Tuesday, May 8, will be the 50th anniversary of the death in office of Lurleen Wallace, Alabama’s first female governor.
The official portrait of Gov. Lurleen Wallace remains out of the capitol rotunda where it historically and legally was until January 2015.
The mistreatment of the Lurleen Wallace portrait by the Bentley administration was a shameful example of historical revision.
It was three years and three months ago, January 15, 2015, five days before I would take office as State Auditor. With no notice, officials of the Bentley administration hurriedly removed the two Wallace portraits from the capitol rotunda. In their place, they erected a new portrait of Gov. Robert Bentley, in the final days of his first term.
It was premature. Traditionally, the portraits of governors are erected in the capitol rotunda after the governor leaves office. But Gov. Bentley just could not wait. He jumped the gun. He had his own official portrait painted and erected just before his second term started.
The saga of the removal of the Wallace portraits and my four attempts to get them returned read like a soap opera. Sadly, it is all true – a documentary of the dysfunctional Bentley administration.
On my first working day as State Auditor, I was notified by my staff that the Bentley administration had removed the Wallace portraits. I quickly walked the halls of the capitol and, sure enough, the new Bentley portrait was in the second floor rotunda. The Wallace portraits had been put on a wheelbarrow, ridden down the elevator one floor, taken left down the hallway just far enough to be off the guided tours, and relegated to a wall by the Secretary of State’s office. Neither of the Wallace governors have any historical connection to the Secretary of State’s office.
I immediately began researching the law about the placement of the Wallace portraits. I found a joint resolution of the 1983 legislature which mandated that the Wallace portraits be displayed in the rotunda in perpetuity. The action of the Bentley administration in removing the Wallace portraits from the rotunda was illegal, in violation of the letter of the law and the clear legislative intent.
I drew up a request to the Director of Historic Sites, who had actually removed the Wallace portraits. I included a copy of the
joint resolution of the legislature mandating that the portraits remain forever in the rotunda. He did not care and did not return the Wallace portraits.
I sent him a second request, this time giving him new information that would have made a difference to any sensible person. I told him that the oldest of the four Wallace children, whose mother and father had both been governor, was hospitalized in terminal condition. Bobbie Jo Wallace Parsons was not expected to live. This was a terrible time to remove her parents’ official portraits from their legal and historical place of honor. He again did not restore the Wallace portraits.
He was then fired as Director of Historic Sites.
Bobbie Jo Wallace Parsons died.
I drew up a third request, this time to the Director of the Alabama Historical Commission, Frank White, asking that he return the portraits to their legal and historical place. He met with me, listened, and was as courteous and professional as could be. But he did not return the Wallace portraits to the rotunda.
Frank White was then fired as Director of the Alabama Historical Commission.
I then sent a fourth request to return the Wallace portraits to the Historical Commission itself. I met with their leadership, and they declined to return the portraits. They said it would cost money to put the portraits back — an odd attempt to justify an illegal action.
I offered to raise the necessary money with a GoFundMe account. I figured it would take me about two days. They thought that was a joke.
One regret in my three years as State Auditor is that my four requests to return the Wallace portraits to the rotunda have been denied, along with requests by many of you.
The 50th anniversary of the death in office of Gov. Lurleen Wallace on May 8 would be an appropriate time to right this wrong. You can contact the Alabama Historical Commission at [email protected] or 334-230-2690.
Jim Zeigler had been Alabama State Auditor since January 2015.