Alabama

Selma to Montgomery: The Voting Rights Fight Continues

The famous Edmund Pettus BridgeI am updating this post as there was a problem with the link to Fred's article; I've now corrected the problem.

A few days ago, March 25th, marked two things of note: 1) Fred's 50-something birthday, and 2) the 50th anniversary of the historic civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama to protest the lack of voting rights in the south at the time.  In a recently published article in Fred's hometown newspaper, The Town Crier, Fred wrote about our visits to a number of the important civil rights sights in the south, including driving the 54-mile route that Dr. Martin Luther King and other civil rights activists took on their March 21-25 protest march from Selma to the steps of the Alabama State House in Montgomery in 1965.

He also wrote about how the battle for voting rights continues today as over 30 states have passed voter suppression laws in recent years that it is estimated could disenfranchise over five million citizens from voting.  A great majority of these disenfranchised are African Americans, Hispanics, the elderly, college students and people with disabilities. Proponents of these laws, laws that often focus on stricter voter ID requirements, would suggest that the laws are necessary to address rampant voter fraud.  But as you will read, and as Mark Twain commented on reports of his death, actual incidents of voter fraud are, to say the least, "greatly exaggerated."

Here is the link to Fred's article:  Selma to Montgomery 

Natchez Trace Parkway and National Scenic Trail

Natchez Trace Trail & ParkwayThe Natchez Parkway is a quiet (at least when we were on it) stretch of pristine roadway that stretches from Natchez, Miss., up the state through Jackson and Tupelo, then traverses through the northwest corner of Alabama before coming to an end in Nashville, Tenn., some 444 miles later.  Without a billboard in sight, it passes through low-lying marshes, cypress swamps, forests, agriculture fields, and pastoral pastures of grazing animals.  While it has been a real treat to drive along segments of this beautiful parkway at several places during our travels here in Mississippi, the interesting part of this story is how this corridor came to be. 

One needs to go back centuries to find the beginnings of what is referred to as the Old Trace.  [Trace means ‘path’ or ‘road’.]  The Trace as we know it today began not as a single trail, but a weaving of animal and Indian paths following the quickest and easiest way through the land.  Ancient Indians had the same transportation and communication needs as we do today, and over the centuries they followed the Old Trace pathways to get to where they were going.

Natchez Trace HistoryNative cultures flourished in this region prior to European colonization. The Natchez, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and other American Indians had their homes here when the Europeans came.  Of special interest to us, Spanish Conquistador Hernando de Soto, whom I wrote about in a previous blog (De Soto National Memorial), made contact with the Chickasaw near the Old Trace back in 1540.  Brute that de Soto was, he demanded Chickasaw slaves, but the tribe refused and attacked de Soto and his army, forcing them to flee.  

KaintucksFast-forward 240 years to the late 1700s, when pioneer homesteaders were crossing the Appalachian Mountains into the Old Southwest to settle the Mississippi River Valley and points further westward.  The Old Trace was most heavily used between 1785-1830.  Farmers from the Ohio Valley River, called Kaintucks, built flat-bottom boats and floated them down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, carrying goods to be traded in the southern markets of Natchez and New Orleans.  When their goods were sold, these Kaintucks broke apart their boats and sold the logs, then used the Old Trace to return to their homes back up north on foot.

In 1800, The Old Trace was designated as a federal post road, making mail delivery between Washington, D.C., and Natchez and the Old Southwest much faster.  During the War of 1812, the Old Trace was a vital link for getting U.S. troops into position, and then back home again after the war.  During these busy years, simple way stations, or "stands," were built to aid travelers on the move during this time when the Old Trace was most heavily used.  Slaves often traveled the Old Trace with their owners between Natchez and Nashville.  Outlaws and bandits, too, used the Old Trace, but for bad; they targeted and robbed travelers of the money they made from selling their goods at the southern markets.

Over time, other roads were built to connect bigger cities, and these were faster and safer for traveling.  Then with the advent of the steamship, the Kaintucks could return to their northern homes much more quickly.  By 1830, the Old Trace path was virtually abandoned.

Natchez TraceIn 1905, the Mississippi Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.) wanted to preserve the slowly dying out Trace, for they recognized its value as a cultural treasure.  As they set out to gain support, a Mississippi congressman proposed a road as a way to give tribute to the original Natchez Trace.  Established as the Natchez Trace Parkway in 1938, and administered by the National Park Service, it was, once again, the magnificent work of the CCC who labored to build the long stretches of this two-lane road.  The markers and monuments that the D.A.R. began placing along the Trace some 80 years ago are still in place today, and they identify significant features like ancient Indian burial mounds and villages, the gravesite of explorer Meriwether Lewis who died here in 1809, and beautiful picnic areas, waterfalls, and other natural elements on either side of the roadway – all the way from the southern Appalachian foothills of Tennessee to the bluffs of the lower Mississippi River.

In 1991, the Federal Government started the National Scenic Byways Program to recognize roadways with outstanding scenic views and valuable historic, cultural, natural, recreational, and archeological significance, and the Natchez Trace Parkway received this designation.  The Parkway was mostly completed in the 20th century, but two gaps remained.  Finally in 2005, money was appropriated to complete these two segments, and with that, this scenic roadway was finished.  Grateful are we, and so, too, the other 7,500,000 people who annually drive along this old corridor with the exceptional views, that so many before us worked to preserve this national treasure.

Natchez Trace Parkway

Many sections of the original footpath are visible today, and the Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail, a separate national park unit, features 65 miles of the Old Trace trail.  It is open for hiking, and in some places horseback riding.

Sweet Home Alabama

Fine dining at Chez Angela
Dinner at Chez Angela was served like this every evening – we didn’t want to leave!

[Sorry, the title was just too good to pass up!]  I am having withdrawal now, and I’m sad.  We just spent several fabulously incredible days with long-ago-then-new-again friends, Angela and David, and their son, Neil.  Angela and I worked together back in the early ’90s when we were both out on the east coast, and it was there that our friendship began.  Through my visit with her and her husband at their home in Virginia a couple of years later, I got to know David, too.  Then the last time I saw them was over 10 years ago; with a packed car and their then-toddler, Neil, they visited me in downtown Chicago.

It’s funny how life zooms by, and that’s what it’s done for all of us.  Careers and family and life in general kept us from having the time to get together, but Christmas cards kept us in touch and updated, and I knew that one day I’d get to re-connect with my old friend.  Life has, indeed, changed.  David, once a Colonel in the Air Force, is now staying on the ground but still working with the U.S. military, so has found Huntsville, Alabama, the place he needs to be.  Angela still remains the uber-organized hostess with the mostest, and I think has gotten even sweeter over the years.  Neil is now a very active, very polite, very fun-to-be-around teenager.  Fred is now in my life and we’re homeless!  And there’s a little more of all of us to love.  But reconnect and love and enjoy and have fun during our entire visit at their lovely home we did!

Angela, Fred and I in front of Saturn V
Angela, Fred & I in front of Saturn V at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville

With attention to detail like I always knew her to do things, Angela planned several really terrific outings for us while we were in the area.  I mentioned Neil’s archery tournament in a previous post; that was truly lots of fun to see!  We also spent an afternoon at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center – home to all of the rocket technology our country developed and perfected (the fabulous museum walked us through all of that) and a popular destination for kids from all over the world to attend Space Camp.  On Saturday we toured Belle Chevre, an artisan goat cheese creamery in nearby Elkmont, and went to the Wheeler Wildlife Refuge to observe a couple thousand Sandhill Cranes in their winter habitat.  Sunday found us visiting the Guntersville State Park to see if we could see any nesting Bald Eagles (saw one momma on a nest), enjoying brunch out, then doing some hiking in the park before settling in the lodge for a few games of checkers and backgammon on the big lodge game tables.  These were all places and trips we enjoyed taking, and we highly recommend Angela’s Planning and Hospitality Services to anyone coming to Huntsville!  :)

Interspersed throughout our really wonderful visit, Angela served absolutely delicious meals – lasagna, Moussaka, poached salmon, soups and salads… and really a treat for me, these fine meals were served on real china – no plastic plates nor wine glasses in her house!  Stargazer that Fred is, he especially enjoyed gazing at the planets, constellations and nebulae through their ultra-cool telescope – we saw Jupiter and five moons surrounding it!

I’m energized as I write this post, for I had really really really enjoyed the time I got to spend with Angela and her family. But now alas, we left their house yesterday and are now back to our life in Charley.  While this is our ‘home’ now, it was surely a treat enjoying Angela, David and Neil’s beautiful home for several days in Alabama, and I vow that it won’t be another 10 years until we visit again….

The Old Is New Again

Archery Tournament in Alabama
Kids competing in an “end” – here shooting from 10 meters

Isn’t it fun when something that was old but really good comes back into the mainstream again?  So it goes with the sport of archery.  The popularity of this old-turned-new-again sport is soaring, thanks to Katniss Everdeen [Jennifer Lawrence] in The Hunger Games, and the spirited little red-head, Merida, in Disney’s Brave.

I remember shooting at the archery range when I was a little towhead attending YMCA summer camp at Camp Evergreen back in the early 1970s, and then again aiming my arrows towards the target for a brief time in 7th or 8th grade gym class, but alas, the sport seemed to disappear, and the only time bows or arrows were ever part of the conversation was during hunting season.  But the sport is now new again, and we were thrilled to see it last week while visiting our friends in Huntsville.  David and Angela’s son, Neil, had a tournament – in fact, he shoots for the Alabama State Championship team – so happy were we to go observe this resuscitated sport.

Neil's target
Neil and his shooting partner were very good!

Here’s how it worked – at this tourney, at least.  Twenty kids at a time did their shooting; two kids per target – one with blue arrows and one with orange so they could be scored individually.  Each archer got one practice round which consisted of five arrows, then they shot three more 5-arrow rounds, or “ends” in which their scores were recorded.  The first four ends they shot (one practice, then three for points) were from a line that was 10 meters away from the target, then once they were all done from that distance, they moved their quivers back to the 15-meter line, took their practice round to find their aim spot, then proceeded to shoot three more ends for points.

A target has 10 rings to it – 10 points for the smallest ring in the yellow circle; 9 points for the outer ring in the yellow circle; 8 points and 7 points for the two rings in the red… out it went to the edge of the circular target where the last, largest white circle was worth 1 point.  As each archer shoots five arrows, a perfect score would be 50 (5 shots all in the 10-point ring) for an end.  And each archer shoots three ends from 10 meters, and three ends from 15 meters, so 300 is a perfect score.

Shooters taking aim
Boring brown bows of old be gone; these colorful bows surely bring a bit more interest to the sport

The whole flight took around 30 minutes, and when it was over, they called a new flight with more kids who repeated the same sequence.  Thursday night’s tournament had five flights, but Angela informed us that other tourneys in which Neil has competed have many more flights and/or more shooters per flight and some kids are still shooting at close to 9 o’clock in the evening!

Neil and his shooting partner did very well, but shooters don’t find out their ranking until a day or two later.  Often these tournaments are spread out over two or three nights because the sport is so popular and there are so many kids who now participate in it.

We had lots of fun watching Neil, and are really glad we got to take in the new world of the old sport of archery.  Thank you Katniss, Merida, Angela, and Neil!

 

Tuskegee

Tuskegee, Alabama, is home to two National Historic Sites: the Tuskegee Institute NHS and the Tuskegee Airmen NHS.  We visited both en route to Montgomery, and had another fabulous day of history lessons learned / re-learned.

Tuskegee Institute today
Tuskegee Institute today

Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site celebrates Tuskegee Institute, a private, historically black university, and two of the early leaders at what was called “Normal School for Colored Teachers at Tuskegee” when it was established back in 1881.  Started by a former slave, Lewis Adams, and a former slave owner, George Campbell, the school provided educational opportunities for African Americans who had long been denied the chance to gain an education.  Opened in 1881, it became a beacon of hope for the formerly enslaved who knew only farming.  Here young black students learned practical job skills such as brick-making, carpentry and building, printing, upholstery, dressmaking, food service skills, better farming skills, and many other trades that they were then instructed “to return to the plantation districts and show the people there how to put new energy and new ideas into farming, as well as into the intellectual and moral and religious life of the people.”

Booker T. Washington's study inside The Oaks
Booker T. Washington’s study inside The Oaks

Under the direction of an ambitious young teacher (just 25 when he was hired), Booker T. Washington, students were taught the value of hard work and self-discipline.  They wore uniforms, attended church daily, and were instructed in hygiene and social graces.  Washington strove to make Tuskegee as self-sufficient as possible, and in the process, he instilled resourcefulness and independence in his students.  In the early years, they grew their own food, and with bricks they made themselves, built buildings designed by faculty architects.  The school was in the public eye, and it became a showcase for the talents and character of the students.  As word of Tuskegee spread, benefactors like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller supported the school and helped it grow.

The Oaks - Booker T. Washington's home at the Tuskegee Institute
The Oaks – Washington’s home on campus and a showcase for all to see what his students were capable of doing if provided education and opportunity

In 1899, students of Tuskegee built The Oaks.  Now available to tour with an NPS Park Ranger, it was once home to Washington, his wife, Margaret Murray Washington (who was also instrumental at the school; she coordinated the women’s curriculum), and their daughter.  Through building this highly-visible structure on campus, students applied their building and furniture-crafting skills, and they trained and earned money by cleaning and maintaining the house.  Students and faculty were often guests here, as well.  As the first president of the school, Washington lived here and would serve until he died in 2015.  The monument dedicated to him is inscribed, “He lifted the veil of ignorance from his people and pointed the way to progress through education and industry.”  

George Washington Carver
George Washington Carver

Another famous instructor here at Tuskegee was George Washington Carver.  Brought in in 1896 by Washington when the agriculture department was established at Tuskegee, Carver, a botanist and professor of agriculture at Iowa State College, broadened the scope of the school to include teaching farmers and their wives about nutrition, home construction, food preservation, and hygiene.  He is famously noted for his work with peanuts, sweet potatoes, and a host of other crops.  In looking for an inexpensive protein for the meager diets of the rural poor, the peanut, he learned, was cheaply grown, easily stored, and offered enrichment to the soil.  He noted, “The primary idea in all of my work was to help the farmer and fill the poor man’s empty dinner pail.”

Tuskegee's Movable School
Tuskegee’s “Movable School” that brought education out to the farmers who couldn’t come to Tuskegee

Carter also sought to educate farmers who could not come to Tuskegee.  In 1906, he and Washington initiated the “Movable School” using the Jesup Wagon that Carver designed to bring training right to a farmer’s doorstep.

Over the last century, Tuskegee has evolved into a university with strengths in many fields.  The school’s growth has always been guided by Washington’s vision of improving the lot of African Americans and, by achieving that goal, elevating all of American society.

 

The hangars at Tuskegee Airfield's Moton Field
The hangars at Tuskegee’s Moton Field

Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site commemorates the contributions of African American airmen in World War II.  Here’s their abbreviated story:

Inside the Tuskegee Airmen Museum
It is said that these Airmen had to fight for a double victory – victory from Nazism abroad and against racism at home
The Tuskegee Airmen's combat record
The Tuskegee Airmen’s successful combat record
A P-51 Mustang, the 99th Fighter Squadron's plane of choice, affectionately called "Red Tails" for their painted red tails
P-51 Mustang, favorite plane of the Airmen, with it’s red nose and tail

In 1939, with an international war escalating, it was clear to the United States Congress that larger numbers of pilots might be needed for quick deployment if the country was dragged into the war.  But in this time of racial discrimination, many believed that African Americans would not be able to meet the high standards of military aviation.  Long wanting to fly but relegated to non-combat roles, a group of young African Americans were finally given their chance.  Through the Civilian Pilot Training Act, pressure from the black press and civil rights organizations, and support from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the 99th Pursuit Squadron of the U.S. Army Air Corps (AAC), precursor to the U.S. Air Force, was established at Tuskegee.

Still a segregated unit as this was the best that could be hoped for at that time, the first five pilots earned their wings on March 7, 1942.  As the nation got into the war and as new classes rapidly completed the Tuskegee program, its success spurred the creation of two more segregated units – A Fighter Group and a Bombardment Group.  While they still faced racial discrimination at bases, these Airmen took to the sky and did their jobs superbly, and no one could argue with their success.  These aviation pioneers ‘conclusively demonstrated the skill, bravery, quick thinking, and coolness under the pressure demanded of a combat pilot.’  Bomber crews called them the “Red Tail Angels” because of their planes’ distinctive red tail section and because they were known never to abandon bombers in their care.

Tuskegee Airmen inspiring a living legacyBy the end of the war, 992 pilots had been trained, and in all, 10,000+ African American men and women were part of the Tuskegee experience, including mechanics, systems specialists, medical technicians, cooks, administrative clerks, photographers, flight instructors, bombardiers, and navigators – all whom proudly claim the title “Tuskegee Airmen.”

Expecting to come home from the war and enjoy the freedoms they were risking their lives to fight for abroad, the Airmen still faced racial prejudice when they returned.  They were turned away from ‘whites only’ Officer Clubs in the military, and, shameful as it was, no airline was willing to hire these black pilots; one recalled he was offered the job of janitor if he wanted it.

In 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed an executive order which ended segregation in the military; a victory for the Airmen.  Still, there would still be decades of prejudice and bias ahead of them.

Tuskegee Airmen Congressional Gold MedalIn 2007, President George W. Bush invited the surviving Tuskegee Airmen to the White House and bestowed on these aviators the highest civilian award, the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor.  In his speech, Bush declared, “… to help atone for all the unreturned salutes, and unforgivable indignities… I salute you.”

The Tuskegee Airmen receiving a Congressional Gold Medal from President George W. BushVisitors to Tuskegee Airmen NHS can tour a museum in one of the hangars at Moton Field.  A film tells the story of these courageous men who proved they were equal to the task of flying when given the opportunity.  The museum also contains historic aircraft, artifacts, exhibits, and most meaningful, video recollections from the airmen themselves.

As the National Parks brochure states, the name Tuskegee is “an icon in African American history.  It is synonymous with the tireless striving of a disenfranchised people to find a place for themselves in a society that was, at best, slow to make room.”  Better are we for visiting both of these great National Historic Sites and attempting to understand the struggles and difficulties of those who were demanding their equal rights.  We have a lot more of that to come, for next we go visit Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham, and Memphis.