History Professor Publishes Biography of Alabama’s Bankhead Family

Deep South Dynasty Cover

From the April 2022 Desktop News | Dr. Kari Frederickson, a professor of history at UA, recently published a biography about the Bankhead family, an Alabama dynasty whose influence spans generations of the state’s history. The book, Deep South Dynasty: The Bankheads of Alabama, explores over eighty years of history, and showcases the rise of one of the most powerful families in the South.  

“If you start with the end of the Civil War and Reconstruction and go through the end of World War II, and look at almost any significant development in Alabama, whether it’s economic, like the development of the coal industry, or political, like the disenfranchisement of Black voters, there’s a Bankhead behind it,” said Frederickson. 

In 2007, Frederickson was approached by John Oliver, whose wife, Barbara, was a member of the Bankhead family, to write a book about the Bankheads’ legacies. He requested a truthful account of the history, something that the family and the state could learn from. Frederickson’s doctoral students began research immediately, and she joined the project full-time in 2011. Over a decade later, the book is available to the world.  

Deep South Dynasty explores the lives of five members of the Bankhead family: John Hollis Bankhead; his sons, John Hollis Bankhead Jr. and William Brockman Bankhead; his daughter, Marie Bankhead Owen; and his granddaughter, Tallulah Brockman Bankhead.  

After the Civil War, Confederate veteran John Bankhead wanted to broaden his influence, and took to politics. John, John Jr., and William all served in political office, with all three elected to the United States Congress at some point in their long careers. Here, they influenced the federal money Alabama received to establish its infrastructure, boosted benefits for the coal and cotton industries, and created a culture that dismissed people of color, women, and the poor and working class.  

“I think the best way to understand this family is that they are the architects of what we come to understand is the modern South,” said Frederickson. “You weren’t going to become modern if you didn’t have infrastructure, and they were key to that. But they were also key to the disenfranchisement of Black voters and women in the state.” 

John’s daughter, Marie, also gained a significant amount of influence: she became the first woman in state history to run a state agency, the Department of Archives and History. Through her role, she decided what stories throughout Alabama were important to preserve. 

“From that position, Marie gave speeches, she decided what to save and what not to save, and she wrote multiple history books,” Frederickson said. “When it comes to history, you have to think about whose stories get told and whose get ignored. And she had a profound impact on that. Her family’s story is a story of how Alabama becomes modern and who gets to participate in that modernization. They decide who’s responsible for that.” 

 Although Deep South Dynasty focuses on the political aspirations and actions of the Bankhead family, Frederickson also explores their personal relationships. Frederickson says that the family’s personal lives often bled into their public actions, strengthening their family’s positions and impacting the lives of thousands of Alabamians.  

“It’s a family biography,” Frederickson said. “It was a challenge to balance their public actions, which have and should be scrutinized, and their own humanity. I tried to present them as human beings with personal triumphs and sorrows.” 

Frederickson says she hopes that, through her work, readers will learn more about how the state was shaped, as well as how family ties influence those in power.  

“I think, by reading this, you come to understand how power works,” Frederickson said. “I think you can also see how nepotism works—how, when one person is in power, everyone can take advantage of it. And when you have a family like this, who is in power for decades, it’s interesting how the power was concentrated in very few hands, and how their discussions about public issues got entangled with their personal issues.” 

For more information or to order Deep South Dynasty, visit the UA Press website.