January 17, 2020

An Alabama mayor gives a tour of the town made famous in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

From a downtown teeming with small businesses to the amphitheater where visitors can watch the first act of the legendary play, Monroeville is the Literary Capital of Alabama with an entrepreneurial spirit, says Mayor Sandy Smith.

Bronze statues honor Monroeville, Alabama's most famous resident, "To Kill a Mockingbird" author Harper Lee, on the grounds of the old Monroe County Courthouse. Photo by G.M. Andrews/For The Washington Post via Getty Images

Monroeville, Alabama, is inextricably linked to the most famous story from its most famous resident, author Harper Lee. The setting of Lee’s book, To Kill a Mockingbird, is based on Monroeville, where she lived until she died in 2016 at the age of 89. Every Spring, locals pay homage to Lee by staging a play version of her book in the center of town. Fans flock to this community from all over the world to see the show, and to experience Southern hospitality and the unrushed lifestyle characterized in the novel.

But this southern Alabama town, which is also home to authors Truman Capote and Mark Childress, has more to offer beyond its literary heritage. The community of 6,500 is one of about 30 cities in the state designated as part of the Main Street Alabama program. Cities are selected based on their historic legacies and a strong commitment to public-private cooperation, among other criteria.

Monroeville Mayor Sandy Smith has been a champion for growing these partnerships for decades. Appointed by the city council in 2018, Mayor Smith came to her role after 28 years with the Monroeville-Monroe County Chamber of Commerce, where she retired as executive director.

We spoke with Mayor Smith recently about what makes her hometown special, how the city is attracting new businesses, and how its existing businesses are helping to give Monroeville its sense of place. Of course, we had to ask her to name her favorite character from Mockingbird. She’s a Scout at heart and can even recite whole paragraphs from the spunky narrator.

This Q&A is edited for length and clarity.

THE RENEWAL PROJECT: Mayor Smith, thank you so much for talking with us.

MAYOR SANDY SMITH: It’s a pleasure to meet you.

We’ll jump right in. I recently read a report about the “hidden innovation” of rural America. We tend to read about innovation happening in big cities or in Silicon Valley. What makes a place like Monroeville innovative?

I think in a small town, especially a place like Monroeville, one thing that you have is a strong sense of place. If you look at our town, the first thing people think of when they think of our town is probably our town square and our courthouse, which is now a museum, and then surrounding the square we have all of these small businesses. We are a really entrepreneurial economy.

We have a lot of small businesses that have been here, and they may be in their second or third generation. Monroeville is interesting in that respect. We started out being the Vanity Fair town, which was a textile operation (editor’s note: Vanity Fair is a clothing company that includes brands like The North Face and Vans) that employed about 2,500 people here into the 90s and started faded out in the 2000s. There’s really little left of that.

Monroeville has had to reinvent itself. So we have a lot of unique businesses here, and even in our small town, which is about 6,200 in population, there’s a big entrepreneurial spirit.

We now are five years into a certified Alabama Main Street program. When our economy started fading in the 90s, we started having these meetings about what can we do and how we can make this a better place. Everyone said let’s focus on creating a very strong downtown. That’s where we can really help our town because that’s where visitors come. That spirit has helped with other development in the community. And it’s helped with quality of life.

You’ve mentioned some of the unique businesses. Can you mention some of your favorites or town’s favorites?

Oh absolutely. We have a wonderful little boutique clothing store called Root’s. It was started by an entrepreneur, a young woman in her 20s who graduated from the Auburn University entrepreneur program. After running this little business here for three to four years, she sold it to her store manager and it became Root’s clothing company. She has a really good selection of men’s clothing, women’s clothing, shoes. It’s a very charming building, in an old storefront that was redone by another entrepreneur.

The amphitheater, located near the old courthouse, hosts local events, including stagings of the play "To Kill a Mockingbird." Photo courtesy of City of Monroeville

Next door is a bakery and deli called Sweet Tooth Bakery. They’ve been in business here for several years now. It’s your Southern “meat and three”—your meat and three vegetables kind of lunch. It’s a pretty neat little place.

Then we have a couple of antique stores and consignments. A new place that just opened, called Emmett’s House. You can buy things there that are unique to Monroeville—things made locally, like wooden trays and pottery. They have another beautifully restored storefront. It’s not only the building that is attractive, the display is inviting. It’s just the spirit, the entrepreneurial spirit.

I read that when you were sworn in, one of your overarching goals was economic development. Can you tell me more about your next milestone in accomplishing this goal?

We have a very nice spec building—it’s a totally finished building that the city has invested $2.3 million in. It’s state-of-the-art, 40,000 square feet, in our industrial park and we are working hard to get a tenant in that building.

One of our issues here is under-unemployment. Our unemployment today is 4.4 percent. The state’s is 2.7. But in our employment base, we still have a lot of under-employment. So one of our goals is to bring in more and better paying jobs. We have just announced a new business called J & L Industrial Services to go into 66,000 square feet in our business incubator. Those are really good paying jobs. They start about $18 an hour and go up considerably. So that is the type of employer we’re looking for.

Thinking about businesses that come to town and also the businesses that already operate in Monroeville, besides the economic boost that they bring, how do you see the role of businesses as being a part of the broader community?

We have a very strong business community that contributes heavily to the quality of life. There are a lot of projects around town that are a result of the collaboration between business and government. For instance, the play To Kill a Mockingbird and our museum, which is the 1903 courthouse on the square, Georgia Pacific was looking for a community project so they have contributed to landscaping and outfitting the west side of the square as an amphitheater. And that was about a $175,000 project that they contributed was to improve the setting of the first act of the play. It was very primitive in its first several years.

This will be the 30th year for the production by the way. That amphitheater is used not only by the To Kill a Mockingbird play but we have other productions there, community events, and concerts, so it was a very nice addition to the town.

What’s your favorite part of town to visit when you are not performing official duties?

My husband and I walk with our Lab Brinkley—we live about five or six blocks north of downtown and every afternoon we take our lap and walk up and around the square and through, there’s some old neighborhoods that we walk through. And that is really my stress reliever.

Mayor Sandy Smith, left, with Deztini Stevens, Monroe County’s Distinguished Young Woman of 2020.

My other favorite place is our 5-acre lake, which is at a little park called Whitley Lee Park. There’s a lake and a beautiful vista. That’s a very peaceful part of town.

What are the nonprofits that are solving problems for the residents?

There is a group called Retired Senior Citizens Volunteers, R.S.V.P, and they do a lot of community projects. They build wheelchair ramps and they work at the food bank. Another great community group is a group of people that work at our local food bank which is the first Tuesday of every month. We have a food bank that people from the gulf coast come up and they distribute like yesterday I think we distributed food to about 200 families and that is underwritten by a former business owner here. That is a wonderful resource. Both the Kiwanis and Rotary clubs are really active in our area and a lot of our churches are very active. We have a strong church community and the churches contribute a lot to the needs in the area.

What was your first job?

My first real job out of college was as an administrative Assistant in corporate banking.

What was your favorite subject in high school?


What are you reading right now?

Hank Williams, the Biography, by Colin Escott. And Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson. The latter is written about a murder and wrongful conviction that occurred in Monroeville in 1986. The movie just came out in wide release, I haven’t seen it, but I know the book. It does not paint a pretty picture of our town. There are major tragedies here: the first being the murder victim, a beautiful young college girl who was brutally murdered on a Saturday morning while working at the local dry cleaners; the second, that the crime was never solved, but Walter McMillian was falsely accused and sent to death row. Monroeville is a small town, and the murder affected everyone.

In reflecting on Just Mercy, I can only say that we cannot go back and correct all the wrongs. It’s easy to look in the rear view mirror and point fingers, but at this stage I think we have to look forward, and say, how can we avoid another situation like this? We have to remember the words of Atticus Finch, to paraphrase, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” I hope that people will not read this book and judge our town harshly. I invite the world to visit Monroeville, a place I have always found most welcoming and inviting.

Speaking of To Kill a Mockingbird, what’s your favorite character?

Absolutely Scout. I guess you could say a lot of little girls identify with Scout. I think I probably did when I read the book when I was younger. I still identify with her even in her Go Set a Watchman sequel and she went away and came back and you know, things were different. My daughter played Scout in the local production. I have a whole paragraph of To Kill a Mockingbird that I can recite. And it’s still absolutely one of my favorite books.