Alabama Book Tour: Part I Birmingham, First Two Days
It is one month and some days since Cousin PJ MacAlpine and I got back from the Alabama Book Tour. I am just now catching up. It was busy, demanding, intense, and the magic continued. If PJ hadn’t been with me, literally and metaphorically, I would probably have collapsed in a red clay mud puddle from the off and on rains and not been able to get up again. Our first two nights were with Mary Robinson Somerville, one of my Ramsay High School classmates. Her gracious invitation to host us was especially fitting since our first event was “A Conversation” between me and the later Ramsay graduate, Dr. Richard Walker, who was responsible for Ramsay’s desegregation in 1963. Dr. Walker, an ENT specialist, was reticent but firm about his experiences. It was a privilege to meet him and learn his story. The video of the event should be available soon. Ramsay is now a magnet school and is 99% African American.
~The yellow arrow points to Ramsay~
It was surreal for Mary and me to enter the school for the first time in 64 years. Astonishingly, it looked basically the same except more worn and now with linoleum tiles on some of the floors. A student told me that upstairs the floors were still wood. The auditorium looked exactly as I remembered it in 1959 when the principal called the entire student body together to announce that he would never allow the school to be integrated. It was so unusual to be called to a sudden school-wide meeting that I was terrified that another World War had broken out. At the time, I didn’t realize that a new Southern war had started and soon the sound of even more bombs exploding and news of attempted and real killings of Black folk, even children, would be echoing down the valley.
This one event could take pages to write about. Images that stay with me: chatting with enthusiastic students on the stage before the event started, chatting with people in the audience, laughing with a man I later learned was mayor of the little town Harpersville, the feeling of being on a stage with two other people having a public conversation, thinking about what Dr. Walker told us about his home needing round-the-clock guards during that year (only revealed after a direct question), looking at Mary and PJ in the audience, meeting Nell Gottlieb of Klein Arts for real and not just on Zoom, signing books and getting teary when a man, so firm about the spelling of the name he wanted me to inscribe, I asked him about it and he said the book would be part of a collection for his ten month old daughter because he wanted her to know the truth. And, finally, when the owner of Thank You Books who was sitting beside me helping with the book sales leans over to me and tells me quietly that one of her good friends lives with her husband and children in the house where I grew up and that it is a happy house now. Wow. The Metropolitan statistical area has a population of about 1,115,300 and her good friend lives in the house I grew up in and wrote about in the book mostly because it was an unhappy place for me. Now I learn it is a healthy, happy house on a happy street. Thank you, Thank You Books.
Rain poured down the next day, Friday, our only day without an event scheduled. We headed southwest to territory mostly unfamiliar to me looking for the forty-acre Shadow Lawn Memorial Gardens, a historically Black cemetery in use from the early 1900s until a couple of decades ago. PJ knew about it and looked forward to visiting there during her 2021 visit to Birmingham. She was going to Birmingham, the city where her father had been born, to be interviewed for a documentary, “Origins,” part of a series of racial justice films. (See links below. She and I are both in this film but that is another story, one for Part II about the Alabama Book Tour.)
My cousin had already told me about her 2021 Shadowlawn visit and the feelings it evoked in her. Sadness and despair in knowing that over 33,000 graves, possibly as many as 50,000, were now abandoned. Some were her kin, as well as mine I later learned, some were people born into slavery, some 13,000 were veterans including about 100 who had served in the Civil War, all were people who helped build Birmingham and who were loved by their families and for their humanity. She told me how when she was there the whole place was a turbulent growth of weeds, brambles, vines, wild flowers, and little trees to the extent that only the tops of the gravestones were sometimes visible. Her joy was in the sad beauty of the wildness, the butterflies and bees, the very spirit of the place emanating from all the souls laid to rest there.
To my dismay and shame, I had never heard of Shadowlawn. If I had, it was long forgotten. My dear friend Sidney, about whom I write in Unloose My Heart, is buried at Elmwood. I was very familiar with this white counterpart only two blocks to the north. Until 1970 Elmwood Cemetery did not accept interments of African American people. Their 1954 policy stated, “Cemetery lots shall be owned only by human beings of the white and/or Caucasian race and the said lots shall be used only for burial of human bodies of the white and/or Caucasian race…” Growing up, had I ever thought about segregated cemeteries? Another example of white blindness. I can be sure that every African American in Birmingham was aware that cemeteries were segregated.
So, there we were peering through raindrops and relying on Google maps to get us to Shadowlawn. We found the main entrance at last. PJ gasped. It had been transformed. The overgrowth and briars were gone. The gravestones were all visible, the contours of the land swelled and sank like an undulating ocean. The mist swirled around us creating a haunting landscape of bittersweet beauty. We drove on every road circling through the forty acres and read the names and dates on many tombstones. Later, in researching this burial ground, I learned that from 1946 until 1997 twelve McAlpin/McAlpine/MacAlpines had been interred here. Some were cousins of PJ’s and myself. Two of the girls killed by the Klan in the 1963 church bombing, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair, had initially been buried here, but later moved. I also learned that in the year 2000 during a bankruptcy hearing, the judge ordered no more burials could occur. I think about the sticky and honeyed sorrow of Black families separated again by rules and laws and not enough money, this time in death.
It wasn’t far from there to visit the William L. McAlpine Park (formerly William L. McAlpine Colored Park) in Ensley. It was named in honor of PJ’s great-uncle, the leader of an organization that sponsored beautification projects in African American neighborhoods. The director was thrilled to have a relative of the park’s namesake visiting. We had a fine tour. I was learning how important the MacAlpine name was in Birmingham’s early days.
There were four more events before PJ and I left Birmingham. One was a surprise. I have a feeling that the telling of these events, like the ones above, is going to continue to take longer than I envisioned.
https://alabamahumanities.org/event/reckoning-at-ramsay/ Moderated by Chuck Holmes, executive director of the Alabama Humanities Alliance. I was honored that the event was co-hosted by the Alabama Humanities Alliance, the Beth El Civil Rights Experience, and Klein Arts & Culture. Copies of Unloose My Heart were available for sale by Thank You Books.
About the project: The Long Struggle Against Racism in Alabama. The Bending the Arc Project features the stories of both African Americans and a small group of little-known white allies who fought for racial justice during the Civil Rights Movement.
Shadowlawn, February 24, 2023