Monday, February 27, 2017

Selma Shots

As a followup to my review of a recent history of Selma, I'd like to share some photographs of my hometown I took a few years ago (2010 - 2011) when I was trying to experience it as a tourist might.

Sturdivant Hall, easily in the running for Selma's most picturesque building. Originally a home, it now stands as a museum with gardens around it. There are several private residences that rival it for sheer beauty, but Sturdivant Hall  is often used on tourism brochures.

My favorite house in Selma, sited on Lauderdale street. 

A similar home on Parkman Avenue. 

Brown Chapel, headquarters of the Selma movement during the Civil Rights era. 

Temple Mishkan, testament to a Jewish community that was once considerable. In the late 19th century, Jewish merchants lined Broad Street. The interior of the Temple is unusual for having stained-glass windows depicting David and Esther; images of people are not common in Jewish houses of worship. 

My favorite building in Selma. St. Paul''s Episcopal.  When I began walking around Selma I found St. Paul's particularly irresistible. I believe  part of the magic is its courtyard; partially enclosed from the street by a low brick wall, it's framed by the church on the left, a parish hall on the right, and cloistered administrative offices in the rear. 

The tower of First Baptist edges out its neighbors' -- Cornerstone Presbyterian, St. Paul's Episcopal, and Church Street Methodist. It's a neogothic structure that gives Selma part of its signature skyline. 

Who knew Baptists like gargoyles? 

Curiously,  there are just under a dozen homes in the city that have a marked Spanish-southwestern influence to them; some merely used stucco, and one looks like a hacienda buried in the jungle.  This is a sedate example. 

There is no shortage of fine homes standing in Selma,  and since the obscene destruction of the Hotel Albert, the city's citizens have been more conscience of the need to keep some abandoned beauties in good repair.  Many former residences are now offices for lawyers, dentists, and the like. 

Live Oak Cemetery, running alongside Dallas Avenue, is an eerie place to visit; filled with ornate monuments to previous generations, guarded by Spanish moss. 

Not all of Selma's downtown buildings are in use, but both the government and private foundations do their best to ensure that this kind of heritage is preserved. 

Let's end this little peek at Selma with its most iconic structure, the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  That little yellow building on the right is the Bridgekeeper's house, which formerly controlled another bridge which could pivot to allow ships passage. These days the only ships on this stretch of the Alabama are pleasure craft -- fishing boats and the like -- though bodies like the Black Warrior River still bear the odd cargo ship. 

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Selma: A Bicentennial History

Selma: A Bicentennial History
© 2017 Alston Fitts III
384 pages

On December 4th, 1820, the Alabama legislature granted a town charter to a burgeoning community established on a high bluff overlooking the Alabama river. The place, named after a cities of heroes from a Scottish poem in the romantic period, would quickly create its own heroes and stories. In Selma: A Bicentennial History, longtime Selma resident Alston Fitts delivers a celebratory history of the town and its proud yet troubled heritage, in advance of its 200th birthday.  He builds on his initial history (Selma: Queen City of the Blackbelt),  which was published in the 1980s; here, his initial history is greatly expanded, using references to other works to take readers through the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the 20th century through one city's experiences. The work never shies away from the city's most controversial moments, but strives to be fair to all parties. For a Selmian, this is a history that does the city justice, with a multitude of fascinating little stories based not just on old records, but interviews with the city's residents. Their many contributions to the book, in interviews and photographs, make it a true reflection of the city rather than just the view of one author.

To those only familiar with Selma's modern history, as a small city only remembered for being the site of the Civil Rights movement's crowning moment, Selma  reveals another place -- a center of industry and trade that rivaled Montgomery for prosperity and political influence; a city sure enough of its future to argue for its selection as the Confederate capital during the war between the States.  Selma and its mother county, Dallas,  contained some of the richest soil in Alabama, and both civic and business leaders made the most of that wealth by aggressively pursuing railroads; long after the great river had ceased to be the chief commercial artery of the state, Selma's network of banks and railroads were poised to prosper further in the 20th century. Its rails and river made a commercial center, but it was no slouch in regards to industry:  Selma housed an arsenal rivaling Richmond's as well as a principal naval foundry during the war, making it a target for Union troops; still later, during World War 2, Selma hosted an air force base that survived into the 1970s.    Selma's wealth was not merely monetary, however; her citizens were truly dedicated to the city, pouring themselves into creating civil institutions like schools, hospitals, and the library. They created block after block of magnificent buildings, many of which still stand today: the historic district of Selma is one of the nation's largest. 

Selma's past as an agricultural titan would bear unexpected fruit throughout the 20th century, however. The economic culture of the antebellum South meant that Selma and Dallas County' wealth came from fields worked by slaves,  to the degree that Dallas County  has maintained one of the largest black populations in Alabama for generations. When Reconstruction began in the postwar South, it contributed many black businessmen and politicians.  These gains would fade and be reversed by the end of the 19th century, however, culminating in the establishment of Jim Crow segregation laws and the 1901 Alabama Constitution. The latter document established barriers to voting which included poll taxes, property holdings, and the explication of Constitutional articles; these requirements together reduced the black voting population in Dallas County from several thousand to under a hundred.  These barriers, disenfranchising poor blacks and whites alike -- and flying in the face of Alabama's original constitution, which incorporated universal white male suffrage -- would not fall for over sixty years.   Selma entered the national spotlight again in 1965, when a local voting league invited Martin Luther King, Jr. to help draw attention to the cause of suffrage in the city. Fitts notes that the league was able to accomplish what it did largely because the black community in Selma was so healthy, with a strong middle class supporting several hospitals and two colleges. One of the most dramatic moments of the Selma campaign, for instance, was the mass support black teachers lent to it when they absented themselves from teaching to march instead.  Visiting in 1968, King himself was astonished by the progress of the black community, and the strengthening relationship between it and the city's white population.  Legendary mayor, Joe Smitherman, had just been elected to the office in '65, and continued to sit the big seat throughout the rest of the century in part  because he made himself a ready ally of of the black community. Unfortunately, racial harmony would be disrupted as Selma entered the 1990s,  as a certain group of lawyers created such a hostile atmosphere in the city that one of the state's most integrated systems fell to pieces.  Still, the city is doing what it can to move past that episode, as the actors involved are now dying off. Perhaps their bitterness will buried with them.  The city now has a young mayor in Darrio Melton who has already demonstrated  a strong intent to scrape away the old barnacles and begin making progress once more. 

As a modern history of Selma, Dr. Fitts has done a superb job of presenting the most essential elements of previous histories, connecting them to broader histories of the South and southern institutions (black churches, for instance, via use of Wilson Fallin's Uplifting the People),  His heavy use of interviews and the photographs of Selma citizens make it a community story, almost, and one that the generations are able to contribute to given that he references one older history written by a Selma mayor.   As a native son of the Queen City, I found quite a few questions answered here, learned some interesting tidbits along the way, and finished the book feeling ever more affectionate toward this, my storied hometown.

Selma 1965, Chuck Fager
Reporter: Covering Civil Rights...and Wrongs in Dixie, Al Benn

Friday, February 24, 2017

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
© 1969 Maya Angelou
304 pages

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is an autobiography in the form of a novel, following a young woman’s coming of age as she journeys from a small town in the South to the big city – and then there and back again.  Functionally abandoned by her parents, and constantly worried about her status as not only an awkward and homely girl from a family full of photogenic frames and faces, but being a racial outcast, Maguerite makes her way by a loving grandmother and brother and books aplenty. I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings largely out of peer pressure, since it is always mentioned in the hallowed company of books like The Scarlet Letter and Tom Sawyer, hailed as essential American and Southern literature.

Racism dominates Caged Bird just as the wilderness fills the reader’s experience in The Last of the Mohicans;  Angelou writes that segregation was so complete in Stamps, Arkansas that she hardly ever saw a white person.  In her younger years , Stamps’ white citizenry were phantoms who she scarcely regarded as human.  They were cold and distant authority figures, or ‘powhitetrash’ wretches who behaved like little barbarians yet expected the blacks of Stamps to defer to them.  On the rare occasions that Marguerite and her family entered the white side of Stamps to buy goods unavailable in their own neighborhoods, they ran the risk of being refused service – as happened with a dentist.

This book remains controversial because of several scenes of sexual violence, which I approached with some trepidation – intending to skim over them, if need be. There are three scenes like this within the same chapter, and Angelou renders them in a way to convey a child’s confusion and detachment – the sort of detachment one adopts while at the dentist, or in preparation for a surgery, a self-defense against panic. Following these scenes, Marguerite enters a mute period in which she reads more devotedly than ever, before finding a positive vision of womanhood in her community to guide her out of the darkness.

In her path to womanhood, Marguerite was provided with several examples, strong in their own way.   Central to her life is her grandmother, “Momma”, who operates a general store that is also the community center for Stamp’s black community.  While the store never makes them wealthy,  the family’s frugality and Momma’ adaptability allow them to weather even the Depression in mild comfort, lending money even to white business owners – including the dentist who considers his obligation merely fiscal, and refuses to budge from his policy of not treating blacks.    Momma and her family provide a safe haven for the main character and her brother, a haven not found when they visit or live with their parents.   Marguerite’s mother is beautiful and independent, but her world is full of violence; when Marguerite is raped, it is at the hand of one of her mother’s beaus. Her father, too, is handsome but not altogether reliable;  when he takes Marguerite to Mexico to buy supplies,  his drunken revelries force Maguerite as a young teenager to attempt driving for the first time in literal terra incognita – a mountainous descent in rural Mexico.   A third example for Marguerite is the mysterious Mrs. Flowers, who has a regal bearing and a full library, both of which inspire Maguerite to better things. For the most part, she takes those lessons to heart -- fighting a protracted campaign to become a streetcar conductor, the first black woman to enter the service. Yet at the end, she decides to have sex with a boy to determine that she is not a lesbian, promptly becomes pregnant, and after the delivery of her boy, the novel ends. It's as if a story of King David ended abruptly with his having Uriah killed so he could cover his petty lust with Bathsheba.  I know the person of Maguerite -- Maya Angelou -- went on to greatness, but as a novel by itself, it's a weird way to end things.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Wheels of Chance

The Wheels of Chance: A Bicycling Idyll
© 1896 H.G. Wells
193 pages

What an odd little story! Begin with one J. Hoopdriver, a draper's assistant who lives for nothing but spare opportunities to ride his bicycle -- or rather, to crash repeatedly on his bicycle, banging up his legs but still delighting in sheer momentum. Mr. Hoopdriver, at the novel's beginning, is finally embarking on his yearly vacation: a cycling tour in England. Immediately he spies a beautiful woman, crashes dramatically, and earns her pity and his own chagrin. He chances to see her again, later on, and this time in the company of another fellow who claims to be her brother. His love-sickness not withstanding, Hoopdriver can tell that something's amiss, especially after the "brother" accuses Hoopdriver of being a detective. Delighted at having a game to play, Hoopdriver pursues the odd couple, eventually changing roles to that of a clumsy knight- errant once he and the woman (Jessie) realize the other chap is a genuine cad. Jessie's intention was to Be Her Own Woman, but her first ally turned out to be a manipulative fink. Eventually the gig is up for everyone, but Hoopdrive ends the tale most invigorated, having gone on a quest and discovered a friend who could put a little steel in his soul and allow him to dream of doing greater things with his life.

Although the story is nearly inconsequential, there's much charm. Wells' writing is often fun (one passage remarks that while Hoopdriver was in the throes of indecision, gravitation was hard at work and thus the man found himself on the ground with a bleeding shin, still wondering what to do), and sometimes beautiful, as when he's describing the landscape or the dreams of these two. Still, there were two reasons I picked this book up: bicycles and H.G. Wells -- and that, in the end, was the reason I finished it.  If nothing else this is literature from bicycling's first bloom of mass popularity.

Bicycles: The History,  David Herlihy

H.G. Wells and his wife Jane Wells

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Podcast of the Week: Stephen Kinzer discusses TR, Mark Twain, and American Empire

On Tuesday, author Stephen Kinzer appeared on the Tom Woods show to discuss his new book, The True Flag.  This piece takes as its subject the fierce debate on then-nascent American imperialism -- genuine debate in that Kinzer begins with chronicling Congress' 32-day debate on the American acquisition of the Philippines, which started on the same day as the opening session of the American Anti-Imperialist League. The heart of the debate is this: how can a democratic republic formed on the basis of consent by the governed  initiate and persist in policies that involve controlling countries against their will?  Kinzer has written such books as All the Shah's Men: An American Coup, Overthrow, and a look at Turkey as it stands between worlds.   The Anti-Imperialist League's most famous member was Mark Twain (see Weapons of Satire for Twain's anti-imperial writings), though it also included men like Andrew Carnegie and Samuel Gompers.  Kindred books: Bill Kauffman's Ain't My America, and Tom Woods' own anthology, We Who Dared Say No to War

Before yesterday, I'd planned to spotlight Econtalk's recent interview on the book Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Reading All Around the World?

A few days ago I caught wind of a project that took me aback with its ambition. Several blogs/readers, including Cleopatra of the  Classical Carousel, are attempting read books from across the world, either fiction or nonfiction. This is being hosted by Howling Frog and Chapter Adventures. I found it intriguing because I'm engaged in that sort of reading, myself; last year I did an extended series in middle-east history, and this year I'm turning to Asia. Following that I've been playing with the idea of a split year in the "global south",  spending six months in Africa and then six months in South America. Another project I've had in mind is a "Eurotour" in which I read my way through Europe, beginning in Portugal and trekking all the way to the Balkans.   Considering I'll be reading across the globe anyway, I might as well do it in company, rather as I'm doing with the Classics Club. Like the classics club this would be a long-term project.    While nothing is finalized, consider this a "toe in the water" sort of move on my part, a declaration of interest..

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Up from Slavery

Up From Slavery
© 1901 Booker T. Washington
332 pages

Up from Slavery is an hopeful reflection by Booker T. Washington on the future of black Americans and the American nation, as he reflects on the thirty-odd years since the abolition of slavery at the time of his writing.  But this is no mere memoir of slavery and reconstruction, for Washington's life as a teacher and founder of the Tuskegee Institute gives him a perspective on education; particularly, what sort of education most befits the cultivation of liberated men and women.  Washington's ideal education, put into practice at the Tuskegee Institute, is 'holistic' in that it places as much value on the practical -- trade skills, agriculture -- as it does book learning. It is moral and social, teaching self-ownership and self-sacrifice,   Although Washington craved knowing how to read even as a child, and his drive for self-improvement was such that he worked his way across a span of a hundred miles to attend school at the Hampton Institute,  he did not see book-learning as a magical solution to the problems of his fellow freedmen.  Some had taken earnestly to the veneer of education, but shared the same disdain towards work that had poisoned the plantation elite.  When he was asked to head the fledgling school for blacks anxious to  uplift themselves, he stressed the dignity of labor, the sense of ownership; he joined students in creating bricks, hewing wood, building the physical structure  of the school.  In this same vein, their practical skills built themselves, gave them the realization that they were capable of producing a good work that they and others could use and value. It is on that foundation that book-learning can rest, and so his students followed a Benedictine schedule of "pray and work", or in his case "study, work, and pray" -- occupied from 5:30 'til 10:00 pm.

Washington was a surprising author in many ways -- opening this memoir up with a joke, and offering insights that I would have never expected. For instance, his writing indicates not a trace of hostility towards the old elite, but rather pity and sympathy ;  his time spent among the wealthy and 'noble', in both America and in England, squelched any notion of viewing them as the enemy.  (If the reader wants to be cynical, he can conclude that Washington is dwelling most on those people like Carnegie who wanted to do some good with their wealth, and putting out of mind the less noble-minded.)   I didn't expect Washington to be as wary of reconstruction as he indicated; he voices suspicion that blacks placed into electoral office were being put there simply out of vengeance against the old aristocrats, and that this would create more racial strife.   On first reading, the Booker T. Washington of Up from Slavery reads rather like saint, a Gandhi-esque figure who endures all things because he hopes and works towards the redemption and progress of all humanity.  I suspect I should read more about Washington to get a better view of the man, but I'm highly partial to his worldview here,  his disdain for the multitude in the cities who "live by their wits" and who would have profited themselves more had they grown up on the land,   living with both body and mind.  His optimism was, alas, misplaced in some respects as the Klan -- which he dismisses as a dead thing which no one would tolerate 'now' -- was reborn with greater power in the 1920s.   His fear that looking to the government for every thing would create a new servility has unfortunately been realized...not just in blacks, but in all of us.   Even so, if illiterate slaves like Frederick Douglass and Booker T Washington could  in their respective youths realize a hunger to conduct themselves like men, sovereign actors in their own lives, there's hope for us all.