“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:
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:
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.”