By Renée S. Gordon
“Human nature cannot be studied in cities except at a disadvantage–a village is the place. There you can know your man inside and out–in a city you but know his crust; and his crust is usually a lie.”
–Mark Twain 1883
Alabama’s history can be seen as a colorful tapestry of individual events and people that when viewed as a whole tells a story not unlike that of many other states but, if we move closer, the picture takes on deeper dimensions. A road trip through Alabama, visiting the small towns in the Black Belt, provides a closer look at the lifestyle in small towns and how it has had a profoundly impacted on the history and heritage of the U.S.
The Black Belt is roughly 310-miles long by 25-miles wide, encompasses nearly 21 counties and is layered with Selma Chalk covered with the dark, rich soil that gave the region its name. The area is recognized not only for its geographical attributes but also for its history, art and unique culture that is a result of the blending of Native American, European and African mores. Ironically, the region retained its singularity because the interstate passed it by.
Archeological sites lend credence to the fact that the first humans to enter the region were migratory Indians who crossed the Bering Strait in pursuit of game after the last Ice Age. They established permanent villages and, as documented in journals and letters of the era, when DeSoto and 700 Spaniards arrived in Alabama territory in 1540 there were thousands of indigenous people occupying the land. DeSoto and his forces decimated the population, estimates place the death toll as high as 90%, with their superior weapons and their diseases against which the natives had no immunity.
Though initially explored by the Spanish, in 1702 the French Fort Louis de la Louisiane became Alabama’s first permanent non-native settlement. The British gained control as a result of the Treaty of Paris and eventually, through war, treaties, pacts and forced removal the region was acquired by the U.S. and in 1819 Alabama became the 22nd state to join the Union.
Our exploration of the weaving of Alabama’s Black Belt tapestry starts where it all began, at the place where Chief Tuskaloosa first met with DeSoto, modern day Selma. The city, first documented in 1732 as Ecor Bienville, contains more than 1,200 historic buildings within the state’s largest historic district. www.SelmaAlabama.com
In 1865, it was the scene of one of the final battles of the Civil War and, in 1965, it was the setting for King’s 50-mile march along U.S. route 80 to the state capital. A map and guide for a one-mile walking tour, “Civil War Era to Civil Rights and Voting Rights,” is offered by the city and includes Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church King Monument, First Baptist Church and the infamous Edmund Pettis Bridge.
The Smith-Quarles House, 439 Lapsley St., was constructed in 1859 for Colonel Smith the bank president. During the Civil War, it served as a hospital for Union soldiers while the female members of the family lived on the upper floor. What the soldiers never discovered was the fact that Smith had hidden the bank’s money in a pillar on the porch. After the war the money was retrieved through a hole in the column’s base.
The White-Force Cottage at 811 Mabry St. was the residence of Mary Lincoln’s half-sister and her husband. They visited the Lincoln’s in Washington during the war and smuggled medical supplies back to the confederacy.
Selma is a wonderful base from which to venture out into the surrounding towns and the perfect place to stay is the only extant riverfront hotel in the Southeast, the 1837 St. James Hotel. In the 1860s, when the owner left for war, he left a slave, Benjamin Sterling Turner, to take care of his property. After the war, Turner went on to become the wealthy owner of a livery stable and the first African American congressman in the U.S.
During the war, the Union established a headquarters in the hotel. After the war, when it was again a hotel, both Frank and Jesse James stayed there. Many believe Jesse never left and haunts room 307.
The hotel closed in 1892 and reopened in 1997 after a $6 million restoration by investors including Charles Barkley. The public areas are decorated with antiques and guestrooms are furnished with reproductions. The hotel offers all of the standard amenities plus spa services, WIFI, room service and en suite Jacuzzis, fireplaces and river views. The St. James is one of the Historic Hotels of America. www.historichotels.org/hotel/St_James_Hotel_Selma
Thomaston, Alabama is the location of the Alabama Rural Heritage Center & Gift Shop. The center showcases works by local artists and edible products developed by Auburn University. A restaurant on-site serves delicious meals using locally grown foods. www.craftsofalabama.com
The Kathryn Tucker Windham Museum is located inside Thomasville’s Alabama Southern Community College Library. Ms. Windham was born in Selma in 1918 and went on to become one of the South’s premier storytellers and a writer, publisher, photographer and promoter of Southern culture. The museum features photographs and memorabilia including her personal camera, shoes and books.
ASCC hosts the Alabama Writers Symposium. The event includes two days of readings, discussions, regional arts, and music presented both on campus and in town. Participants have an opportunity to meet local, national and international authors. www.ascc.edu
Dr. John Caldwell named Camden, Alabama, incorporated in 1841, after the city in South Carolina. In 1966 M.L.K. established his headquarters there in Antioch Baptist Church.
Five years ago, Black Belt Treasures, 209 Claiborne St., was founded with works by 75 area artists. Today, more than 300 artists are represented by their works in the retail gallery. Items are unique to the region and this is the best place to view, and purchase, local craftsmanship. www.blackbelttreasures.com
Works by the internationally renowned Gee’s Bend Quilters can be purchased in Camden and it is also where visitors can now take the regularly scheduled 10-minute ferry ride to Gee’s Bend.
The ferry service ceased in 1962 to prevent the black people of Gee’s Bend from voting or even registering to vote. The vast majority of them lacked transportation and were unable to make the 40-mile trip around the peninsula. Service resumed 44-years later. The ferry landing point is believed to be haunted and people have reported seeing strange lights at night. www.geesbendferry.com
Boykin sits in a bend in the middle of the Alabama River on an island 5 by 8-miles wide. The land is more commonly referred to as Gee’s Bend, after Joseph Gee who began the original cotton plantation in 1816 with 18 enslaved African Americans. In 1845, Mark Pettway purchased the plantation. Though the Civil War emancipated the enslaved the majority remained on the land working as tenant farmers and sharecroppers. In 1895, the Pettway’s sold the land.
In the 1930s their major creditor died and his family demanded immediate payment of all debts. For many, this was impossible and all their worldly goods were seized. The Red Cross stepped in to feed the residents and ultimately the government purchased the land, constructed houses and sold the land to the people. Their descendants continue to live on land they purchased.
Through all the changing circumstances the women of the bend quilted using whatever material was at hand. In the 1990s, they were “discovered” by a collector and their creations were recognized as art and displayed in museums nationally. Videos, books and a theatrical production based on the women’s lives are available.
The quilters may be visited in the Gee’s Bend Collective by appointment. The ladies are charming and visitors are encouraged to join them in their work and the experience has a spiritual quality. Guests can purchase squares, placemats and quilts. Appointments can be arranged with Mary Ann Pettway. Home: (334) 573-2585.
Large quilt panels, 8-ft. square, throughout Gee’s Bend mark “The Quilt Mural Trail.” Each is placed in a location of significance to an individual quilter. I can?t recommend a visit to the Gee’s Bend Collective highly enough.
The “Year of Small Towns and Downtowns” is being celebrated by 215 cities across Alabama. Next week, we examine more closely, the towns of the fictional Atticus Finch and the very real Truman Capote and Harper Lee. In the meantime, you can read all about the celebration at www.AlabamaHomecoming.com
You can make reservations and obtain information, maps and trail guides at www.alabama.travel.com.
I wish you smooth and colorful travels!