Spotlight on Choctaw, Clarke, Conecuh, Escambia & Monroe: Tourism in Monroeville

Monroeville has captured the imagination of residents and visitors alike in its celebration of authors that have called the city home.

Inside the Monroe County Courthouse, where the trial portion of “To Kill a Mockingbird” is performed.

You will never believe who came to the play today!” buzzed the text message to Monroeville Main Street Director Anne Marie Bryan. As “To Kill a Mockingbird” unfolded, the surprise guest was confirmed. Sitting in the audience was J.K. Rowling.

The Harry Potter author paid homage to a local writer of equal status — Harper Lee, author of the novel on which the play is based. Lee died in 2016 but her legacy lives on as a catalyst for tourism for one of Alabama’s most unique cities, Monroeville.

“We face the same challenges of many rural Alabama towns,” says Monroeville Mayor Charles Andrews. “We question what sets us apart from the rest. We discuss what we can do in the future and we choose to focus on what will make us different.”

Mayor Charles Andrews in front of the Monroe County Courthouse.

What makes Monroeville different? For starters, this town of 6,000 claims three Pulitzer Prize winners (Harper Lee, Cynthia Tucker Haynes and Hank Williams). As if being the inspiration for “To Kill a Mockingbird” is not enough, Monroeville also lays claim to nine other writers of national and world prominence — some born here, some living here just for a time. They are Truman Capote, Mark Childress, Marva Collins, Rheta Grimsley Johnson, Riley Kelly, Mike Stewart and William Barret Travis.

In 1997 the State Legislature officially proclaimed Monroe County’s city of writers “The Literary Capital of Alabama.”

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Monroeville’s story today is a well-coordinated effort among Main Street Monroeville, the Monroeville/Monroe County Chamber of Commerce, mayor and city council, and the Alabama Tourism Department. “It takes a village,” says Penelope Hines, executive director of the chamber. “We work together, in unison to promote our town.”

Collectively, they have produced a tourism package and strategy attracting a global audience.

“The crown jewel is the Monroe County Heritage Museum,” Hines says. “I tell visitors this should be your first stop.”

The museum is housed in the Old Monroe County Courthouse. Two permanent exhibits — collections of Lee and Capote — occupy the ground floor. The second floor is the courtroom, where attorney Atticus Finch defended a Black man accused of a heinous crime. The trial is fiction, but the feeling is real.

“People just want to walk into that courtroom and breathe the air,” notes Anne Marie Bryan. “Some have a connection to the book, others are drawn from the movie, and many are here for the play.”

Indeed, the play is the town’s other major tourist drawing card. “It is always among Alabama’s top events to see,” Hines says. “The show attracts people from all over the world.”

Lee started the Mockingbird Company in 2015 to continue the production under her direction. “She wanted the proceeds of the play to benefit the people of Monroe County,” notes Tonja Carter, president and CEO of Harper Lee LLC. Lee died in 2016, but Carter pledges that the organization “will continue to perform the play and make donations in her honor as long as people want to come to Monroe County.”

Monroe County Museum Executive Director Wanda Green recalls visitors who have toured the building that inspired the novel. Many linger for hours. “One such long-lingering guest told me, ‘Ma’am, you just don’t understand what it is like being in this building,’” Green recalls. “I have come to realize what this place means to so many people.”

But Monroeville has expanded its literary legacy. “We get people here for Harper Lee, but our job is to entice them back,” Bryan says about town tourism. Several self-guided walking trails through the downtown district have proven to be COVID-19-friendly successes.

Popular sites along the path are the Literary Capital Bronze Sculpture trail — representations of Truman Capote’s fedora and glasses and a golden microphone indicative of Hank Williams are two of the bronzed items embedded around town. Each is symbolic of writers who called Monroeville home.

Other pedestrian strolls feature city buildings from the 1930s like the Monroe County Public Library, formerly the La Salle Hotel, where Gregory Peck stayed while studying his “To Kill a Mockingbird” role as Atticus Finch.

A Celebration of Reading sculpture entices visitors to rest next to Scout and other characters from “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Many paths wind past murals portraying Monroeville’s history. The popular “A Celebration of Reading” sculpture features the children of Lee’s book. The display features an empty bench inviting one to sit as Scout reads to you and her brother looks on. The monument to Atticus Finch is nearby.

Lee Sentell, director of the Alabama Tourism Department, notes, “The community has done a great job of using the play to attract large numbers of visitors — international and national. I am sure after COVID, the large numbers will return. Monroeville is in the top 15 to 20 tourist destinations in our state.”

Monroeville’s tourism push is diverse. “’To Kill a Mockingbird’ is not the only play in the courtroom,” says Andrews. He notes other events and performances, including the Mobile Symphony Orchestra, additional plays and other entertainers.

“In addition, our Christmas season, Mardi Gras activities and July 4th celebrations are huge and drawing well,” the mayor adds.

On March 4 – 5, the Monroeville Literary Festival is set for the Old Monroe County Courthouse. The gathering of writers and readers will participate in a reception, author readings, workshops, panel discussions and local whiskey tastings. Also, the presentations of the Harper Lee Award and Truman Capote Prize will take place.

Once visitors arrive they find a wealth of outdoor amenities too.

There is another side to Monroeville, too — the great outdoors. “Some people enjoy quiet places,” says Andrews. One of his favorites is Whitley Lee Park, 20 acres and a fishing lake. Lee fed ducks here. “The city put a lot of money into the lake’s restoration,” the mayor notes. “It is beautiful. Also, people come from across the state to fish our river (the Alabama).”

Monroeville has an 18-hole golf course, city parks with child friendly amenities such as a splash pad and numerous playgrounds.

The city promotes tourism through many social media platforms and websites such as Other publicity innovations, such as visitor kiosks, are placed strategically with maps, guidebooks and references for walkers and after-hours visitors.

Monroeville believes tourism benefits the entire town. Andrews adds, “While here they will eat in our restaurants, buy supplies for fishing/hunting, and gas for cars. The city supports our tourism efforts.”

Airbnb lodgings are available, with more set to open in 2022. The town has five locally-owned restaurants. At Cole’s Ice Cream and Coffee, visitors and locals mingle over pastries and breakfast. Locals all know one another and work to make sure visitors feel welcome. As one city official phrased it, “We are truly authentic. We are Monroeville. Come be part of the hospitality we offer.”


Emmett Burnett is a Satsuma-based freelance contributor to Business Alabama.

This article appeared in the March 2022 issue of Business Alabama.

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