ABOVE PHOTO: Bellingrath Gardens and Home.
By Renée S. Gordon
Mobile Bay, the Gulf of Mexico’s northernmost inlet, has always been an important link to the Atlantic Ocean and the trade and transportation routes of six Mexican states, Africa, the Caribbean and Europe. The 413-sq. mile bay is approximately 31-miles long, 23-miles wide and 11-ft. in depth and is entirely encircled by the state of Alabama. It would be Mobile Bay’s access to the sea that would lay the groundwork for colonization and be a determining factor in the area’s history.
Admiral Alvarez de Pineda explored and mapped the bay in 1519 and is widely credited with making first contact with the Native Americans who lived there. It would be the Maubilia Indians after whom the bay and the city would be named. www.mobile.org
Mobile, the largest city on the bay, is the natural place from which to explore all the regional history. Pierre Le Moyne de’Iberville and his younger brother Jean-Baptiste established Fort Louis settlement in 1699 on Dauphin Island. They referred to it as Ile du Massacre, Massacre Island, because of a large number of skeletons they found there. In 1702 the settlement was designated the capitol of La Louisiane Territory and in 1707 the name was changed to Dauphin to reflect its link with French royalty.
The colony was relocated in 1710 to a site close to modern Mobile after a series of incidents including a pirate raid and frequent flooding. Originally a wooden fort was constructed but in 1723 a brick fort replaced it. Twenty enslaved and five white workers erected Fort Condé and a 3/4 replica of the fort offers free admission and self-guided tours. www.mobile.org/html/conde/index.php
The Museum of Mobile interprets the history of the area through a series of chronological displays, events and special exhibits. It is housed inside an 1835-50 Greek revival building with many original elements. The building was used as a market, with stalls on the first level, and government offices on the second floor. The museum’s permanent holdings include more than 75,000 artifacts. Tours begin in the marble foyer with nine WPA murals by John A. Walker and continue into the exhibit space.
On view until March 3, 2013 is the delightful “Up, Up and Away,” a historic examination of superheroes from 1938 until the present. The emphasis is placed on how our heroes, and anti-heroes, have changed with the times. The roots of comic book heroes extend to the Renaissance and caricatures drawn by Leonardo da Vinci in the 1490s through America’s first superhero, Superman, a “mythological character in spandex”. Brad Meltzer has declared that, “Superman is the avatar of the United States. He’s how we want to see ourselves.”
Gallery highlights include interactive stations and displays of historic comic books, artifacts and memorabilia. African American comics and superheroes are showcased as well as a section called “Side Kickin It,” honoring the auxiliary, usually teen, heroes. This exhibition is exclusive to the museum and will not travel.
The permanent display on the city’s history begins with the Native American presence in the area and continues with the presence of the conquistadors, colonists and the introduction of slavery by the French in 1721. Exhibits continue through the Civil Rights Era and modern Mobile.
The little-known voyage of the Clotilda, the last documented slave ship, a two-masted, 86-ft. by 23-ft. schooner, is recounted in detail. The US Government outlawed the importation of African slaves in 1808. This did not stop the trade but caused it to become more covert. In 1858 a $100,000 wager was made that Captain Meaher and Robert Taney could smuggle slaves into the US. He sailed to West Africa, purchased more than 100 Africans and sailed into Mobile Bay on July 7, 1860.
The ship was burned but word of the event spread causing a government investigation. Some slaves were distributed to shareholders and approximately 32 were settled on land three-miles north of Mobile. A trial was held but Meaher was acquitted. The settlement, on Meaher’s land, became known as Africatown and at the close of the war a number of the former Clotilde enslaved moved to the area where they formed a unique African community. Kazoola, Cudjoe Lewis, the final survivor of the Clotilde, died in 1935. A bust of Kazoola is situated in front of Union Missionary Baptist Church. www.museumofmobile.com
Mobile, as a center of commerce, was influenced by several nationalities and displays numerous architectural styles. In 1865 a fire destroyed one-third of the city but the city still boasts seven historic districts, 350 antebellum homes and 5,836 structures listed on the National Register.
The 1831 Greek Revival Government Street Presbyterian Church is one of the oldest buildings in the city. The portico is one of the earliest examples of its kind in the US.
PHOTO: Cudjoe Lewis, survivor from slave ship Clotilde.
Christ Episcopal Cathedral dates from 1840 and was the first Episcopal congregation in the city. The Greek revival exterior is beautiful but a tour of the interior is a must. It reveals 13 stained glass windows two of which are exquisite Tiffany creations. “Nicodemus Meeting Jesus at Night” and “Jesus Meets Nathanael” give viewers the opportunity to examine how the colors were achieved by controlling the thickness of the glass. Note that the pavement in front of the church is the last original section of Mobile sidewalk.
The Creole Greek revival Portier House was built in 1833 on property deeded by a Spanish land grant. It served as the home of the first bishop of Mobile from 1834-1859 and other bishops until 1906. The house is furnished with period antiques. Of interest is the original banister with spokes that are in the form of arrows. Tours are available. www.portierhouse.org
Space 301 is a gallery that is currently showcasing both artworks and the innovative “Memory Project,” an exploration of the collective memories of Gulf Coast community members. The works are stunning but none more so than “The Senia Series,” photographs of artist Senia Nixon who was discussing her grandfather’s memories of slavery while sculpting African clay masks. www.space301.com
Bellingrath Gardens and Home has been featured on A&E’s “America’s Castles.” Mobile’s first Coca Cola bottler, Walter Bellingrath purchased the site, an abandoned fishing camp, in 1917. The gardens were begun in 1927 and the English Renaissance, 15 room, mansion in 1935. The signature Rose Garden contains 2,000 plants in 75 varieties.
The 10,000-sq. ft. mansion’s furnishings, purchased by Bessie Bellingrath, are all original. The house is filled with antiques that she purchased on her frequent shopping trips. She purchased so much in New Orleans that when she was unable to travel there they sent truckloads of furniture to her. Tours are offered 364 days a year of the mansion, gardens and Bayou Boardwalk and take a 45-minute cruise aboard the Southern Belle River Cruiser.www.bellingrath.org
The $10-million five Rivers Delta Center is a seven building complex situated on 80-acres that was created to interpret the history and inform visitors about the educational and recreational experiences available in the Delta. The center is named for the five rivers, Mobile, Spanish, Tensaw, Apalachee and Blakeley, which join in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta and continue on to Mobile Bay. The site has kayaking, walking trails, a picnic area and a series of eco-tours that have been featured in “National Geographic.” www.alabama5rivers.com
Delta Safaris give you the opportunity to tour the area with the 5th highest plant and animal diversity and sight some of the 284 types of freshwater fish, 85 reptiles, 63 mammals, and the world’s highest number, 120, of types of freshwater snails. One of the most popular tours is “Gators After Dark,” an evening alligator sighting cruise. www.5rds.com
Fairhope, a small town located on the Eastern Shore of the bay, is rife with boutiques, cafés, trendy shops and galleries. It is the perfect place to obtain a souvenir of your trip. www.cofairhope.com
It is also the home of the internationally renowned artist Nall. He studied under Dali and attended the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. His work is both arresting and thought provoking and his gallery features his prints, books, sculptures, oils and apparel. www.nallart.com
Even though the official “Year of Alabama Food” is winding down you will always be able to feast on Mobile Bay’s signature dishes.
Callaghan’s Irish Social Club is the city’s oldest pub. It was established in 1946 and has been featured in “Esquire” as the “Best Bar in America.” In 2011 USA Today selected Callaghan’s burger as the best. www.callaghansirishsocialclub.com
Elvis and Woodrow Wilson probably both stayed in the Battle House Renaissance Hotel because of their Diver scallops with mushroom risotto, sautéed spinach and white truffle oil. Not only does the hotel have history, a hotel has been at this location since 1827, but it is also one of the top 500 hotels in the world. www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/mobbr-the-battle-house-renaissance-mobile-hotel-and-spa
Located on the Causeway with superlative views of Mobile Bay is the Original Oyster House. There are abundant seafood selections at their very best. www.originaloysterhouse.com
The Shed BBQ & Blues Joint cooks up award-winning barbecue in a 10,000-sq. ft. restaurant daily. It was voted the best in Mobile and that is no small honor. www.theshedbbq.com/mobile
A Spot of Tea is known as much for its ambiance as its Strawberry tea, Eggs Cathedral and Bananas Foster French toast. The 177-year old building is also the site of a fabulous Sunday brunch. www.spotoftea.com
Let me add one more thing Mobile Bay has to offer, the Jubilee. This natural phenomenon occurs only two places in the world and only in Mobile with regularity. During the event a large number of crabs, bottom dwelling fish and shrimp suddenly move out of the deep water and into the coastal bay area where their number is so dense they can actually be picked up by hand.
Everyday is a jubilee in Mobile and you can join in the fun. www.mobilebay.org
I wish you smooth travels!
A good read about the African American presence for the sesquicentennial commemoration of the Civil War is James K. Bryant II’s “The 36th Infantry United States Colored Troops: A History and Roster.” www.mcfarlandbooks.com/book-2.php?id=978-0-7864-6878-2