‘Forgotten’ Horseshoe Bend is a lesson for New Orleans’ Civil War monuments

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The park welcomed me with a grand sign typical of the National Park Service’s careful attention to detail and rustic aesthetics. The next sign I read changed my perspective on the battle.

Third-grade Alabama history is the gift that keeps on giving, even 45 years on. (Thanks Mrs. Virginia Harless Cook!)

This time it was the inspiration for this opinion piece in The News & Observer of Raleigh, North Carolina in which I apply the lessons I learned about the horror of an Andrew Jackson-led Indian massacre to what’s going on new in New Orleans and other places debating Civil War memorials.

Let me know what you think.

To learn from the past, keep its monuments

 

 

New York Times spotlights problems with Alabama Music Hall of Fame; here are some possible solutions

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Photo via Alabama Music Hall of Fame.

It’s sometimes said all publicity is good publicity, so a New York Times story about the struggles of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame is probably a good thing for the beleaguered museum.

Alabama Museum, in Area Where Stars Found Sound, Seeks an Audience: Tourists

The story suggests the museum, with its long history of closings due to funding problems, might need to do some things differently to be successful in the future, including moving to another city.

As a reporter and editor at The TimesDaily in Florence, I covered the hall of fame before it had a building or displays and was raising funds through an annual all-star concert in Birmingham.

I heard and met an amazing lineup of musicians and music industry types on this beat, including members of the country band Alabama, Martha Reeves of Vandellas fame, Jim Nabors, David Hood and Jimmy Johnson of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, blues legend Johnny Shines, Charlie Louvin, FAME Studios founder Rick Hall, bandleader Erskine Hawkins, the Commodores (minus Lionel Richie), Percy Sledge, Bobby Goldsboro, Jimmy Hall of Wet Willie and Marty Raybon of Shenandoah, Clarence Carter and more. One year’s show ended with a group of stars on stage for a spine-tingling rendition of “My Home’s in Alabama.”

(There were almost more people on stage as in the audience. The Birmingham News didn’t cover the event and the city didn’t support it particularly well.)

When the funds were raised, construction began in the late 1980s on a parcel of old cotton field off U.S. Highway 72 south of downtown Tuscumbia, one of the four cities that makes up the metro Shoals area of Alabama (Florence, Sheffield, Tuscumbia and Muscle Shoals). The Shoals became home to the hall primarily because it was the general area where famous musicians had come to record at several recording studios, most prominently FAME and Muscle Shoals Sound. Also, the powers behind the hall of fame were mostly Shoals-area people with connections to the music industry.

The precise location, though, was a head-scratcher. It’s on a stretch of 4-lane highway that isn’t a main artery between any major points and is used manly by locals who live outside  Tuscumbia or are driving from Northwest Alabama to Corinth, Mississippi or maybe Memphis, Tennessee. The four cities’ metro population is about 200,000 and as you’d expect have several highly trafficked although smallish downtowns and newer, car-oriented commercial areas. For some reason, though, the hall was built just outside the metro area, on the opposite side the fairly busy Huntsville-to-Florence corridor.

When I lived in the area, the hall was surrounded by what would have been pretty countryside if it weren’t for the uneven distribution of over-lit gas stations, fast-food restaurants, billboards and newish churches with huge, paved parking lots.

In the late 1980s Tuscumbia itself was a dusty little town that could have been the location of a movie set during the Great Depression just by changing out the cars on the street. Over time, though, while the U.S. 72 site of the hall of fame gained new fast-food neighbors downtown Tuscumbia came back to life through the generous investments of a local millionaire, making the hall’s isolated location look even more ill-conceived and short sighted.

The Times reports the current debate about the hall centers on whether it should move to Huntsville, Birmingham or Montgomery with the argument being those cities have the critical mass that could keep the museum busy vs. those who’d prefer to keep it close to the  music culture and history of the Shoals.

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The second Muscle ShoalsSound Studios. The front, at left, overlooks a scenic stretch of the Tennessee River. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons.)

I lean toward keeping it in the Shoals, but not at its present location, which never made much sense and has failed to draw crowds. This is easier said than done since the warehouse-like building is constructed around the band Alabama’s tour bus, among other built-in exhibits.

The downtowns of one of the Shoals cities or even a well-traveled commercial strip would be an improvement over the hall’s current location. If the reason for having it in the Shoals is because this is the state’s musical heart, then it would make sense to connect it to that music culture and heritage. Where it is now, it might as well be in Huntsville or Birmingham or Montgomery. It just sits by the highway, isolated and unconnected to much of anything.

Moving it near Muscle Shoals Sound Studios would connect it to that history, give the attraction added dimension and give people more incentive to visit. I was initially thinking of the second facility, located at 1000 Alabama Ave. in Sheffield — a beautiful spot on the Tennessee River — certainly an aesthetic improvement over the current location with the river offering an added attraction. When I worked in the area, the studio was still in use but has since closed, with some of its recording equipment sold.

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The more iconic Muscle Shoals Sound Studio building in Sheffield.

Another option might be the more famous and somewhat iconic original Muscle Shoals Sound Studios at 3614 Jackson Highway in Sheffield. It’s been purchased by a foundation for redevelopment. Either site could feature, in addition to museum exhibits, opportunities for visitors to watch actual recording, which would give the hall an extra dimension, coupled with the thrill of knowing these were places where actual stars like The Rolling Stones, The Black Keys, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Percy Sledge, Art Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Bob Seger, Cher and many others, recorded.

Stuck in a boxy building outside an already remote small town, the hall of fame is the definition of out of sight, out of mind. By connecting it to the rich Muscle Shoals-area music tradition, the place could be truly unique, be about much more than just Alabama music, and be a destination for music lovers of all kinds.

For essayist, Huntsville is the new town that became a hometown

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When a new town becomes a hometown by Beth Thames

A lovely and thoughtful essay on the slow, steady process of adapting to the place you’ve moved to. It’s what I’m in the midst of trying to do in Chapel Hill, and all the more poignant since the place the essayist now calls home is the place I’ll never quite get over leaving. 

50 years later: I wonder what the civil rights movement looked like to our expanding families in 1963 Alabama

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Sonnie Hereford and his father walk into Fifth Ave. Elementary in Huntsville, making it the first integrated school in Alabama. I’d walk through those doors six years later, completely unaware of what had happened in 1963.

Southerners are marking events that happened 50 years ago when civil rights events exploded across my home state and others. I’m fascinated with the events themselves, but also curious about impacted families like mine.

Early June marked 50 years since George Wallace’s “stand in the schoolhouse door,” in response, President Kennedy’s speech sketching out a civil rights bill that very night, and in the early hours the next morning, Medgar Evers’ murder.

In the coming months, we’ll mark 50 years since the Rev. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and the horrific bombing of Birmingham’s 16th St. Baptist Church that killed four girls in the church basement.

My great friend Bill Kimber was born June 11 in Birmingham’s South Highlands Infirmary, just a few miles from 16th St. Baptist Church. That was the same day that Wallace created his lasting image as an ardent segregationist on the University of Alabama campus.

I was born in Huntsville on July 7, just a few months ahead of the integration of Fifth Ave. Elementary School by Dr. Sonnie Hereford and his namesake son who I now count as a friend. It was the first school in Alabama to be integrated, and I would walk through those same doors as a first grader six years later.

There’s not much I can add to civil rights history that can’t be found in lots of other places, but I would like to know what was it like for my mother and Bill’s mother, and other young parents, bringing children into the world when that world as they knew it was being turned upside down.

Was it scary and daunting? Did they have sympathy for what the marchers and rights advocates were trying to accomplish? Or were they so busy with pregnancy they were insulated from it? After all, they were working-class white families, not completely immune from civil strife and turmoil, but obviously not impacted by Jim Crow like those marching and protesting and hoping for changes in laws that would change their lives.

When I was old enough to have conversations with her about it, my mother told me it scared her at first. I understand. The world that she’d known was changing dramatically. It would be one of the biggest and most important social upheavals in American history, and it was happening down the street.

I can just imagine Bill’s mother in her hospital bed, Wallace’s defiant words blaring through the television via the black and white evening newscast. What a world to bring a son into. In the long run, it was a better world. A world where Bill and I went to school with black kids and had black friends and those kids went to better schools.

My mother also told me she, at some point, began to understand the importance of the civil rights movement, and supported it. I’m not talking last year, but sometime in the 60s. As a single mother from a working-class family, I think she was in a position to understand what it meant to be oppressed, at least to some extent. She and other members of my extended family (Hi Cousin Pat!) were all-in supporters of civil rights and equal rights for women by the time I was old enough to have those conversations.

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My mother, Muriel Isom, in the early 1940s.

While I sort of understand how she got there, I have no idea what that journey was like for our moms. Mine was a woman who grew up the child of a mill worker father and homemaker mother in segregated Alabama of the ‘30s and ‘40s, only to see change come roaring at her in the ‘50s and ‘60s faster than she probably imagined possible.

I’m proud, though, to come from a family that embraces it rather than resists it.

Waving goodbye to a Southern tradition: Waving at passing cars

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Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

I’m trying to revive a Southern tradition one finger at a time.

When I was a boy and two oncoming cars met each other on most roads, the drivers waved. Not usually a big wave. Maybe a hand off the steering wheel, or one or two fingers up while the palm stayed put, but you almost never passed a car without a wave of some kind.

Where I lived, this applied to city and country driving, and if you were in the country, you also turned your head and gave a heartier wave to people sitting on their front porches.

It happens fast, especially when you and the car you’re meeting are going 55 mph or faster. You have to look into the windshield of every oncoming car, have your hand on top of the steering wheel ready to go up, and respond before the car has passed you. If someone waves and you don’t get at least a finger up until you’ve already passed, it’s like a snub. Very bad form.

By the time I learned to drive, the waving ritual was on the wane. Yet it still was a somewhat regular occurrence even in my fairly progressive hometown of Huntsville, Ala. (common retort: As a matter of fact, I am a rocket scientist).

My first post-college job was in Scottsboro, Ala. (common retort: Please don’t bring up the Scottsboro Boys) and not only did you wave at every passing vehicle, four-way stops were negotiated by waves of mutual agreement. (This actually drove me nuts. Just follow the rules, people. We’ll get through a lot faster.) After leaving Scottsboro, waving happened less and less.

These days waving at passing cars rarely happens — probably less here in Chapel Hill, N.C., (common retort: Go Heels) where I meet more people from California and New York than from the South. I’m sure there are lots of other reasons for the decline: Ever-widening roads, the interstate system and higher speed limits come to mind. Native Southern drivers who might be inclined to wave here probably don’t, assuming every oncoming car is driven by a transplanted Yankee who wouldn’t know what to make of being waved at anyway.

A few years ago I decided to put my graduate education to use and do a quantitative study of road waving. At the time, I drove a Ford Explorer which was helpful because drivers of trucks and truck-like vehicles seem to be the last keepers of the waving ritual. Here’s how the study went:

Method: I drove in three Southern states: Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky. On uninterrupted stretches of two-lane highway, I checked my odometer and waved at every oncoming car I passed for 10 miles in each state, documenting how many waves were returned.

Limitations: It’s possible I might have missed some waves that happened after our cars had passed. (Folks open to but not expecting a wave sometimes don’t have their hands in position and can’t get a wave off fast enough, try as they might. )

Results: A 12-15 percent response rate in each state. (The differences between states weren’t statistically significant.)

Breakdown:

• Of that 12-15 percent, about 80 percent of returned waves were from drivers of trucks of all kinds (pickups and semis).

• Seventy-five percent of waving drivers of trucks were white males and almost 25 percent were black males.

• Of the drivers of cars, the percentage of returned waves was about 20 percent.

• About 90 percent of car drivers who waved were men.

• The most common vehicles passed were cars driven by women, and very few women car drivers waved.

Anecdotal anomaly: I did get one wave from a black woman driving a pickup truck.

Clearly it’s going to be an uphill drive to bring this tradition back, but I’m going to give it a try. Just don’t wave at me at a four-way stop. You may get another finger for that.

The nominees for best Southern supporting character are: Kenneth Parcell, Eb Dawson and Gomer Pyle

The reaction Southerners get to our accents or the mere fact we’re from the South may be a result of what people think about Southerners based on what they’ve seen on television.

We’re all painfully aware of Southern characters that exist just to get laughs or create conflict — from Jethro Bodine to Buford T. Justice to Cletus the slack-jawed yokel.

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Coincidence? Probably not.

Those characters have made me laugh plenty, but I relish the few Southern characters who show a little more humanity. They’re few and far between, for sure, but they’re linked through some common characteristics, the most important of which are their accents.

When I hear an actor botching a faked twang or drawl, I always wonder why the casting directors couldn’t find an actual Southerner to play the part. We can act, too, you know.

I love these Southern male supporting characters. Sometimes they’re naive, maybe even a little slow, but still manage to be wise or gracious or good or at least have good intentions. In some cases, their wit reveals intelligence behind the grin or the goofy lines.

Kenneth Ellen Parcell, “30 Rock”
Jack McBrayer (Georgia)

McBrayer would win best actor among this bunch, by a landslide. There were a few episodes in which the jokes about his eating habits bordered on the tasteless. Leave the possum-meat jokes to the Beverly Hillbillies, “30 Rock” writers. Otherwise, he’s sublime — and ridiculous at the same time.

Eb Dawson, “Green Acres”
Tom Lester (Mississippi)

I don’t know if Tina Fey knows it, but “Green Acres” and “30 Rock” have a lot in common: the wacky characters, the ironic self-references, the meta jokes. And two of the best Southern TV characters ever. There was so much clever casting on “30 Rock” but the best of all would have been if Tom Lester had shown up as Kenneth Parcell’s grandfather.

Gomer Pyle, “The Andy Griffith Show”
Jim Nabors (Alabama)

If you’ve wondered what the eternal devotion to “Andy Griffith” is about, it’s about seeing our region portrayed in a way that’s both funny and real, for laughs and with heart. Gomer’s legacy is tainted somewhat by “Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C” which leaned too heavily on fish-out-of-water jokes and catch phrases. On “Andy” he was somebody we all knew.

Who would you add to the list?

Memorial Day 2013: What to do with new knowledge U.S. military bases are named for Confederate generals

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Fort Benning in Georgia is named for Henry Benning who said abolition would lead to black governors, juries, legislatures and more. (Photo by John D. Helms via Flickr Creative Commons.)

It’s sobering Memorial Day reading to find out 10 U.S. military bases are named for Confederate generals “who led soldiers who fought and killed United States Army soldiers; indeed, who may have killed such soldiers themselves.”

Startlingly different than the usual observations about “ultimate sacrifice” and “fighting for freedom.”

While, absolutely, it would be ideal to change the names of Fort Hood, Fort Lee, Fort Benning, etc., of course that will never happen. It’s one thing for a New York Times contributor to demand the change, quite another for a public official to step into that quagmire.

It would be like the controversies over changing the Ole Miss mascot, lowering Confederate battle flags from state capitals, or the Brad Paisley song with LL Cool J, multiplied by thousands. While name changes would be the right thing to do, what legislator would think it was personally or politically worth it?

Instead, we’ll have to live with the duality of who these generals were and what the bases named after them mean to us now.

Southerners of certain persuasions understand that kind of duality, I think, because we were raised to love our home states and our region before we learned about what the Civil War was fought for, or why Confederate battle flags were raised over state capitals in the 1950s, and what our states did to its black citizens under Jim Crow and how fiercely our states resisted civil rights for their black citizens.

As a young person, I vividly remember trying to reconcile my deep connection to Alabama and the South with the then-new knowledge of all those flaws. I’m sure people come to different conclusions, but one might be this: Knowing the failings increases understanding, which allows the love to deepen.