Alabama – Montgomery: Exploring the Bonds of History

Eleven years ago we visited the Boone Art Museum in Clarksville, Georgia, and picked up a brochure that listed twelve institutions that were fellow consortium members of “Museums West.”  As avid museum collectors, our pursuit began.  Over the years since that visit we have traveled as far as Los Angeles, Fort Worth, Texas, and Jackson, Wyoming, to complete this mission; and now we were on the final leg of that journey with a trip to the Stark Museum of Art in Orange, Texas…but no trip is ever a simple straight line for us.  This journey began with a visit to Montgomery, Alabama.  

The city of Montgomery was chartered in 1817 and named after Revolutionary War hero General Richard Montgomery.  In 1846 the Alabama State government moved here from Tuscaloosa.  Fire destroyed the first Montgomery capitol building just two years after it was completed, and the current Alabama State Capitol was built on the hill-top site of the old building and completed in 1851. 

A mere ten years later, in 1861, it made world news when Jefferson Davis stood under its portico and made the announcement that Alabama had seceded from the Union.  A century later, in 1965, the Capitol was again in world news as the place where the Selma to Montgomery Civil Rights March ended.

Once inside the building, my eyes were immediately drawn to the twin cantilevered spiral staircases, which were designed by freed-slave Horace King. 

On the second floor of the building my gaze was again drawn up to the beautiful ninety-foot high domed rotunda.   A series of eight murals under the dome, done in the 1920, depict Alabama’s history as it was seen in that era.  The two shown here represent of the surrender of William Weatherford, a Creek leader after the Battle of Horseshoe Bend (1814).  The other painting is of the pioneers who poured into Alabama in search of new land to farm. 

The Alabama State Legislature no longer meets in the Capitol Building, so both the Senate Chamber and House Chamber have been restored to their original appearance.  The green felt-topped wooden desks, chairs and carpet in the Senate appear as they did in 1861 when the Confederate Convention met and drafted their constitution. The House Chamber is where the ordinance of secession was passed; this was the document that withdrew Alabama from the Union of the United States. 

Visitors’ Galleries on the third floor give one a moment to reflect on the contentious debates that must have taken place in these two chambers.  From here, visitors also have the chance to enjoy walking down one of the beautiful spiral staircases before leaving the building.

The building has had four significant additions over the years: two new East Wings, a North Wing and a South Wing.  This side view shows elements of this expansion as well as some of the fifty state flags lining the driveway. 

The Alabama State Capitol is sometimes called “A Confederate Independence Hall” because it served as the first Capitol of the Confederacy.  Jefferson Davis was sworn in as President of the Confederate States of America on the west portico on Feb. 18, 1861, and a bronze star marks the spot; however, after only three months, the capital of the Confederacy was moved to Richmond. 

The First White House of Confederacy was originally located nearby and it has now been moved across the street from the Capitol where it is open for viewing.  This former residence of President Jefferson Davis and his family is furnished in period style and holds many family heirlooms as well as other historic artifacts relating to Civil War history. 

Varina Davis was the only First Lady of the Confederacy and was an interesting person in her own right.  She had been raised in the South, but educated in Philadelphia and had friends and family on both sides of the conflict.  Mrs. Davis supported her husband in his efforts, but she was never a supporter of slavery.  After the war she worked tirelessly to secure her husband’s freedom from prison and through the challenges he faced in subsequent years.  Later in life, she even earned a living as an author.  Don and I read Charles Frazier’s fascinating novel Varina that tells the story not only of her life, but gives insight into the harrowing post Civil War days in the South and the difficulties faced during the recovery efforts.

A red banner on the Alabama State Archives and History Museum declared that we had arrived just in time for the state’s 200th birthday.   A highly detailed map in the center of the sidewalk in front of the building displays prominent features, industries and historical points of interest across the state.

This museum was the place where we learned about the many long struggles that are central to Alabama’s history…from the first settlers moving in to take Indian lands all the way up through the Civil Right Era.  The museum does an excellent job of moving visitors through the years, beginning with displays depicting archaeological finds and introducing the earliest residents.

By the 1700s, the Muskogee Tribe of the Creek Indians held much of the land that was to become Alabama.  Their lifestyle included farming, hunting and fishing, and they became quite prosperous and powerful as they developed trade with a vast range of other tribes.  A growing influx of European traders brought goods such as glass beads, pipes, hoes, axes, mirrors, cookware and common household items to exchange for the Muskogee hunters’ deerskins. 

Settlers followed and began flooding into the area in around 1814.  They came in such great numbers that Alabama was declared a territory in 1817.  The population grew so fast that it achieved statehood on December 14, 1819.   The new settlers’ thirst for land was unquenchable and the once powerful Muskogee were no match against the forces of the United States military.  Under the leadership of President Andrew Jackson, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, and between 1834 and 1837, the majority of the Creeks were moved west of the Mississippi to the Oklahoma “Indian Territory.”

The state’s rich land allowed farmers to expand their holdings into large plantations that required enormous amounts of labor. The cotton economy boomed as did the system of slavery.  Friction grew between North and South over slavery as well as other issues until the South finally decided to secede from the Union. 

The entire fabric of the southern states was destroyed by the end of the Civil War, and Alabama’s economy, based largely on cotton and agriculture, was left devastated.  The slave labor force was gone and many of the farmers were killed or badly injured in the fighting.  Vast fields lay fallow and people tried to scratch out patches of land to feed themselves, while renegade raiders pillaged the countryside. 

The state was broken and lay in ruins.  Montgomery itself was spared somewhat during the Civil War and the aftermath because Richmond had been the governing center of the Confederacy.  In Montgomery, Republicans, Democrats and Negros were engaged in a bitter struggle to find their places in the new government…but in spite of all the difficulty, Reconstruction brought renewed prosperity to the state between 1871 and 1929.  Northern and Southern money poured into the cities and Alabama became the industrial capital of the South.  Mines, mills, timber and turpentine led the way, and WWI brought jobs to further fuel the growth.  Many of the beautiful buildings in downtown Montgomery reflect this era of wealth and expansion. 

However, Alabama’s yo-yoing economy again came crashing down with the arrival of the Depression.  Roosevelt’s New Deal did not end the suffering, but it brought significant changes with new roads and bridges, electricity for rural areas, and the building of schools across the state.  It took the onset of WWII to once again put Alabama’s economy back on its feet. 

During these dramatic upheavals, the glimmer of social change began to emerge.  Increased contact between peoples of different races, colors and sexes came through shared experience in the military, government works programs, and the workplace.  This was the beginning of an awakening of social awareness and understanding. The seeds of the Civil Rights Movement had been planted.

The city was not destroyed during the war and in the post-Reconstruction years was able to realize strong growth.  Railroad lines arrived in the 1880s and the Union Station opened in 1898.  Built right next to the Alabama River, the station was beautifully positioned to offload products from farms and factories onto boats and barges for transport to Mobile and on to the rest of the world.  Now the beautiful structure serves as the city’s Visitor Center

Close to the station, an original Lightening Route streetcar is on display.  Even before the New Deal brought electric to homes in rural areas of Alabama, electric streetcars were providing transportation in Montgomery.  This was the first completely electric-powered transportation system in the nation and it ran from 1885 up until 1936.  

A more contemporary figure from Montgomery history is represented in the statue just across the street from the streetcar, and within view of Union Station.  This statue of the world-famous country singer and composer Hank William stands in between the lanes of traffic, guitar in hand.  The Hank Williams Museum, with his powder-blue Cadillac convertible, a collection of his “Nudie” suits and other memorabilia is nearby; and on his birthday fans mark his grave in Oakwood Cemetery, which is just a short drive from here.

Another good example of the contrast between historic Montgomery and the city today are the footsteps in the street in front of the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church.  These footprints point directly to the capitol building, the same path that was trod in March of 1965 by the hundreds of marchers who took to the streets to protest and demonstrate against racial injustice. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Church from 1954 to 1960, and it was from this church office that he directed the Montgomery Bus Boycott. 

Nearby, in front of the Civil Rights Memorial Center soothing water flows over a black marble memorial, which is engraved with the names of forty-one people who were killed in the struggle for civil rights between 1954 and 1968.   

A few blocks away, more water sparkles as it flows from the Court Square Fountain, built in 1885 atop an artesian well in the center of what was once the old slave trading area.  Standing on the corner just across the street from the fountain is the recently installed Rosa Parks Statue.  The bus stop where she waited each day is only a few feet away, and down the block is the reconstructed façade of the Montgomery Fair Department Store where she worked as a seamstress.  A short distance beyond the store is the Rosa Parks Museum.  

The downtown baseball park also reflects the city’s historic past.  The Montgomery Biscuits, the Double-A Southern League team that moved to Montgomery in 2003, uses a circa 1898 Western Railway building that was constructed on the site of a Confederate Military Prison where 700 Union prisoners were held in a dilapidated cotton depot for eight months before they were moved to Tuscaloosa. 

Although the city of Montgomery is imbued with a history of struggles, it continues to evolve with old buildings giving way to new uses, offices and lofts.  There is a vibrant arts scene and new restaurants have emerged to help fuel this urban growth.  Young people, who used to leave the city for better opportunities elsewhere, are beginning to return and their vitality is being felt. 

The Legacy Museum is one example of a different way to present the story of racism, which existed not just in the South but across the entire country.  During our visit the museum was closed to the public because visiting dignitaries were meeting there.  Ironically, the only photo I have was taken from behind the police lines, so it remains to be explored another day. 

The city is a touchstone for the Civil Rights Movement with markers, statues and buildings from different cultural eras standing in stark contrast with each other and showing the social changes that have been made over the last hundred and fifty years.  But Civil Rights is not the only reason to visit Montgomery…as we learned on this visit, there is a lot more Southern and Alabama culture and history to be discovered.    

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