Alston Fitts III

Published 6:12 pm Friday, January 20, 2023

Selma historian Alston Fitts III, 83, died January 13, 2023, at his home in St. Augustine, Florida, surrounded by his wife and daughters after a long battle with Parkinsons.

Alston had a deep belief in the power of stories. A talented storyteller, he set out to study and teach great literature. He was a lifelong voracious reader, as likely to wake his children with Shakespearean sonnets as with references to Dr. Who. He received a B.A. in English literature at the University of Alabama, a master’s at Harvard, and his Ph.D at the University of Chicago, and taught literature at Northwestern University, University of Kentucky and University of Alabama. Along the way, he recognized many people’s stories weren’t being told, and he started the first African American literature course at Northwestern University.

Alston understood the impact of history on our sense of self. He made it his mission to tell untold stories. He researched Benjamin Turner, Alabama’s first Black congressman, located his lost grave and was the first to tell the full story of this early Selma leader. He led communications for the Edmundite Missions for 25 years, working to convey the value of the Edmudites’ work to support low income communities throughout the Black Belt.

His years of Saturdays poring over microfiche, letters and cemetery plots, and interviewing Selma elders resulted in the publishing of Selma: Queen City of the Black Belt (1989) and then Selma: A Bicentennial History (2016). In both, he penned a town’s history that was not black and white, but of complex humanity.

Alston loved Selma and believed strongly in the community and its future. He served on the Board of the Old Depot Museum and Rotary Club of Selma, taught history at Wallace Community College, and helped found One Selma, with an aim of uniting Selma across racial lines. He answered endless media calls, trying to give greater context to their Selma articles, and volunteered to give tours of Selma to countless groups visiting from as far away as Afghanistan. He was named to the Black Belt Hall of Fame and he was named Rotary’s Citizen of the Year in 2017, an honor he treasured.

Alston was devoted to his family, whom he entertained with countless yarns. In December, he celebrated 50 years of happy marriage to his wife Anne, surrounded by their children and grandchildren. He is preceded in death by his father Alston Fitts II, and mother Anna Catherine Fitts. In addition to Anne, he is survived by his three daughters Lida Fitts (Scott Anderson) of Washington, DC; Mary Alston Kerllenevich (Andres) of St. Augustine; and Ruth Fitts of Washington, DC; six grandchildren, Ben, Anna Catherine and Henry Kerllenevich and Lars, Cecile and Alston Anderson; sisters Marie Knox of Birmingham, Ann Zeck (Van) of Arlington, VA; and brother William Fitts (Anne Gibbons) of Vero Beach.

Alston was a man of faith, and joined the seminary after high school. While the priesthood was not his destiny, he loved playing an active role in his faith community, acting as a regular lector at Queen of Peace Catholic Church and attending daily Mass. As Parkinson’s attacked his body and mind, he never lost his faith in God’s mercy, or wavered in his remarkable kindness to those around him. The family is grateful for the love, prayers and support from friends and family that comforted him in his illness. Alston will be laid to rest in Old Live Oak Cemetery, where he spent many hours researching and then sharing Selma history. Funeral services will be held at Queen of Peace Church on February 4th at 11:00 am. In lieu of flowers, please consider a donation to the Edmundite Missions to support their work in Selma.