Mapping Alabama

“The Black Belt, a strip of rolling prairie land with a black sticky, calcareous clay soil, is the State’s best cotton-growing section. It crosses Alabama south of the pine country and comprises n area of 4,300 square miles. An early writer described the Black Belt as ‘wide spreading plains of a level, or gently waving land, without timber, clothed in grass, herbage, and flowers, insulated by narrow skirts of rich interval woodland; and exhibiting in the month of May, the most enchanting scenery imaginable.'”

Workers of the Writers’ Program of the Work Projects Administration in the State of Alabama. 1941. Alabama: A Guide to the Deep South. p. 10.

As lovely as those flowery words are, the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of Alabama isn’t “gently waving land” or “the most enchanting scenery imaginable.” For me, just the name of the state recalls the moment I first heard the phrase “sold down the river.” Using the 1941 guidebook and StoryMap to explore the state gave me an entirely new understanding of the phrase. Here I have embedded selections from the first tour which particularly struck me.

The tour begins, for me, with mixed feelings. As I searched for any significance in Pulaski, TN, I came across references to a famous baseball player. I’m not much of a baseball fan myself, but Dave Anthony, host of my favorite podcast The Dollop, is, and I’ve listened to a number of episodes regarding the difficulties involved in desegregating baseball.

The mood improves slightly as we move into Alabama. Pattie Malone, although born a slave, became a successful member of the incredibly important Jubilee Singers, still widely known today.

A low point is reached with Hilary A. Herbert, the Secretary of the Navy under Grover Cleveland. A staunch Confederate who later became a United States Congressman, one of his crowning achievements was helping prevent a late 1800s bill which would have required federal oversight at polling places.

I reflected on these individuals as I navigated to the Green Book project in order to map a similar route that would be safe for African Americans. At first I thought I must have accidentally input the incorrect view:

Navigating the Green Book.

Only two safe stops–and getting food necessitates traveling outside the state. This was the route created from the 1947 edition of the book. The 1956 edition is hardly more comforting:

Navigating the Green Book.

An earlier stop for food, at least, but still one which requires a detour out of state. Navigating the Green Book provides a stark contrast for the image painted by the Alabama guidebook, and makes me wonder who exactly was able to admire “the most enchanting scenery imaginable.”


“Hilary A. Herbert (1893–1897) | Miller Center.” 2016. October 4, 2016. https://millercenter.org/president/cleveland/essays/herbert-1893-secretary-of-the-navy.

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