Emmet O'Neal was born September 23, 1853, at Florence, Alabama, to Governor Edward and Olivia (Moore) O'Neal. He received his early education in the schools of Florence and received further degrees from Florence Wesleyan University, the University of Mississippi and the University of Alabama. Following his graduation from the University of Alabama, he read law under his father's guidance and was subsequently admitted into practice. In 1876 he formed a partnership with his father which continued until the senior O'Neal was elected governor.
In subsequent years young O'Neal, a staunch Democrat, served in many political capacities. In 1884 he was chosen presidential elector from the 8th district and canvassed the state for the Democratic party, winning distinction for his brilliant oratorical abilities. He served in various other capacities prior to his election as governor; among these were presidential elector from the state-at-large, U.S. District Attorney, delegate to the Alabama Constitutional Convention of 1901, and president of the Alabama Bar Association, an office previously held by his father.
In 1910, O'Neal won the gubernatorial race by a landslide, amassing 77,694 votes to his nearest competitor's, Joseph O. Thompson, 19,260 votes.
Governor O'Neal was the first of Alabama's chief executives to occupy the "governor's mansion;" the state not furnishing a home for its governor until his administration. While he was governor the educational interests of the state showed a steady growth with the inauguration of a rural school library system, the creation of a board of trustees to unify and direct the courses of study for the rural and normal schools and colleges and increased legislative appropriations for all branches of the public schools.
Among the state commissions created during his first term of office were the Oyster Commission and the State Highway Commission. The Capitol building was enlarged, a Governor's mansion was purchased, laws were passed for the protection of mine workers, child labor laws were improved, the fee system in Jefferson County was abolished by a constitutional amendment, the centenary of the Battle of Horseshoe Bend was celebrated and numerous measures were taken by the legislative and executive department for the improvement of agriculture in the state.
As governor, O'Neal was hampered by a legislature that balked at many of his progressive proposals and he was crippled by scandals growing out of theft and misappropriation of funds by lesser officials within his administration. Among the defeated progressive proposals were a driver's licensing law requiring driving tests, allowance of a special school tax, reform of municipal government, complete reorganization of the state's public school system in the name of economy and efficiency and revision of the criminal code to expedite the prosecution of criminals. Finally, he was unable to establish a Public Utilities Commission. In view of these frustrating acts of the legislature, it seems a mystery that he was able to affect passage of a local option liquor law throughout the state.
As governor, O'Neal was hampered by a legislature marred by thefts of public monies occurring within the state Convict Department, headed by James H. Oakley, and within the Department of Agriculture. Minor officials in both departments were tried, sentenced and served terms in prison for their crimes. Oakley was tried and found not guilty on the charge of misuse of state funds. However, the prolonged and ugly scandal, touted almost daily by newspapers, weakened the effectiveness of O'Neal's administration.
After completing his term in office as governor, he located in Birmingham and was appointed a referee in bankruptcy cases. In 1920 he entered the race in the Democratic primaries for nomination to the U.S. Senate, as successor to the Honorable. John H. Bankhead, who had died in office leaving five years of an unexpired term. O'Neal was defeated by the Honorable J.T. Heflin.
Alabama Official and Statistical Register, 1911.
Owen, Thomas McAdory. History of Alabama and Dictionary of Alabama Biography, 1921.
Stewart, John. Craig The Governors of Alabama, 1975.