Trip Start Apr 12, 1992
65Trip End Jun 15, 1992
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Finally it happened. After weeks of anticipation I was on my way and strangely reluctant to leave. I left Fortson Lane along familiar streets, took memorial Parkway and US-231 south. Within minutes I crossed the Tennessee River, passing through Gasoline Alley (a cluster of gas stations located across the county line to take advantage of lower gasoline taxes.) I recalled a time several years ago when this entire area flooded. From a vantage point atop Green Mountain Helen and I looked south and east. A double line of trees marked the location of the banks of the flooded river. Muddy-orange water covered much of the valley floor. The old Automatic Electric plant sat like a clumsy ark. Its huge asphalt parking lot was under water and the road leading into the south end of Redstone Arsenal lay hidden beneath a sea of wavelets sparkling in the sun
In Morgan City I noticed a large sign advertising an automobile radiator repair shop:
"A Good Place To Take A Leak"
This bit of wit was the first of a succession of humorous signs on roadsides, auto bumpers, and in taverns across the country. Humor is alive and well in the USA. It is ribald, irreverent, and often witty.
A few miles later road signs advised me I was entering Arab, Alabama. They reminded me of an earlier incident:
A premature cold front had swept in a few nights before Thanksgiving. White patches of frost remained scattered about in the shaded areas. But inside the Waffle House on Jordan Lane it was steamy warm. Condensation blinded the huge windows and lent a sense of isolation. From time to time moisture accumulated and ran, snaking in vertical trails down to the window sill. The enclosure was like a snug outpost, a sheltered place hidden from the outside world.
The satisfying aroma of coffee brewing and hot grease hung in the humid air
Something else filled the warm room, something neither heard, nor seen, nor smelled, but definitely present. The holiday season brought an aura of human warmth, a convivial spirit, as if harmony had ridden in piggy-back on last night's blast of frigid air.
An elderly black man stood at the register. He looked to be about eighty, yet physically fit. He wore a crinkly cap of neatly trimmed gray hair and matching mustache. The old man pushed a finger through a pile of coins cupped in his left palm, carefully counted out seventy nine cents to go with the bills already on the counter.
The young blond waitress who waited to take his money wore deep red lipstick applied a little too thickly. Her uniform dress had been tailored to pinch her waist and reveal the fullness of shapely breasts and hips. With an alert smile she addressed the old black man in a soft drawl, "Your breakfast okay, Joe?"
"You know it was. I always come see you for my eggs. You do them up better than anybody else I know. You gonna be here on Thanksgiving?"
"Nah, Joe. the store will be open, like always, but one of the new girls agreed to take my shift. Momma invited me and my kids to have turkey and dressing with her. How about you? Where you gonna eat giblets?"
"I'll be back down here. It's another day to me. My kids say they're too far away to get home. But I think they just don't want to be home since their momma died."
"Maybe you'd like to come to my momma's house and eat with us. We'll have plenty."
"I don't know. I can't see good enough to drive much any more. Where 'bouts does your momma live?
"Down in Arab. You know how to get to Arab, don't you?"
"Yeah, I know. but that's a little far for me to drive. Arab used to be the place where they was more Klu-Kluxers than most any place around."
A beefy red-faced coffee drinker had been listening from the other end of the counter. He cut in, "Hell Joe, if you're worried about the Klan, we could sneak you into Arab with a gunny sack over your head like you was a sack of taters piled on the seat."
Joe smiled at the joker and said, "I ain't worried, but I got to tell y'all about the first time I ever come to Huntsville. I knew all about them Klu-Kluxers in Arab. So when I looked at a map and seen I had to pass right through Arab I put four hand grenades in my car, under the seat. Just for protection, you know. Along the way I stopped for something to eat. The people in the little cafe was mighty nice. They treated me good, like you folks do. When I left the cafe and drove a little ways down the road I seen a sign saying,"
WELCOME BACK TO ARAB
HOPE YOU RETURN SOON
"I had stopped to eat in Arab, the place I was most afraid of, and they made me feel right at home. That's when I knowed for sure things was getting better around here."
South from Arab, Alabama 69 leads to Cullman, famous for strawberries, and home of the Ave Maria Grotto, which covers four acres on the campus of St. Bernard College. This attraction is a miniature scaled replica of Jerusalem and other noted cathedrals, shrines, and churches. It is the life's work of Joseph Zoettl, a Benedictine monk. The Grotto attracts visitors from all over the world. I confess I have never taken the time to see it.
Cullman was also the home of a former Alabama governor, Big "Kissin' Jim" Folsom. Big Jim, like many southern politicians, became noted for his outlandish behavior. He drank too much whiskey, kissed too many babies, and babes, and admitted to stealing from the state treasury all the money he would ever need .
Once when running for re-election, he was asked why anyone should vote for a confessed thief. He responded that he already had taken all he needed, whereas his opponents hadn't gotten theirs yet. He won the election.
A few miles west of Cullman there is a crossroad village with the unlikely name of "Bug Tussle." Once there was an excellent steak and seafood restaurant in Bug Tussle, but it burned.
This area became popular with fishermen and boating enthusiasts when Lewis Smith lake was formed shortly after World War II. Smith Lake spread and covered much of Winston County when TVA built a dam on the Black Warrior River. To anyone flying over it resembles a fan shaped collection of flooded valleys, wooded ridges, and high rock bluffs.
All manner of dwellings; camper trailers, disabled motor homes, self built shacks, Jim Walter "Do It Yourself" kit homes and palatial estates are scattered around the shoreline of this beautiful lake.
The topography and soil of Winston County discourages farming. Certainly no big cotton plantations could exist here. When Alabama withdrew from the Union the people of Winston County, having few slaves, decided it was not their fight. "There was significant Unionist sympathy concentrated in the counties of northwest Alabama with intense anti-secessionist sentiment in Winston County. Citizens here threatened to secede from the state after Alabama seceded from the Union, but the 'Tories" of Winston County reacted in a much more useful, if less dramatic fashion by providing hundreds of volunteers for the Union army. Over 2600 white Alabamians enlisted with Federal forces before the war ended..." (Daniel Savage Gray, in collaboration with J. Barton Starr, "Alabama: A People, APoint of View.)
The people of Winston County still take pride in having rebelled against the rebels. Today Winston County is mostly taken up by the William Bankhead National Forest. Only a few more than 20,000 people live in the county. The county seat, Double Springs, is home to slightly over a thousand people. The fact that there is no town of any size in Winston County, and virtually no economic development, leads me to suspect that somehow the political powers-that-be have managed to punish these people for over a century and a quarter. Or maybe, in their own way, Winston countians are still marching to their own drummer. Maybe they don't want "progress".
Jasper, a little farther west, is county seat of Walker county. It is in a hilly, coal-mining area. Jasper was once quite prosperous, but has fallen on hard times, like most all Appalachian coal mining towns. Nothing has come along to replace the many, small, non-mechanized mining operations that once made honey-combs in the local hillsides.
Beyond Jasper the highway skirted Lake Tuscaloosa before dropping into the City made famous by Bear Bryant's University of Alabama Crimson Tide football team. Not so well known, Tuscaloosa is also home to Bryce Hospital, the State mental asylum. Some say it's appropriate that the two campuses adjoin. Students who crack from academic stress step across a stone wall and Zap!, they are in the asylum. Some wags suggest there is also a reverse migration. Bryce inmates become faculty in the University's Psychology Department.
South-west from Tuscaloosa US-11 crosses the "Black Belt" on its way to the Mississippi state line. The term "Black Belt" does not refer to skin color,nor does it have anything to do with martial arts. Rather, it refers to the heavy,fertile, black river-bottom land that was so suitable for cotton plantations. Green county, Alabama, once a place of rich cotton plantations, is now one of the poorest counties in the United States. The population is predominately black. For many years white planters used black slave families to cultivate white cotton here in the "Black Belt" soil of Green County.
Extensive voter registration drives conducted during the 1960's civil rights period enabled the black majority in Green County and Eutaw, its county seat, to gain control over local governing bodies. Resident whites had no choice but to accept the change. However, they have denied any voluntary, cooperative political or economic assistance to the now ruling black population.
Most of the whites who own large acreages remain in their huge white-pillared plantation homes. They have abandoned "row crops" which require lots of manual labor. Instead they grow non labor intensive beef cattle or paper wood pines. Whites have also abandoned the local public school system. Their children attend private all-white academies and church schools. They socialize among themselves, and try to maintain the out-dated image of pre-Civil War landed gentry. They ignore their black neighbors and refuse to participate in local affairs.
During my research for this trip I found a copy of a letter written by a white landowner to her black share-cropper tenants. It illustrates the pressures placed on blacks to give up and leave the South... And move they did, in droves, to Chicago, Memphis, Detroit, St. Louis, etc. The letter reads.
November 25, 1966
Route 2, Box80
This letter is to advise you that the land which you have been renting from me for the past several years will no longer be available for you to rent. I have rented this land to ............Paper Company, and they are going to grow timber on the lands. This is to give you notice that you will not be able to have the acreage formerly cultivated by you for the years 1967 and thereafter, and you can make arrangements to get acreage elsewhere.
If you wish to live in the house which you have occupied, you can continue to do so for a monthly rental of $15. The first rent payment will be due on or before the 5th day of January, 1967.
Under my contract with the paper company, you will not be able to have a garden or any cultivatable land, or have pasture or run any livestock, nor will you be able to cut any wood from the woods.
This is to advise you that if you do not wish to rent the house, then you must immediately make your arrangements to vacate the property before January 1, 1967, when the...........Paper Company will take charge of the property.
Yours very truly,
Mrs. Deborah *******
What a warm, thoughtful lady!
Generally, the county is seedy and decayed, particularly notable in its public buildings. Needed public improvements don't get done because the blacks can't tap the existent reservoir of "can do" political acumen locally or at the state capitol. Nor can they persuade the State Legislature to forsake its reliance on a general sales tax for raising most state revenue. The local landed gentry, in cahoots with other large (private and corporate) out of state land holders, , defeat every attempt to levy reasonable taxes on real property. This is tragic. It has resulted in both factions being forced to live in depressed surroundings with scant hope for improvement. Mean spirited racism prevents either faction from progressing.
But there is hope. capable blacks are fast gaining political skills. One move was to establish a local dog-race track which dumps considerable revenue into Green County coffers. Of course, politics being what it is,compromise was necessary. The race track could not legally operate without sanction from the State Legislature. Substantial funds from the track also slow to the State. Meanwhile black resentments fester. This is the stuff from which revolutions grow.
Around the Courthouse square in Livingston, Alabama the streets were quiet, almost deserted on a Sunday night. I decided to spend the first night of my voyage here; that is, if I didn't get chased away by the town police. No problem, didn't happen. I walked around the business area, enjoyed a couple beers, read a local paper, made a few notes for this journal, prepared a meal, decided on a route for the following day, and finally sacked out,to fall asleep anticipating the days and miles ahead.
I love the South, and I am also deeply shamed by my south. I am shamed by the ignorant redneck and racist types who find it amusing to get beered-up and ride down rural roads at night using mail boxes and traffic signs for target practice. Roads in this area are lined with bullet riddled stop signs. I wondered if the "wild west" would be as wild as west-central Alabama.
White faces are scarce along the streets and roads in this section of the state. There is scant indication of any kind of economic or civic development, public or private. The towns are simply wearing out due to desertion and neglect. Hardship is a fact of life for a substantial portion of the population here, as it is over much of the state...Nothing new; Alabama was born in hardship:
"For three nights the temperature sank below twenty degrees...It was one of the most dismal winters in recent memory...From the Tennessee Valley to the Gulf of Mexico, the residents of the Alabama Territory, fewer than 150,000 people, stoically endured these raw days in mid-December 1819. These pioneer families were unaware that on December 14, over 1,000 miles away in....Washington, D.C., President James Monroe scratched his signature on an act of Congress creating the new state of Alabama. The entry of Alabama into the Union provoked neither praise nor criticism...Most people interested in national affairs were occupied with the ...more volatile issue of the admission of Missouri as either a slave state or a free state.(Gray)
The existent and enduring problem of racial disharmony would prove to be a source of misery and divisiveness lasting until the present. My state grew to maturity in hardship. It suffered tremendously from the Confederate war against the Union. It starved through the Great Depression. Throughout the years it has harbored the cancers of ignorance, poverty, racism, soil erosion, absentee land ownership, malnutrition, poor schools, regressive taxes, etc. Why have I stayed here? Because I haven't found another place that I like better.