By Renée S. Gordon
“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
Miss Maudie, “To Kill A Mocking Bird” by Harper Lee
Spanish conquistadors, led by Hernando DeSoto, entered Alabama territory in 1540 in search of gold. He moved southwest, taking tribal chiefs hostage to ensure compliance, along his route. In October, DeSoto entered the region governed by the nearly 7-ft. tall Choctaw chief Tuskaloosa who appears to have been prepared.
Tuskaloosa, dressed in full regalia, agreed to DeSoto’s demand for 500 Choctaws, 400 men to serve as workers and 100 women but informed them that some of the people would have to be acquired in the nearby village of Mauvilla. DeSoto started immediately and upon arrival he and his men entered the walled city and were attacked by more than 2,000 warriors.
The battle raged for three hours before the natives retreated behind the 15-ft. high walls. Once the Spaniards breached the walls they set the entire village ablaze. Approximately 40 soldiers died and 250 were wounded. The Choctaw losses were far greater, almost all of the warriors were killed, Mauvilla was burned to the ground and Tuskaloosa is believed to have died in the fire.
This engagement remains the largest battle the Indians fought against European incursion.
Contemporary research and archeology have narrowed down the list of potential locations for Mauvilla and the most viable candidate is Old Cahawba at the confluence of the Alabama and Cahawba Rivers, from 1820-26 the site of the state’s first permanent capital.
Old Cahawba Historical Site is one of the most intriguing attractions in the state and a tour is comparable to a trip through Alabama history from pre-European contact through Reconstruction. Though very little is left of the city a walking tour manages to convey a sense of the importance of the events that unfolded there.
The name, “Cahawba,” is derived from the Choctaw words meaning “water above” and as early as 100 AD there was a substantial village on the site. It was abandoned by the early 19th-century prior to the region being opened for settlement in 1814.
Initially land sold for $1.25 an acre but as the town prospered prices soared to nearly $5,500 an acre. The area had the 4th highest per capita income in the U.S. and a bridge by Horace King, the noted black architect, once spanned the waterway.
In 1826 the capital was moved to Tuscaloosa for political reasons and because of flooding and disease.
The city’s fortunes began to turn in the 1860s and when the county seat relocated to Selma, in 1866, the white residents began to move away. Cahaba’s population always consisted of more enslaved and free African Americans than whites and by 1870 approximately 70 former enslaved families remained.
The city became known as the “Mecca of the Radical Republican Party” in reference to the political meetings blacks held in the courthouse. Gradually the majority of Cahawba’s structures were relocated or fell into ruin and were dismantled and the materials reused in new constructions.
The visitor’s center provides site maps and information on various locations within the 507-acre town. The African American heritage sites include the former locations of an 1859 slave exchange where enslaved people were traded for cotton and the courthouse where slaves were auctioned. Barker’s Slave Quarters is one of the most significant buildings in Cahawba. It was constructed in 1860 and is totally unique. The owner’s house burned down in 1835.
There are two graveyards on site, the Negro Burial Ground, created in 1819 and the New Cemetery. These are considered the most haunted locations in the area and information is available that document the burials. Augustus Jackson, a rebel soldier, is buried in the New Cemetery. He became ill during the war and his brother was forced to leave him with a family of Union sympathizers. When he returned to take his brother’s body home for burial it was discovered that he had been buried alive.
Old Cahawba is a great place to spend the day investigating history. The area is beautiful with Spanish moss draped trees and the Cahawba lily, a rare species that only grows here. Tours are self-guided. Annual ghost tours are offered and the city is nationally recognized for its paranormal activity. www.cahawba.com
“To Kill a Mockingbird” (TKMB) was published On July 11, 1960 and received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction the following year. The author, Harper Lee, based the characters on people she knew, the book’s plot on real incidents and the fictional 1930s Maycomb, Alabama on Monroeville, Alabama, the town in which she grew up.
The novel, penned in less than three years, has continued to resonate for fifty years and its impact has not diminished. Ms. Lee never published another novel and has refused to comment publicly on her work since 1964.
Monroeville, Alabama was established on land gained from the Creek Indians as part of the Treaty of Fort Jackson in 1815 and was originally named Centerville. In 1899, it was renamed in honor of President Monroe. Situated in the Black Belt, it represents the literary heart of the South and has been officially deemed the “Literary Capital of Alabama.”
Readers from all over the globe make pilgrimages to Monroeville to tour sites related to the book and to see a production of a play based on the novel sanctioned by the author that has been performed annually since 1991.
Community members perform the play and a small choir comprised of members from two African American churches make up the chorus. Act One of the play is performed outside of the Old Monroe County Courthouse and the building itself becomes a stage. For the second act the audience moves inside to sit in the actual courtroom on which the fictional one was based. From the right side of the room you obtain a clear view of the balcony where the “colored” people and Scout and Jem are seated.
The play powerfully relates the story of Atticus Finch, inspired by Lee’s father Amasa Lee, and his defense of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of the rape of a white woman. Scholars believe that Tom’s character and situation were modeled on the cases of the Scottsboro Boys and that of Emmett Till. www.tokillamockingbird.com
TKMB walking tours begin on the exterior of the Old Courthouse and Monroe County Heritage Museum in the 3-acre town square. A monument was placed on the south lawn in 1997 and was dedicated to Atticus Finch as the “first commemorative milestone in the state’s judicial history.” It consists of a bronze plaque and a fountain upon which perches a mockingbird.
The first courthouse (1832) was made of logs. The Old Courthouse replaced it in 1903 and the two attached jails were built in 1854 and 1859 using slave made bricks and labor. They are the only two antebellum structures in town. On the lower level of the courthouse museum a lawyer’s office from the 1930s is on display. The gift shop is located here and the souvenirs and memorabilia on sale are wonderful and unique. Book-related items can also be purchased online.
The second floor includes three permanent galleries. “Celebrating 100 Tears: Old Monroe County Courthouse” details the life of the town and features a model of the square. “Harper Lee” is showcased in the second gallery. The third exhibit, “Truman Capote: A Childhood in Monroeville,” is filled with letters, photographs and personal effects of the famous writer who spent his childhood summers visiting Monroeville and is the model for Dill, the novel’s boy next door. Several of Capote’s works also pay homage to Monroeville.
A stroll around the square takes one pass antique stores, specialty shops and restaurants. Beehive Coffee and Books, 11 W. Claiborne St., is a wonderful place to rest, read and have a light snack. The Courthouse Café, 27 W. Claiborne St., is the place to go for more robust fare.
Three blocks from the square is the site of Truman Capote’s aunts’ home where he spent his summer vacations. All that remains is the residue of the goldfish pond and a stonewall. A historic marker indicates the location. www.cityofmonroeville.com
Alabama’s Black Belt has myriad tales that when woven together create a vivid cultural tapestry. Information on following the threads of those stories is available online. Make this a summer of discovery. www.alabama.travel.com
“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.” Atticus Finch- Chapter 11- “TKMB”
I wish you smooth and colorful travels!