Exploring black history in Montgomery Alabama

Tuesday, 17 Jan, 2023 0

By Graham McKenzie

Montgomery, Alabama is the state capital and there are many reasons to visit.

It has a bit of everything one could want on vacation including history, arts, activities and a rapidly emerging food scene.

For a start let’s take the arts scene. Within the city boundaries is the Museum of Fine Arts which has a simply wonderful collection of Modern American work combined with seasonal exhibitions of famous overseas artists. For me the most outstanding feature was the amount of work from local black artists and their take on the past, present and future.

A short drive from the MMFA (as its known locally) is Shakespeare’s Festival. In my ignorance I was expecting an open-air mixture of people dressed as Iago, Marc Anthony, King Lear, and Romeo and Juliet. Wrong! What I experienced was a truly magnificent theatre set up with a main auditorium and several smaller ones all in one building.

Despite the name it is not exclusively works from William S. I was privileged to hear and watch some of the preparation for their Christmas Special of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ which was to be broadcast via the world wide web. Sound effects are produced locally and live which proved very amusing when I discovered what was going to make the sound of George Bailey jumping into the water to save his Angel. A rather ancient toilet plunger!

Food and the first class serving of it is a growing section of the Montgomery scene. Cuisines from around the nation and indeed around the world are readily available. I personally enjoyed an Italian meal that Momma would have been proud of. Afterwards you can celebrate Montgomery most famous musical son in Hank Williams. At his museum, which has a comprehensive collection of clothes, cars and pictures, you can learn all about his life and indeed his untimely death just aged 29 on January 1, 1953. The man is so popular in Alabama that Septenber21 is ‘Hank Williams Day’.

If activity is your thing, then the area has many options for strolls, walks and treks. As well as larger parks and trail sites, the walk by the Alabama River is a delight where you can stop and while away many a happy hour just watching the world and river go by. Kayaking and fishing is also available.

The real reason however that you would want to visit Montgomery is the comprehensive study and coverage of African American history. It covers the transatlantic slave trade of the mid-19th century, , through the Civil Rights movement, right up to the modern-day struggles of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Many people will have heard of Rosa Parks who took a stand against bus segregation within the city. Her story is told in detail within a dedicated museum as is the story of the freedom riders who in the early 60’s took a similar stand on interstate buses that ended in bloody violence at the Montgomery Bus Station. You can visit the church and the house where Martin Luther King worked and lived. Go to the aerodrome at Tuskegee where a squadron of black pilots trained during the second world war and fought in Europe only to find they were not wanted when they returned.

Not too far away is the town of Selma where in 1965 a group of young African Americans decided to march the fifty-four miles to the capital to protest about the restrictions put in place for voter registration if you were black. I was privileged to interview one of the ‘foot soldiers’ from that day that will forever be known in American History as Bloody Sunday.

Perhaps the most sobering experience was my visit to the Equal Justice Initiative and its museum. ‘The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration is situated on a site in Montgomery where black people were forced to labour in bondage. Blocks from one of the most prominent slave auction spaces in America, the Legacy Museum is steps away from the rail station where tens of thousands of Black people were trafficked during the 19th century.

From the moment you enter you are aware of the struggles and injustice forced upon people because of the colour of their skin but it pushes beyond this to struggles all around the world. It is a place that I recommend anybody to visit. For knowledge seeking tourists who want a more complete understanding of African American history a visit to Montgomery is essential.

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