Saturday, December 12, 2009

A Sense of History (Montgomery, AL)

Tim, me & James on Saturday night in Wetumpka, AL

In the beginning of August I got an email from someone I had never met - Rev. Woody Eddins - offering me help when I eventually got to Alabama. That was still far off in the distance. Woody is my aunt Nancy's pastor in Simsbury, CT but he grew up in Monroeville, AL. He promised that he would try and make some contacts for me when the time got closer and possibly find me a couple of hosts. At the time, he was the only Alabama connection I had.

Woody was a man of his word. More than four months and 1,300 miles later I walked up to Dexter Ave. Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL and met a former high school friend of Woody's, James Turberville. James and his partner Tim were going to host me for the weekend just north of Montgomery in Wetumpka. But first things first. James handed me a gift the moment I arrived. It was an Alabama Crimson Tide hat. Time to blend in with the locals. Sorry Phillies hat, but you have been retired. I bleed crimson red now ... at least until I cross the Mississippi border.

I had suggested we meet at Dexter Ave. Baptist because it has a special place in my consciousness. When I read Taylor Branch's three part account of the modern civil rights movement the first chapter of the first book concentrated on this very church. In it he painted a colorful picture of Rev. Vernon Johns, the pastor who preceded Martin Luther King Jr. in this pulpit in the late 40s and early 50s. What drew me to the account of Vernon Johns was his outspokenness and his willingness to speak hard truths to an audience afraid of disturbing the status quo. Every village, town or city needs a few of those people. On top of that, Vernon Johns was a wanderer like me. Both before and after his time at Dexter Ave. Baptist he was a traveling preacher, often only taking so much as a paper bag with those things he needed in it to hit the circuit for weeks on end.

I don't know anything about Montgomery, so I am in no position to be a voice from the wilderness, crying forth uncomfortable truths that people in this city need to hear. James, however, has lived here for the better part of 30 years and probably could dig up a constructive criticism or two in memory of Vernon Johns. Any such insights, however, could wait for a nice meal and a glass of wine. For now, I happily settled for a drive around town and a crash course in some Montgomery history.

First stop, the civil rights memorial. Across the street from the imposing Southern Poverty & Law Center there is a beautiful but understated memorial to the 40 people killed during the modern civil rights movement, 13 of whom died on Alabama soil. As an amateur historian of this time period I had read about the stories of most of these 40 martyrs before. The children are always the most painful to consider. Emmit Till and his grossly disfigured face. The four little girls killed at the church bombing in Birmingham in 1963. Virgil Ware, 13, shot on his bicycle the same day as that bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church.

Others caught my attention as well, either because I hadn't known their stories or because of their relevance to my walk. I had read before of William Moore, a postal worker from Baltimore, who was killed in Alabama in 1963 on a one man walk against segregation. I hadn't heard of Willie Edwards Jr, a truck driver from this very city who was killed in 1957 when a group of men forced him at gunpoint to jump off a bridge into the Alabama river because they thought he was dating a white woman. Three days before I had seen a picture of Rev. Jonathon Daniels in St. Dunstan's Episcopal Church in Auburn. In 1991 he was sainted in the Episcopal Church for his actions on the day he was shot and killed in Haynesville, AL in 1965 trying to protect some others who had just been released from jail with him.

After visiting that memorial we stopped by a memorial of a different type - the first Confederate White House. I'll have to admit I didn't even know this existed. I thought the capitol of the short lived Confederate States of America was always in Richmond. Turns out that its first capitol was Montgomery and that it was from here that Jefferson Davis sent the orders to fire on Fort Sumter, thus kicking off the Civil War. The house is now a stately relic to a bygone era. On this afternoon a really nice Czech woman was working there and was enthusiastic about answering all my questions. Standing in the foyer she told me that my comment upon seeing a large oil painting of Jefferson Davis wasn't at all uncommon. "A lot of people say that he looks like Abraham Lincoln," she confirmed. And he really did. He was a better looking Abraham Lincoln.

We walked around the rooms and James fawned over some of the pieces of antique furniture. I, most decidedly, did not. The only thing I coveted was an appropriate piece of seasonal decoration on the front door. It was a Christmas wreath ... made entirely of cotton.

James and Tim live on the north side of a long ridge, the other side of which looks south onto Montgomery. They own a five bedroom, four bath house decorated beautifully with lots of folk art along with trimmings of the Christmas season. Two pets share the space with them - Sister, an arthritic dachshund up in years who circles her food blindly before eventually bumping into it and Elvis, a male cat they found outside and eventually relented on making a house cat. Elvis was a sneaky little thing, intent on pilfering my deer jerky. We played cat and mouse, er, human all weekend.

James and Tim did their absolute best to fatten me up for the winter months and I did my best to let them. On Friday night James treated us to dinner at Casa Napoli, a great Italian restaurant in Wetumpka owned by a couple from New Jersey. It was nice to hear those accents again. Then, on Saturday night, Tim cooked an absolute fantastic dinner for me, James and their friend Frank who is a realtor in the area. It was my first introduction to Boston Butt and I must say, I'm a fan. It was so tender and almost just dissolves in your mouth. Why did I not know about this sooner?

In retrospect, Saturday was the perfect day to choose as a rest day. It rained all day, much like it did during my rest day in Auburn. I have Mother Nature on speed dial. Saved from the cold, wet elements I caught up on my writing, contacted some possible hosts and enjoyed meeting James and Tim's friends.

When I parted from them near the Montgomery airport on Sunday morning, I was ready to face the rest of Southern Alabama with a renewed focus and a little bit more of a paunch around my stomach. Perched on top of my head was my Alabama hat, a symbol that I come in peace. The night before Mark Ingram had become the first Alabama player ever to win the Heisman trophy. Coincidence? I think not. You can thank me later Alabama. And you might want to invite me back January 7th.

As for James and Tim all I can say, as usual, is thank you. I hope you enjoyed the weekend half as much as I did.