My friend Lily Miceli has a lovely podcast called “InBetween the Music.” Her recent broadcast for the Thanksgiving season is particularly gratifying. I hope you enjoy it. Be grateful for Simple Gifts. And Happy Thanksgiving.
Here’s my most recent book review for Alabama Writers’ Forum. Hank Lazer is an innovative, exciting, and experienced writer whose new book is a milestone for our current time.
My great-grandfather John Houston McCarn was born in 1865, the year that Lincoln was assassinated. He lived until 1959. That is significant for me because I vaguely remember seeing Grandpa McCarn when I was a pre-schooler. We went to his house in Cullman “town”; I got impatient that the old gentleman was hard of hearing and things had to be repeated all the time.
When I was older, I realized that Houston McCarn was born the year the Civil War ended; I was impressed that I had known a person with that particular direct connection to history.
Grandpa McCarn was a highly educated man and a school teacher. Based on the amount of land and real estate he managed to accrue in Cullman, Jefferson, and Walker counties in his long lifetime, he was a savvy investor as well. Six of his seven children were alive when he died and the property was split in many directions, so none, I suspect, got a lot.
I remember going to the Cullman county community of Bremen with my mother and grandmother to witness an auction of one of Houston McCarn’s rural schoolhouses, just a few hundred yards away from the “home place” where my grandmother Eula McCarn Harbison and her siblings grew up.
Mother remembers Grandpa McCarn’s large library. We have no clue what happened to his books when he died, but I shudder to think of the probability that they were discarded.
The discipline of clear penmanship was part of every school teacher’s domain in the days when Grandpa was teaching and I would look at samples of Grandpa McCarn’s elegant writing in letters and penmanship exercises in my grandmother’s chests of drawers when I was young.
After Grandmother Harbison died, I came to be in possession of two faded sheets of Grandpa’s writing. One sheet has his stylish rendering of the letter “E” with a few sample words starting with that letter. One of the words, coincidentally, is the name “Edward.” Even though the writing predates me by decades, the coincidence is neat.
The second sheet is the rendering of two images of birds. Grandpa McCarn used these images to teach the basic strokes of cursive writing. I have wondered how his students – farm boys and girls in rural Alabama in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – reacted to the rigorous discipline of Houston’s exercises in cursive penmanship.
I had the fading sheets of writing framed and they hang in my bedroom. I know they will seem worthless to anyone who runs across them when I am gone, but they are remarkably valuable to me. Houston would probably be stunned to know that his doodling from a century ago or more is hanging in a place of honor in the home of that 4-year-old boy.
Grandpa McCarn’s son-in-law, my grandfather Leonard Harbison, was a farmer’s son from a large family. He lacked a lengthy formal education, but he had mastered Grandpa McCarn’s deliberate and stylized birds and was still drawing them into his old age. I remember Granddaddy Harbison’s skilled rendering of the birds in the margins of books. He lived to age 93, almost as long as his scholarly father-in-law.
Over a decade after Grandpa McCarn died, those of us in Birmingham city schools had weekly classes in penmanship. I remember that in second grade, when we shifted from printing to cursive, it was referred to as “real writing.”
I have thought of it in those terms ever since.
At that time, Birmingham City Schools employed handwriting specialists – teachers who came to schools to ensure that the students’ cursive writing was up to par. In addition, we took weekly handwriting classes as part of our curriculum and were assigned a grade for penmanship in our report cards.
One time in fifth grade, my straight-A report card was marred by a “C” in penmanship from Mrs. Caskey. I think the shock of that “C” instilled in me a life-long commitment to be conscientious about my handwriting. Over the years, it has changed drastically; as I get older, it loses a bit of its confidence, but it’s still a source of pride.
It saddens me that cursive writing is no longer taught to elementary school students. A “good hand,” as it was called in the past, was once a mark of an educated person. Now, I list cursive writing as a “special skill” on my vita.
Nowadays, when I write notes to young people, I struggle with whether or not I should write in cursive. More often than not, I print the text and sign my name in cursive. I worry that I might insult the recipient either way: Am I insinuating they can’t read cursive? or Am I deliberately writing in a style they can’t read?
Literacy in general is a touchy area in dealing with youth, for whom “literacy” may take on a very different meaning than it did when I was their age. A young friend tactfully put me in my place recently. I was accustomed since her birth to sending picture books to her for Christmas and her birthday. The last time I gave her a picture book, she wrote a polite thank you note with a gentle reprimand, telling me, “I am reading chapter books now.”
I got her point, vowed to gift her no more picture books, and was delighted that she knew to send a handwritten thank you note.
“That’s not writing; it’s just typing” (or words to that effect) was Truman Capote’s catty dismissal of the Beat writers in general, and Jack Kerouac in particular, in the 1950s.
I wonder how he might respond to our age of tweets and posts, blogs and instant messaging, to the obsolescence of typewriters and handwriting in general. How might he and his contemporaries react to the fact that cursive writing has become a lost art?
There are so many things happening right now. I am excited and anxious about the election, but friends in the Midwest are seeing major snows earlier than anticipated and wildfires, beyond biblical proportions, are ravaging the West. To the South, and nearer to me, Zeta percolates in the Gulf.
And then there’s COVID. I don’t really have the “fatigue”; I have just run out of things to say. As I said, I am excited and anxious about the election.
A day or two ago, I made my annual reservation for my December getaway in Point Clear on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay.
I asked my usual contact, “How’s it going down there?”
“I’ll let you know when Zeta has passed,” she responded.
My regular room choice is closed post-Sally, awaiting carpet replacement, but I managed to snag an almost identical room still available for the Christmas season.
My checkbook howls, but my spirit soars. December in Point Clear has become an annual rite of renewal.’
In the long list of things to ponder, a last look at the season now coming to a close has captured my wandering attention,
The indoor plants were moved indoors a few weeks ago and the outdoor annuals were committed back to the earth. A peace lily, that had been given up for lost in the summer, decided to sprout a week ago and I am trying to coax it along. Most of what was left, though, was left to fend for itself. I thought I had washed my hands of it all except for the raking and maintenance of the debris.
Over the past week, all of that was turned asunder.
I returned home to find a single gardenia in full bloom. My potted gardenia is temperamental in the best of times and never blooms beyond early summer, so I still ponder what inspired its late-October solitary flourish. Even so, the silky sexiness of a gardenia is hard to beat.
My Granddaddy Harbison’s heirloom rose, which has to be at least a half-century old and is now spread over gardens across the South, had a final burst of blossoms that are both spectacular and later than ever.
A couple of months ago, only the forget-me-nots had flowered from several packets of seeds sent to my mother with a charity solicitation in the Spring. When I got home a few days ago, the marigolds from that same set of packets had decided to take their turn. Those few blooms epitomize the shades of Autumn without the aid of the more predictable chrysanthemums.
It is truly time to cut back the purple hearts that thrive next to the front door. This late-October, however, they are far too exuberant to thwart just yet, and I will encourage them to bloom as long as they like.
Please, whatever you do, VOTE on November 3. Every vote matters.
On a crisp early autumn morning, the sun through the trees filled me with a fresh wanderlust that is charmed and rare in this current year of pandemic. I needed to get out of the house for a few hours and the call of Sewanee was sweet.
Sewanee – The University of the South, is barely eighty minutes from my front door; the drive, through rural roads and towns, is one of carefree pleasure. On this most recent drive, I realized that I missed the siren call of cotton fields this year. In a normal year, I see many cotton fields in their fluffy glory on regular trips to the Shoals. When I first moved to north Alabama, there were still impressive cotton fields within the city limits. In my eighteen years in this place, those have almost all disappeared.
Upon crossing the Flint River, I rediscovered this year’s missing cotton-growing culture in communities, outside the city limits, with evocative names like Buckhorn and New Market.
Eventually, the two-lane enters Tennessee and, after going through Winchester and Cowan, the road begins to climb the Cumberland Plateau to the village of Sewanee. The place is not enchanted, but it certainly gives that impression. Brigadoon comes to mind.The University of the South is a haven for writers and one quickly feels the draw, exploring the campus, the surrounding virgin forests, and the quaint business district. Tennessee Williams left his estate to the University as a memorial to his grandfather, who attended the School of Theology in the late-19th Century. The University’s School of Letters has an active program in creative writing and annual writers’ conferences are renowned events. The literary magazine, The Sewanee Review, is the oldest continuously published quarterly in the country and has held a leadership role in literary art and criticism over its century-plus existence.
As tempting as those writer credentials are, I go there for the peacefulness of the place, to walk the grounds among the massive Gothic-style stone buildings of the original quad and their connecting cloisters. Even with classes in session, the campus is quiet and contemplative. Occasionally, a begowned student or faculty member is spotted rushing across campus – a member of the University’s “Order of the Gown,” still practicing the ancient tradition of the daily wearing of academic robes for class and campus activities.
After spending some time wandering around the peaceful campus, it is my habit to sit for a spell in the grandeur of All Saints’ Chapel. On this most recent visit, an organist was playing the Chapel’s magnificent organ and sunlight was streaming brilliantly through the stained glass. I took a seat beneath the rose window near the back and listened. It was just the organist and me in the massive space defined by vaulted ceilings and traditional ecclesiastical architecture inspired by the great cathedrals of Europe.
In one of the cloisters, there was a flyer, crudely hung with masking tape, announcing a student organization-sponsored “Flash Scream” for 8:13 p.m. on October 14.
“Wherever you are,” it said, “Whatever you’re doing / Just take a moment to scream.”
I noted the time and, even though I was eighty minutes away from the Domain that is Sewanee, I let out a therapeutic scream at 8:13 precisely on Wednesday, October 14. It seemed to help for a moment or two. If anyone else decides to host a “flash scream,” let me know. I’ll be happy to participate.
The remnants of tropical storm Beta moved through my part of the world recently, with steady rains most of the day. It intrigues me how often the weather seems to take its cues from the calendar and, on these first days after the official start of Autumn, the weather suddenly has the unmistakable signs of the new season.
The next morning, I awoke to the storm’s final mists. Looking out a back window, down the mountain into the forest beyond the fence, fog was creeping slowly through the trees from the direction of Shades Creek in the valley.
Two pairs of cardinals were perched on the fence – two females in their prim ashes of roses feathers and two males, pluming themselves in bold Vatican red. They soon scattered, moving back and forth from the forest to the yard to the fence and back again.
One pair of cardinals moved to the branches of the stately rose of Sharon which seems to have finished its flowering for the year. My eyes were drawn upward by the steady hum of a hummingbird in the top of the rose of Sharon, searching, I suppose, for a few more drops of nectar from the fading purple blooms before that tree bids farewell to 2020 (something we’re all eager to do, I suspect).
Later, a couple of hummingbirds began to jockey for position at the feeder by the kitchen window; mourning doves converged on birdseed at the back fence. Soon the mist was gone, the fog had lifted, birds and bird song filled the sunny yard and the woods beyond, and Mother’s curious dog Lulu kept watch over it all.
The flower garden is having its final hurrah, and butterflies flew among the red roses, yellow lantana, and purple heart. One multi-colored butterfly kept coming back and catching my eye. I realized that it had a damaged wing, but that could not detract from its graceful ballet among the blooms. Another butterfly, almost exactly the color of the lantana blooms, was almost missed – blending in perfectly with the flowers.
That morning I forgot, for a brief while, all of the bad things that are going on in the world, the scary fascist running for re-election, and my dread of cold weather and short days. At the beginning of Spring 2020, as the gravity of this pandemic was taking hold, I wrote an essay called “The Panic of Cardinals” about a pair of cardinals trying to escape from their entrapment on the top floor of the conference center in Louisville.
I saw Joan Baez don a grey Confederate soldier’s cap, probably picked up at some local tourist stand, to sing Robbie Robertson and The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” at a pop-up concert in Mobile. It was April 1976 and the event was one of the two Mobile performances of Bob Dylan’s legendary “Rolling Thunder Revue.”
I skipped a final exam to be there.
The song is poor fictional Virginia farmer Virgil Caine’s lament about his plight at the end of the Civil War. The song, written by a Canadian musician, was not perceived as “racist” at the time. But I doubt that Baez could comfortably perform the song in a cheap Confederate soldier’s cap in 2020; I would have a difficult time applauding it now – with all of the baggage it has come to contain. Even so, it is an undeniably great song and Baez gave an indisputably great performance.
At a time when we are trying to become an anti-racist society, we are challenged to become more conscious of race than at any time in my existence. I learned early on that it is rude to label people based on their race and ethnicity or gender or religion or sexual orientation. Now it is demanded.
White Southerners have often been accused of “living in the past.” I’m afraid we’ve reached a time when the entire nation is living in the past and we’re too paralyzed to move forward.
I taught at an HBCU (Historically Black College / University) for the last eighteen years of my career before retiring in May. On occasion, a student would find out I was from Birmingham (mostly – my family moved around a lot) and ask me what part of town. I would answer that we lived in “Green Acres” during my elementary school years and those familiar with the city would jaw-drop and say, “Journey, you’re from the hood!”
Green Acres was not called “the hood” in the ‘60s when I lived there, but times and places change. If I wanted to really blow my students’ minds, I would mention that my dad graduated from Ensley High School.
During those years, Green Acres was an all-white school. It was almost a decade after Brown v. Board and Birmingham city schools were still in the process of integrating. The city had operated its schools on the principle of neighborhood accessibility and, while there were communities of color close to Green Acres, the nearest were in the county – not the city – school system. More diverse parts of the city – especially closer to the city center – were more quickly integrated, but the regrettable “white flight” to the suburbs was gaining steam.
In the interesting time in which we are living, I find myself looking back on my early years in the still much-segregated South. I may have been in the city that Martin Luther King, Jr. declared the “most segregated city in America” in 1963, but, even then, I found the claim somewhat dubious; it was what one might expect from an Atlantan.
I was never oblivious to the struggles going on in my city and around the country. George Wallace was our governor and Bull Connor was wielding his power in Birmingham and forging sores the city has not yet been fully able to erase.
I was in elementary school when the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed by Klansmen. That was the same year that Wallace was grandstanding in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama to symbolically block the entrance to Black students. It was the time of the Selma marches; the third effort made it beyond the Edmund Pettus Bridge and captured the imagination of the world when it reached the Alabama Capitol steps.
I was not “raised” by a Black woman, as some of my friends claim they were, but Black people were ubiquitous wherever I went in the city. Neighborhoods were still considered segregated, but if you walked through the opening in the shrubbery in my Grandparents’ Harbison Fairfield Highlands back yard, you were in a Black community. My grandfather and I would take his dogs for walks through that neighborhood where he seemed to be on a mutual first-name basis with all of the people we met.
My Grandparents’ Journey house was in the shadow of U.S. Steel’s Ensley Works. Their neighborhood was considered segregated, but directly across the street from them were blocks of houses entirely occupied by Black people. The idea of segregation on that street was more of a ludicrous technicality than a reality. Also, my Grandfather Journey was less “neighborly” than Granddaddy Harbison.
Kiddieland was a small amusement park in one corner of the old state fairgrounds in Five Points West. I remember one Saturday at Kiddieland, I got to the coveted first row of the modest roller coaster. Mother and Dad were sitting the ride out so I had the seat to myself until the ride operator put an African American kid about my age in the seat next to me. I looked over and smiled and said “hey” before the ride took off. My seatmate remained silent until we were about to climb the first rise; then he looked over at me and said, “You soda cracker!” Ruined my ride.
On many days, when I was still pre-school age, Mother and Grandmother Harbison took me shopping. On one of those days, at Goldstein & Cohen, a department store in downtown Ensley, Mother was trying on dresses while I was waiting and hanging out in the women’s department. I got thirsty and took a drink from a water fountain. A sales clerk quickly moved in and scolded me; I had apparently drunk from the “wrong” fountain. My mother, hearing the kerfuffle, rushed out, still buttoning her dress, grabbed my arm, informed the sales clerk that she would decide when her child needed discipline, and took me out.
In those years, my father’s office was in downtown Birmingham, at 20 S. 20th Street. He worked for a national company that manufactured and sold printing equipment. As I quickly learned, everybody – on whichever extreme of the political spectrum – needed printing presses to get their messages out. Dad’s territory included churches and schools, department stores and groceries, political and activist organizations, newspapers, and government offices.
I remember one time driving in the car with Mother to Dad’s office. On a downtown street, we were met with a Civil Rights protest coming toward us from the next block. Mother muttered “March,” deftly maneuvered the car down the next block, and we arrived at 20 S. 20th Street without delay.
In the summer months, when school was out, Mother and I would occasionally accompany Dad around central Alabama as he made his calls. I especially remember one trip when Mother was not along – either because she was pregnant with my brother or because she was home with the baby.
Dad’s calls took us to his usual clients – small town printers, newspapers, and churches, schools, colleges, etc. In Sumter County, he called on a print shop housed on a farm. It was a Black-run operation and Dad probably told me its name, but all I remember now is that he referred to it as some sort of “separatist organization.”
Years later, I learned that the earliest incarnations of the Black Panther Party were in Alabama in 1965 with Stokely Carmichael’s leadership of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. I still try to connect the possible dots between that and my Dad’s clients in Sumter County.
The main reason that summer day with my dad stands out is for his final sales call of the day. After leaving Sumter County in late afternoon, we went through Tuscaloosa on the way back to Birmingham. There, in early evening, Dad made one last business call on a business called Imperial Press in a tight two-story building on the main street of downtown Tuscaloosa.
As we pulled into the parking place, Dad said, “It’s called Imperial Press; it’s a front for the Klan.”
Not only was it a front, but we entered the place to be greeted by Bobby Shelton, the “Grand Wizard” (what a silly organization; what pathetic, silly titles and costumes).
I couldn’t wait to get away, but I sat patiently in Shelton’s office while my dad conducted his business, just as he had done at every organization we visited during the course of that day. I looked at framed signed photographs inscribed to their “friend Bobby” by prominent politicians of the time.
Dad was a salesman and all of these diverse characters were his clients. As we drove back to Birmingham, I expressed my pre-teen repugnance and embarrassment at meeting the Klan. Dad asked me how I felt about the Sumter County “separatists” (I still wish I could remember the name of the group) and I told him they seemed “nicer.” “Did they seem ‘nicer’,” he asked rhetorically, “because they were a different race and you didn’t feel embarrassed by them?”
My dad was no Atticus Finch, but he was a good man who often gave me perspectives that I have clung to for life.
In 1973, I was a freshman at Alabama when I watched Gov. Wallace crown Terry Points as the first African American Homecoming Queen at the University. Soon after, Sylvester Jones, my classmate at Birmingham’s Shades Valley High, was elected the first African American Vice President of Alabama’s SGA. In my senior year, Cleophus Thomas, a friend from the University’s Program Council, was elected UA’s first African American SGA President. (I had run against Cleo, a sorority girl, and an umbrella-pilfering frat boy on the platform of abolishing SGA, a principle I still believe in.)
In 1988, shortly after midnight on a June night, the 25th anniversary of Wallace’s Stand in the Schoolhouse Door, my friend Clay and I climbed to the balcony of Foster Auditorium to commemorate the anniversary. It’s odd that none of these events seemed to have happened in as quick succession as they did. It all felt like distant history from June 1963.
Decades later, in a classroom at the HBCU, a student asks me once again where I’m “from.”
“Birmingham,” I answer for the umpteenth time.
Her eyes squint and her mouth wrinkles into a sneer. “You’re not really from Birmingham.”
I start to respond, but realize that she has decided the only way to legitimately be from Birmingham is to be Black and from Birmingham.
A student who knows me leans to her and says, “His dad graduated from Ensley. He’s really from Birmingham.”
I decide to let the whole exchange hang there. But it still bothers me: I’m not sure I truly belong anywhere.
Diane McWhorter, a writer from the privileged Birmingham suburb of Mountain Brook, wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Carry Me Home, in 2001. Her journalistic research and documentation about the Birmingham campaign of the Civil Rights movement are impressive. McWhorter makes the mistake, however, of putting herself and her lily-white upbringing into the narrative by weaving in a shaggy dog story about her father’s conjectural involvement in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing (almost certainly a fictional conjecture).
McWhorter leveraged her book into a career of sorts, commenting on race relations in the South whenever someone wants her point of view. She presents herself in Carry Me Home as an ingenuous Mountain Brook girl, somehow oblivious to what’s going on just a few miles over the mountain from her house.
McWhorter is only a few years older than me.
When I read her book, I kept thinking, if you were growing up there and then, How could you not know?
My mental and emotional soundtracks tend to run toward the very seasonally suggestive. While George Winston’s December album never works for me beyond its titular month, Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns lags after Labor Day.
September rolls around and it’s hard to ignore the imminence of Autumn. The last days of August were grey and partly gloomy as the eastern-most remnants of Hurricane Laura passed through northern Alabama; other storms followed in her wake. Fall college football season will be so depleted as to create anxiety and despair rather than jubilation; it’s hard to work up the usual enthusiasm for a Kentucky Derby on Labor Day weekend without crowds. Even so, I want Bob Baffert-trained horses to win.
Back in the early summer, four packets of flower seeds arrived in my mother’s mail with a charitable solicitation. They sat around for a bit and, one day, when I had the luxury of working in my yard, I popped them in four separate pots without great expectations.
Ultimately, most of the seeds have sprouted and grown with varying levels of success, but the only ones to bloom so far are the vivid blue forget-me-nots. The garden table and surrounding yard where they sit is laden now with leaves from the cherry tree in the neighbor’s yard. That tree is always the first to shed its leaves, but also among the first to herald spring a few months later.
Short days and cooler weather often have a negative effect on my mood, but a suggestive impact on my inner soundtrack. I will swear that yesterday, on the first morning of September, I woke up with Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September” running constantly through my head.
As I got more awake, “Try to Remember,” from the Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt chamber musical The Fantasticks, began to dominate with its recurring motif of words that rhyme with September and other infectious internal rhyme and wordplay.
More fully awake, the tune that haunts me is Green Day’s “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” a song that, like all universal literature, morphs depending on the moment. Written in response to a parent’s death from cancer, it has dealt with the tragedy of 9/11 and war and the loss of life and dignity after Katrina.
My most visceral musical response to this particular September of 2020, however, is Rosanne Cash’s haunting duet with her father, Johnny, in her song “September When It Comes,” a plaintive song of memory, pain, and reconciliation. She sings:
Well first there’s summer, then I’ll let you in.
September when it comes.
These past six months have done a number on all of us. The pervasive pandemic and its still-indecisive outcomes and after-effects have worked on all of our nervous systems, regardless of our political affiliations. The fact that it has become political adds to the undeniable and needless tension and stress.
I have chosen to minimize my intake of “news” for a while. I need to step back and more judiciously protect the information I consume. I need to halter the despair.
The writer, Verlyn Klinkenborg, whose contemplative essays often provide balm in times of stress, remarked on the over-saturation of media coverage in the aftermath of 9/11 almost nineteen years ago. He calls 9/11/2001 “that sudden Tuesday.” Could it ever be summarized more perfectly?
Reacting to the saturation of media coverage of that event, and to the fact that we Americans were re-playing the tragedy over and over on our screens, Klinkenborg wrote:
It’s hard to know, just yet, whether for each of us this witnessing has caused an erosion or a sedimentation, a stripping away of the skin or a callusing. But paradoxical as it may sound, to continue to bear witness, in conscience, it may be necessary to stop watching for a while, to turn off the television, to break what for some people has become a self-reinforcing circle of despair.
In those stoic days after 9/11, I was working at Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery. Our theatre complex was located in a pastoral park, across the lake from the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts. A couple of days after “that sudden Tuesday,” I escaped to the Museum for a quiet lunch away from the news reports that permeated every space I encountered.
A group of older ladies was seated at a table near me. As I eavesdropped on their chatter, I discovered that they were from all over the country — stuck for a while at a hotel in Montgomery, waiting for the airports to open and for travel to resume. Periodically, during the conversations, I heard references to the tragedy that had left them all stranded for a moment in time. Mostly, however, I heard the resolute and determined voices of American women who were forced together in the most unlikely of circumstances and were making connections and “making do” until they were able to move on with their lives. They were awaiting the break in the clouds that engulfed us.
Might that “circle of despair” be somehow broken in this current moment?
Traveling up I-65 from Birmingham with a friend a few years ago, we passed a billboard for the Jesse Owens Park and Museum (www.jesseowensmemorialpark.com) in Oakville, an unincorporated community in Lawrence County, Alabama. My friend, who is from Ohio and was a college track athlete there, said, “What is a Jesse Owens museum doing in Alabama?”
“He was born here.” My friend didn’t know that; I guess a lot of people don’t.
James Cleveland Owens (1913-1980), who later became famous as “Jesse,” was born into a sharecropper family in Oakville. His reputation began to be made when the family relocated to Cleveland, Ohio, and Jesse became a high school track star before becoming a star college athlete at Ohio State. At a Big Ten meet in Michigan in 1935, Owens broke three world records and tied a fourth in a seventy-minute span.
The primary Owens legend was born from his participation in the 1936 Berlin “Nazi” Olympics where he put the lie to Hitler’s assertion of Aryan superiority by winning four gold medals and establishing an Olympic long-jump record that stood for over a quarter century. Ironically, the best visual documentation of Owens’s Olympic triumphs is seen in Olympia, German documentarian Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda film about the 1936 Olympics.
The Oakville park is a bucolic place, with views of farms in the near distance, athletic fields, and places for picnics and reflection. The museum has an impressive timeline, film, and interactive displays with artifacts and details of the life of Owens.
A sand jump pit borders one of the walkways so that aspiring athletes might compare their skills to Owens’s 26 ft. 5 ¼ in. Olympic record.
Of most interest to me is the recreation of the Oakville sharecropper’s house where Owens was born and grew up prior to the family’s move to Cleveland. A narration of the house is available, spoken by Owens’s brother, Sylvester.
Jesse Owens was the youngest of ten children – all of whom shared a pallet in a small room next to the main room. The main room also held the bed where the parents slept. The back of the house is a long room with a sparsely-furnished kitchen on one side and a wooden table and chairs on the other.
An Owens statue, by Birmingham-based sculptor Branko Medenica (www.brankoart.com), stands between the house and the museum. It shows Owens symbolically breaking through the Olympic rings. The statue was unveiled on the day in June 1996 when the Olympic torch, carried by Owens’s grandson, passed through tiny Oakville on its way to the Atlanta Olympics.
Ridgelawn Drive, in the small north Alabama town of Athens, is a pleasant and shady residential street of well-kept lawns and attractive houses. The fact that two of those houses were designed by a premier architect of the mid-20th Century is a surprise that adds to the charm of the place.
On a recent free afternoon, I decided to drive the 30-something miles to Ridgelawn to finally see the Wallace House, designed by American architect Paul Rudolph (www.paulrudolph.org) in the early 1960s. I am always on the prowl for distinctive architecture and have known of that Athens house for decades, but had never taken the time to track it down.
Paul Rudolph (1918-1997), who studied at Harvard under Walter Gropius of the Bauhaus, was born in Kentucky. His father was a Methodist preacher. Paul, as a “preacher’s kid,” was accustomed to frequent moves. He and his family lived in Athens in his high school years and he spoke years later of the Southern architectural influence on his aesthetic:
… my first memories of architecture were the Greek Revival buildings of the area and the sharecroppers’ cottages, both of which intrigued me no end. Both seemed to have a complete validity – in other words, vernacular and so-called high architecture.
There are several Rudolph buildings in Alabama, including houses and buildings in Auburn, and the Chapel at Tuskegee, which Rudolph designed in collaboration with Tuskegee University students.
I am curious about a spectacular unbuilt 1965 design for the “Callahan Residence” in Birmingham. I am aware of another modernist house, designed by Moshe Safdie, on Red Mountain that was owned by a Callahan family and suspect the Rudolph design might have been a contender for that site.
Rudolph earned his bachelor’s degree in architecture at what is now Auburn University, entered the master’s program at Harvard Graduate School of Design, served a stint as a soldier in World War II, and finally completed his master’s from Harvard in 1947.
After six years as Chair of Architecture at Yale, Rudolph returned to private practice in 1964, around the time the Wallace house was completed. One of Rudolph’s most noted and enduring designs from those years is the Yale Art and Architecture Building.
Rudolph is most identified with the “brutalist” movement in modern architecture. His buildings were often super-functional without extraneous adornment. They often incorporate structures of basic concrete with some glass. The style can be foreboding and oppressive to the eye. As a lay architecture enthusiast, I appreciate what the brutalist movement was doing, but I don’t always find it appealing.
Back at Ridgelawn Drive in Athens, I came to a big curve in the road and there it was. On first view, the house was such a stark white, and there was so much blank white space in what I supposed was the front of the house, that I wasn’t sure what to think. It seemed almost like a construction site, but the windows just under the flat roof looked like the house was lived in. I don’t trespass on private property so I made do with views from the street.
A grand oval driveway goes up to the building on that side and a curved set of steps indicates an entrance that is not quite visible.
As one continues around the road’s curve, the mature trees are such that the house itself is often obscured. Reaching a mailbox on the side of the road, another angle comes into view. This is, technically, the “rear” of the house, but the power of the design starts to make sense as the house and its spacious courtyard and porch open themselves to a shady wooded lawn.
The house features an open courtyard and 32 massive brick columns, painted a vivid white, supporting a barely visible roof at the façade. When I visited, the façade was in shade, but a distinctive glow emanated from the open courtyard. The house, from the street, seemed to shine from within.
If you know the location of this house it is clear that it really comes from the Greek Revival architecture of the South, but it certainly doesn’t have any Greek Revival symbols, although its image is similar because it tries to solve some of the same problems.
The stark white and glass basics of the house’s exterior are occasionally broken up by flower pots and concrete lions, colorful chairs in the courtyard, and color fields visible near the entrances. On the day of my visit, two lawn deer were situated at a distance in the back yard; one was standing steady and the other had fallen.
The Wallace family occupied the house until Frances Garth Wallace, who had been a childhood friend of Rudolph, passed away in 2015.
I thought I had sufficiently done my homework on the Wallace House. As I drove back down Ridgelawn and out of the neighborhood, I noted that the other houses on the street were so conventionally removed from the style of the Wallace House.
I noted that there was one other house down the street that looked like it had clearly been impacted by the Rudolph design. When I got home and began to do a little more research about the Wallace House, I discovered that the house that had caught my interest was the Martin House, another Paul Rudolph design on Ridgelawn. In fact, the Martin House actually predated the Wallace House by several years.