiled some 30 books about Kentucky, Alabama, and the South.
Hall was born near Union Springs, Bullock County, on February 2, 1934, to Sarah Waters Hall and Wade Henry “Jabo” Hall. He was the oldest of five sons. His father operated a small country store, held odd jobs, and farmed. Both sides of Hall’s family had been living in the area since as early as the late 1830s. He attended Inverness Consolidated School from the first through the twelfth grades and was the first in his family to graduate from high school.
In 1950, when a great aunt in Troy, Pike County, offered him a cot in her kitchen, he enrolled at Troy State Teacher’s College (now Troy University) at age 16. He earned a degree in English in 1953. After graduation, he secured a teaching job at the junior high in Opp, Covington County, but soon enlisted in the U.S. Army. While stationed in Heidelberg, Germany, Hall taught himself German and French, in anticipation of needing to know two foreign languages for an advanced degree. He became conversant in German and read translations of American novels in German during his military service. After an honorable discharge from the Army in 1956, Hall enrolled in the University of Alabama and earned a master of arts in English in 1957. He was awarded a Ph.D. in English from the University of Illinois in 1961 based on his dissertation about southern humor during the Civil War and the following decades up to World War I. The work was later published as two books.
Wade Hall Hall then joined the English faculty at the University of Florida in Gainesville but was recruited, in 1962, to head the English department at Kentucky Southern College, a new Baptist college in Louisville. In 1969, when financial problems caused the college to close, he accepted a faculty position at Bellarmine College (now University). He taught at the Catholic college in Louisville for the next 30 years, chairing the English and humanities programs. In 1971, he met his partner, journalist Gregg Swem.
For many years, Hall was editor of Kentucky Poetry Review, a literary magazine that showcased such writers as Robert Penn Warren, Ray Bradbury, Ruth Stone, John Ciardi, Wendell Berry, and Elizabeth Madox Roberts. Additionally, he wrote book reviews for the Louisville Courier-Journal and hosted a long-running weekly interview show, Wade Hall’s Kentucky Desk, on the Louisville affiliate of Kentucky Educational Television. The show featured public figures, writers, and artists. In 1993, Hall helped organize the first national conference on acclaimed author Cormac McCarthy, co-editing two volumes of literary criticism that resulted from the conference. Hall also had an abiding admiration for Abraham Lincoln, who was born in Kentucky, and wrote two works about him, one in 2008 specifically for the 200th anniversary of the president’s birth the next year.
Conecuh People Cover Hall’s interest in oral history and folk culture came together in Conecuh People: Words of Life from the Alabama Black Belt. The book was based on 19 interviews with family and neighbors from his home in the Alabama Black Belt. The interviews he edited for the book were selected from the 50 collected in partnership with another Bullock County native, Annie Mae Turner, over a 15-year period starting in the mid-1970s. Hall considered the book his proudest achievement as a writer. The work was adapted into a successful play by Barbour County native Ty Adams and was performed annually at the Red Door Theatre, a regional theatrical production company in Union Springs, from 2004 to 2010. The play remains in the theater’s repertoire but is no longer produced annually.
Hall was a prolific collector of works by southern authors. His passion for books led him to establish the Ohio Valley Book Fair, an antiquarian and out-of-print book festival attracting dealers from Kentucky and surrounding states. He also amassed a collection of prints, letters, diaries and journals, photographs of all periods, musical recordings (country, blues, jazz, and pop), quilts, folk art, Last Supper representations, and paintings by numbers, which he called “total democratization of art.” His home overflowed with collections, which he gathered with the goal of sharing them with institutions to make the materials accessible to scholars and researchers.
He established the Wade Hall Collection of Southern History and Culture at the University of Alabama with a substantial donation of books, music, manuscripts, photographs, and quilts. In recognition of his contributions, the university presented him the Henry and Julia Tutwiler Distinguished Service Award in 1996. Other significant collections of Americana were donated to the University of Kentucky, the Birmingham Museum of Art, the Mobile Museum of Art, and the Columbus Museum in Georgia.
Hall also made significant donations to his alma mater, Troy University, including endowing an annual award to recognize significant contributions to southern heritage and culture in history, literature, and the arts. Recipients of the Hall-Waters Prize, named in honor of his parents, include Pat Conroy, Bobbie Ann Mason, Rick Bragg, Sena Jeter Naslund, and Natasha Trethewey. He also donated to Troy his collection of 25,000 historical American postcards, many pertaining to Alabama. His book Greetings from Alabama: A Pictorial History in Vintage Postcards was published posthumously. Additionally, he donated a set of house plans designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1959, with the agreement that funding would be raised to build it; when completed on the Troy campus, this structure will be the second Wright-designed building in Alabama, joining the Rosenbaum House in Florence, Lauderdale County.
Pulp Fiction Cover The author’s diverse interests were reflected in the types of organizations he joined and supported throughout his life, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Southern Poverty Law Center, the English-Speaking Union, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Sierra Club, the Manuscript Society, and LGBTQ rights organizations such as Equality Alabama and Lambda Legal.
Although he had spent most of his life in Kentucky, Hall always considered Alabama to be home, and he and Swem moved to Halls Crossroads in Bullock County in 2006. Upon his return, he completed a play on the musical career of Montgomery native Nat “King” Cole. At the time he became ill in 2012, he was compiling an anthology of Alabama literature, working on a play about blues musician William W. C. Handy, and developing a folk opera about a slave in his home county who poisoned her overseer in the 1850s. Hall died on September 26, 2015, from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. He was buried in Liberty Baptist Church Cemetery, less than a mile from his birthplace, alongside generations of family members. After his death, his estate donated his collection of 1,600 twentieth-century paperbacks to Auburn University.
Selected Works by Wade Hall
Reflections of the Civil War in Southern Humor (1962)
The Smiling Phoenix: Southern Humor from 1865 to 1914 (1965)
The High Limb: Poems by Wade Hall (1973)
The Rest of the Dream: The Black Odyssey of Lyman Johnson (1988)
Sacred Violence: A Reader’s Companion to Cormac McCarthy (1995)
James Still: Portrait of the Artist as a Boy in Alabama (1998)
Conecuh People: Words of Life from the Alabama Black Belt (1999)
Waters of Life from Conecuh Ridge: The Clyde May Story (2003)
Abraham Lincoln of Kentucky: An Interview with the President April 1, 1865 (2008)
Greetings from Alabama: A Pictorial History in Vintage Postcards (2016)