In 1902 Helen Keller wrote in her autobiography “The Story of My Life”: “… during the first nineteen months of my life I had caught glimpses of broad, green fields, a luminous sky, trees and flowers which the darkness that followed could not wholly block out.” Born in Tuscumbia, the blindness and deafness that soon ensued did not dint her spirit or mark her searing intelligence. She became a symbol of triumph over literal darkness, and in some ways a metaphor for the survival of Alabamians throughout their complex history. As it was my first trip to Alabama, visiting her home, Ivy Green, was a must. I wanted to touch the water pump where her teacher, Anne Sullivan, guided her in making the cavernous leap from feeling the object to knowing the word that describes it. Her famous first word, “wa wa,” for water, allowed the floodgates of her brilliance to burst forth.
Her home and its adjacent cottage are now a museum, lovingly maintained. The broad green fields and grand old oak trees, still there, are a testament not only to her memory but also the combined respect in Alabama for its own unique history and its preservation that I encountered during my weeklong trip.
On a lighter note, not far from Ivy Green is Claunch Cafe where my companions and I ate at a modest family-run restaurant tucked away in Spring Park. Alabama history was literally dished out in platefuls of cornbread, fried green tomatoes, grits, homemade meat loaf, fried catfish, barbecue ribs, fried chicken, collard greens(thank God) and an array of pies that curdled my cholesterol; banana pudding, lemon box pie, peanut butter pie, chess pie and a chocolate fudge pie. Forks were flying like lightning strikes from one plate to another lest we miss out on trying each other’s sinful dessert. This was all washed down with another Southern specialty – a cold brewed sweet tea – as if we needed more sugar.
As we drove on the road to Birmingham along the swathes of cotton fields, we listed names of famous Alabamians. Among them – Jesse Owens, Willie Mays, Diana Ross, W.C. Handy, Rosa Parks, Truman Capote (who lived there as a youth), and Harper Lee, a lifelong friend of Capote. In her one and only published book, “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1960), Lee created Atticus Finch, a father, a lawyer and a fighter for justice. The timing of her book was significant considering the racial turmoil in the Deep South. Birmingham soon after became the center of the civil rights movement, first under the guiding hand of Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, and then the oratory of Martin Luther King Jr. and his call for nonviolent demonstrations.
I met a young black boy in the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. We were both standing in front of a video encased in an antique wooden jukebox featuring a 1954 performance by Bo Diddley. The youngster was joyfully swinging his arms and dancing in perfect sync to the music. Later I saw him again, standing quietly in front of the replica of the bus that had carried Rosa Parks. She was arrested in 1955 for her refusal to give up her seat to a white man. That child won over my heart, and I had him in mind when on Sunday morning I attended a 16th Street Baptist Church service and witnessed an utterly rousing display of song and prayer lead by the charismatic pastor, the Rev. Arthur Price, Jr. A choir of children sang their little hearts out with a chorus of “amens” from the enchanted parishioners. In that church on a September morning in 1963, four young black schoolgirls were killed by a bomb planted by the Ku Klux Klan. As a matter of fact, one of the most haunting displays in the Civil Rights Institute is a Klansman white cloak with its pointed hat and sinister aspect.
On the top of a tower on Red Mountain overlooking Birmingham stands Vulcan. He is the largest cast iron sculpture in the world – 56 feet high – and his muscular bare butt has attracted many a viewer. Patterned after the mythical Roman god of the forge, he is the emblem of the city’s powerful position in the iron and steel industry in the first part of the 20th century. The adjacent museum with its soaring light-filled entrance tells that history, in creative exhibits, of the darkness in which the miners labored to unearth the elements that would be forged into items as varied as sewing machines, potbellied stoves, hydrants and manhole covers. The lives and sacrifices of those miners are well remembered here, as they are in the 1000-plus acre park embedded in the Red Mountain. Above old mine shafts and railway tracks, ziplines have created a forest of fun where kids and adults alike squeal with excitement as they buzz along the lines stretching between wooden platforms perched high in the trees. Below, dogs frolic freely in three spacious dog parks, one of which was built exclusively for deaf and blind canines.
Despite the emphasis on history, Birmingham is becoming a vibrant city of the future. Pockets of urban renewal are evident from the former red light district to the Red Mountain area. National award-winning restaurants and their surrounding upscale shops are gracing the landscape. The elegant Highlands Bar and Grill is a perfect example. Its owner, Frank Stitt, is considered one of the top chefs in the U.S. In the tony area of Mountain Brook, Chez Lulu invites you to sample a fresh take on French cuisine, and the thin-crusted pizzas at Post Office Pies in the south side of the city deserved our bravos.
To make amends for my obvious gluttony, I took advantage of the outdoor pool and superlative spa at the Renaissance Birmingham Ross Bridge Golf Resort and Spa. Sweating it out in the steam room and treated to a Ginger Renewal massage by the expert hands of Marcie McMath, I pretended for a day that I was svelte again. If I were so inclined, I could have had a round of golf as well, or for that matter endless rounds of golf that the 384-mile Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail and its various resorts provide, from the Grand Hotel on Mobile Bay to Marriott Shoals Hotel and Spa near the Tennessee border.
Another kind of trail blazing was to be found at the legendary FAME and Muscle Shoals Sound recording studios in Muscle Shoals, along the Tennessee River. Started by the innovative music producer Rick Hall, the studios showcased the talents of performers such as Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin, Cher, The Rolling Stones. Hall crossed the color barrier by bringing together white and black talent at a time when segregation was the norm. The FAME studio has that Carnegie Hall quality where you can practically feel the ghosts of the greats that performed there. Just touching the keys of the little Wurlitzer piano induced a thrill.
The Trail of Tears ends my journey. In a wooded area just outside the charming city of Florence, the ruggedly handsome 86-year-old Tom Hendrix regales us with the story of his life’s creation. Since 1988, Hendrix has been creating a low, thick labyrinth of a wall slowly built from 8.5 million pounds of individual rocks that he found, transported and layered, to honor his Native American great-great-grandmother. She was the only known person banished from her home, during enforced relocation of Native Americans, to have ever returned to her beloved land near the “singing waters” of the Tennessee River. It took her five years to walk that daunting distance. To wander along this wall and pause to touch these stones under the brilliant blue Alabama sky with the autumn leaves falling silently, was to feel akin to a place that, until this trip, had been unknown to me.
The Alabama I experienced was a revelation.
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