William Anderson Handley (1834-1909) served in the U.S. House of Representatives and both houses of the Alabama Legislature. A Civil War veteran and lifelong Democrat, Handley’s tenure in national office was marked by a mixed record on votes related to the policies of Reconstruction. He is also remembered as one of the most important businessmen and philanthropists in Roanoke, Randolph County.
Handley was born in Liberty Hill, near Franklin, Georgia, on December 15, 1834, to John Randolph and Nancy Thompson Formby Handley; he had two brothers and two sisters. Handley’s parents moved the family to Randolph County, where he was educated in the local schools. On November 8, 1859, in Wesobulga (present-day Cragford), Clay County, Handley married Adelia A. Mitchell, with whom he would have five children, only two of whom survived into adulthood. He began working as a store clerk in Louina, near Wadley, and eventually became the owner of the mercantile business.
After the outbreak of the Civil War, Handley helped recruit a company of Confederate soldiers from Randolph County. The regiment became known as the Twenty-fifth Alabama Regiment, and Handley was elected captain of Company F. The Twenty-fifth Alabama spent most of the war stationed in Mobile, Mobile County, but saw combat after joining Maj. Gen. Braxton Bragg’s Army of the Tennessee in Chattanooga, participating in Bragg’s invasion of Kentucky, and the Battle of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where Handley was wounded. He resigned his commission soon thereafter and was replaced by his brother, Capt. Francis Marion Handley, who was later wounded several times. Their other brother, James Madison Handley, served as a major in the Forty-sixth Alabama Infantry Regiment and was captured at the May 1863 Battle of Champion Hill in Mississippi, during the Vicksburg Campaign.
After resigning his commission in 1863, William served out the remainder of the war in the Confederate civil service as a tax collector. At war’s end, Handley held a stock of mercantile goods and $25,000-$30,000 in accounts as well as promissory notes and securities that were virtually worthless with the collapse of the Confederacy. Turning to northern creditors, Handley took up farming before being forced to sell his property two years later to settle his debts. Afterwards, Handley borrowed $1,000 and began another mercantile business in Roanoke. He also became the commander of the Camp Aiken Smith chapter of the United Confederate Veterans.
In 1870, Handley entered politics, running against Republican Benjamin W. Norris for Alabama’s Third Congressional District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. The seat was held by Robert Stell Heflin of Wedowee; he had taken the seat from Norris in the 1868 election and declined to run for reelection. When Handley won the election, Norris accused him and his fellow Democrats of numerous violations of voter fraud. Handley countered with similar charges directed towards Norris and his fellow Republicans. After recounts and an investigation, Handley was declared the winner of the election. He went on to serve in the Forty-Second Congress from March 4, 1871, to March 3, 1873. Handley served as a member of the committees on suffrage and elections, taxation, and banks and banking, but his tenure in office was not marked by any major achievements. He surprisingly voted to affirm the validity of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, which strengthened the civil rights of freedmen, while also voting against desegregating schools and a supplement to the 1866 Civil Rights Act.
In 1872, Handley ran against Republican Charles Pelham and lost. Upon returning to Roanoke, he repurchased his old business and established the mercantile firm of Moore, Manley, and Handley, which reportedly became the largest and most successful business in the county. Later, the firm was dissolved and reorganized as the firm of Manley, Handley, and Hornsby. In 1876, Handley served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention held in St. Louis, Missouri. In February 1882, Handley expanded his business to Birmingham, establishing the firm of Moore, Moore, and Handley. From 1888 to 1892, Handley served in the Alabama State Senate. In 1901, Handley was sent as a delegate to the Alabama State Constitutional Convention, which established white supremacy in the state by disenfranchising African American males as well as many poor whites. From 1903 to 1907, he served in the Alabama House of Representatives.
In the early 1900s, sources differ on the year, Handley founded the W.A. Handley Manufacturing Company in Roanoke, a very successful cotton mill that manufactured raw cotton, spun thread and yarn, and wove cloth and other fabrics from cotton and wool; it stayed in operation, with a few brief closings, until the 1980s. Prior to the establishment of this company, Roanoke had only one bank and one railroad. Within six years of the factory’s opening, Roanoke had another bank as well as a rail line on the Atlanta, Birmingham, and Atlantic Railroad, which connected Randolph County to Birmingham and Savannah, Georgia. William also served as the vice-president of the Moore and Handley Hardware Company, one of the largest hardware stores in the South.
Handley donated land and money to a variety of organizations in Randolph County to construct new buildings and schools, including a school for African American children, the W.A. Handley Colored Academy, founded in 1909. His only stipulation was that all of the buildings, like Handley Mills, Handley Chapel School, and Handley High School, be named after him. He also served as president of the Board of Trustees of the Roanoke Normal College, which later became Roanoke High School. His son, Guy Hartwell Handley, also donated funds and land for the construction of a Rosenwald school that replaced the Chapel School.
In spring 1909, Handley suffered a severe fall from which he never recovered. He died in Roanoke on June 23, 1909, and is interred in Cedarwood Cemetery.