Imagine a National Park. Picturing waterfalls and mountains? Or Dr. King's childhood home, Japanese internment camps, and a school that became a battleground for racial integration? National Parks aren’t just wilderness. They are spaces of remembrance, preserving the stories of who we are and how we came to be. Join Park Rangers, researchers, authors, and activists as we discuss what liberty and justice for all means on our public lands. Opinions shared by guests are not the official position of the NPS.
Episode 1: Roy Wood, Jr. interviews Charles Person (Freedom Rider)
Welcome to our first episode featuring Charles Person and Roy Wood, Jr. Charles Person was a Freedom Rider. Freedom Riders rode buses across the south to test Supreme Court rulings declaring segregation unconstitutional in restrooms, bus depots, and waiting areas. Roy Wood, Jr. is a comedian, best known for his work on the Daily Show. Raised in Birmingham, he has written that Alabama represents to him “painful history, new hope, and home.” Audio footage courtesy of Freedom Riders Park, Inc.
Welcome to We Will Rise: National Parks and Civil Rights.
Close your eyes and imagine a National Park. Are you picturing waterfalls and mountains? Or do you think of Dr. King's childhood home, Japanese internment camps, and a school that became a battleground for racial integration?
National parks aren't just wilderness. They are spaces of remembrance, founded to preserve the stories of who we are and how we came to be. National Parks inspire us to do better, be better. To climb mountains both physical and figurative. Join Park Rangers, researchers, authors and activists as we discuss what liberty and justice for all means on our public land.
[Music volume increases. Song: Turn Me Round, by the Psalters]
Welcome to our first episode. My name is Kat, and I'm a Park Ranger at Freedom Riders National Monument and Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument. Today, we are honored to welcome Charles Person and Roy Wood, Jr.
Charles Person was a Freedom Rider. Freedom Riders rode buses across the South to test Supreme Court rulings declaring segregation unconstitutional in restrooms, bus depots, and waiting areas. Brutal violence in Alabama showed that when it came to integration, the nation was failing. Freedom Riders sat down on these buses in order to stand up for the truest of our nation's ideals. Mr. Person has just published a memoir of his experiences and a call to action for change: Buses are a Comin'.
Roy Wood, Jr. is a comedian best known for his work on The Daily Show. Raised in Birmingham, he has written that Alabama represents to him painful history, new hope and home. I'll let the two of them take it from here.
Roy Wood, Jr.: Well, let me start just on the behalf of all of Black America, brother Person, and just tell you, thank you. Just a simple thank you. And that's before we even get to the medals that are on your chest as a Marine Corps veteran, just thank you for what you all chose to do in that ride down South. I have a million questions. I hope some of these you haven't been asked before, but the book, the memoir, pardon me. It's straight up poetry. And the thing that I really enjoyed about your memoir is that you didn't just go into what happened and often when I, when we look at a lot of the media that's created around the civil rights - but I'm talking TV and film primarily. You only have enough time for the what. This is what happened. This is who did it. This is what changed. These are the policies. Whereas with your memoir, you were able to really get into the why people chose to do what they did. My first question to you, just out the gate. You're 18 when you decide to become a Freedom Rider, how did you convince your Mama to say yes? ‘Hey, Mama, I'm going on a racism tour down South. But don't be worried.’
Charles Person: Well, I didn't quite tell her the whole truth. I just explained to her that I was going to be seen for advanced training in nonviolence. Now she knew that I was active in the Atlanta movement, that I had been in jail, and like most parents, she figured there was not much more that could happen to me. And no one realized that when laid in store for the Freedom Riders, but Dad more or less convinced her that I would be okay. The men in the family supported me, and that's what made it possible. But convincing Mom, you know, everywhere they're going to worry. I had never left the South before. I'd never left the state of Georgia before. So all this was new, and at 18, it was quite an adventure.
Roy Wood, Jr.: Now the Freedom Riders were comprised of young and old, men and women, more importantly, White and Black. How much interaction had you had with White allies up into that point before you got to DC and met the people that you would be on the bus with?
Charles Person: In the Atlanta movement, unfortunately, we had very few Whites participate. [unintelligible] There was one White fellow that was in my freshman English class. But other than that, our Association, we were really lone wolves operating alone in Atlanta. So it was really encouraging when I got there, the meet of the Whites that were involved, it was really surprising. And they really welcomed you on board. In fact, the Bergman's, Dr. Bergman and his wife, so they were more or less like my parents. They said "We're going to take care of you." And believe it or not, they tried.
Roy Wood, Jr.: Let's stay right there for a second with Dr. Bergman. He was one of the people I believe, if correct me from wrong, but in the memoir, you talked about how Dr. Bergman said, and this is going back to the why, people were choosing to take a stand. Dr. Bergman saw the mistreatment of African Americans while he served, and it was one of the things that kind of stuck with him and just that one little annoying thing that just never left his mind. And he decided to act on it. And he saw the Freedom Rides as an opportunity to actively be a part of something that would push the nation forward. What advice do you have, if any, for White people today, who...they have that same inkling in the back of their mind, like Dr. Bergman, but they haven't quite taken that step or want to try and find that program. Well, I guess what advice would you have for them in deciding to make that step forward?
Charles Person: I think the biggest problem most Whites have today is they are a product of our educational system. And the biggest problem with that is that we were...Slavery and the Trail of Tears, the Manifest Destiny, the Mexican Wars, they were all taught as little modules. They were all separate, whereas if you connect them together, then all of a sudden you see a picture of how we became that country from sea to shining sea. And once that happens, then they have a new outlook on what our aspirations are and how bad we were treated. In other words, sometimes you say, "Oh, yeah, well slavery was this and that, and sometimes the movies glamorized those aspects of slavery or how we were content and happy little pickaninnies. And that was not the case. So they need to realize how life was for Blacks, not only in slavery, but during the era of Jim Crow. Once they have a better understanding, then we can have that conversation, and then they can understand that I'm not whining, and I'm not begging, I don't want anything more than is given any other American. I want to belong, just like you want to belong. I mean, we ask for nothing special. We just want to be treated as normal human beings.
Roy Wood, Jr.: A part of the memoir that struck me as very riveting was not only the age differential in everyone that was involved in the Freedom Ride, the original Freedom Riders from DC, I'm talking about, but also where they all were emotionally in their relationship with the civil rights movement, at that particular biomarker in their life, and how you at 18, you recognized that, you clocked that immediately. And in the memoir you described, okay, I've decided to be a Freedom Rider, which meant you had to go to Washington, DC, for a training period so that you can be taught. Let's just say more in depth nonviolent training and how to, how to maintain your stillness around, let's just say high tense situations with a lot of stimuli going on, to say the least. So in that time, you and all these other strangers, you simulate conflicts, and they were created to test your resolve to remain nonviolent. And in the memoir, you talked about meeting that the 20 year old John Lewis, and in the book you described them as this.
“I smiled. John seethed. John was always serious, always straight faced, always solemn. For me, the importance of the work was primary, but I also felt a sense of adventure. There was no adventure in this for John. For John, this was as serious as life gets.”
At what point in the Freedom Ride did it stop becoming an adventure for you as well and turn into an actual, full focus, primary mission objective?
Charles Person: I think once we got started and we started meeting people in various towns and how they opened up to us, for example, every night, we had to be put up. We had to stay someplace. And we stayed with people and many them, they didn't have very much, but they gave us the best that they had. And after seeing this, you gotta realize I was coming from Atlanta and seeing these people and how they were reaching out to us, who were strangers, and they gave us, like I said, the best they had, that for me, made this journey, it took on more significance. I wanted in some way after the Rides, be able to go reach out to these people and thank them because the journey for me would not have been possible. Plus, also, they gave my parents, I guess, sanity because they knew that I was being taken care of, even though they didn't know these people. It was quite an evolution, you know, from the beginning, the training and all that and how things mounted as we went further and further South.
Roy Wood, Jr.: The thing that I found interesting in the training chapter, and I'm sorry to just stay on that part of the memoir for right now, but for me, this is the first time I've ever seen that layer of the civil rights movement peeled back. They talk about non violence, non violence, and we practice nonviolence. Well, if you practice something that means you have to be trained in it, which means that you all sat and you all figured out ways to yell slurs at each other and sometimes from people who weren't necessarily believable when they said it to you because you knew what their heart was. You knew who they really were and what their soul was. For them to try to recreate a situation of racism for you to react to was a little funny. I would imagine, in the moment, at least a little bit off kilter. Tell me about some of the moments on the trips where you all smiled.
Charles Person: Well, I think the most important thing for us was the evenings. During the day, while we're on the bus, even though, say, I may be sitting with a Rider, we didn't converse very much. We wanted to be focused, and we wanted to make the appearance that we were just passengers. You just happen to have sit in the same seat. But in the evenings we always had dinner together and we discussed what went right that day and what went wrong. And that was also a time when we were given our allowance. And that was important because one of the most embarrassing thing that could have ever happened to us, had we gone into a restaurant, ordered food and they served us and we didn't have the money to pay. So it is imperative that we have funds. Also, I was taught there, and it's been with me all my life, is I always tip generously. That's one of the things, because if you get served, be generous in your tipping. And that's been a habit I've had all my life. You know, when I go places, I always tip liberally because it's important. Black people have a reputation throughout the world as being poor tippers, you know, the slightest thing is wrong with the service and we retaliate to the server and maybe it's not even the server's fault.
Roy Wood, Jr.: There's warm water in my ice water. I'm not tipping you. [Laughter]
Charles Person: You've been there?
Roy Wood, Jr.: Oh, Yeah. I used to be a server. I worked at Golden Corral for two years. I have some first hand experience. So in sticking with the memoir, Buses are a Comin', You not only paint a beautiful picture of the circumstances that led to everyone who made this choice. And, of course, you cover everything that happens in Anniston and the horrors in Birmingham. And I do want to talk about Birmingham a little later, but I just found this memoir so compelling because of the why. And you actively during the time that you all were training, you found your [unintelligible. And this is something I can kind of relate to because, well, not in the circumstances. You get what I'm trying to say. When you're in the presence of people that you're intimidated by or curious of, you're trying to find these moments within the conversations to slip in the quick thing that you were curious about. And you talked about how you went around as best you could over the course of that training period in DC to find out what drove these people to be a part of this. You know why you were there. But I want to know why she's there, he's there, she's there. And you spoke with Reverend Cox, and Reverend Cox said this. He said, quote, ‘So many others made sacrifices so I am not a slave. It's my turn to sacrifice on behalf of someone else. We can sacrifice now, Charles, for those we will never know, who will never know of our sacrifice and will never care we did this. We can sacrifice.’ Do you feel the story of the Freedom Riders and what happened there? Do you, do you know the worth? Like, how aware, because in the moment it's not, you can always go: 'This is going to be a monumental thing that we will be talking about for decades.' But did you know at the time how monumental this was going to be, as the bus is pulling out of Washington, DC? Did you all know?
Charles Person: I don't think that we were aware of the impact. We weren't deluding ourselves to think this is going to be some great revolution or things are going to change. All we hoped for is that we could make a difference. If we can highlight to the country that how things really were, how bad they actually were. And I think that has been the [story?] of the Freedom Rides. Even now. There's so many people that have heard the term, and they have a vague idea of what the Freedom Ride was about. But because of the events that happened afterwards and the deaths and things that happen afterwards, overshadows the Freedom Rides, because it was so early. This was really the first big campaign after the Montgomery Bus Boycott. And also after the death of Emmett Till. All those things had a very strong impact on all of us who were involved. But we weren't going to say that we're going to change the world. We didn't have...we weren't savvy enough to think that what we were doing was going to change the world, but it did.
Roy Wood, Jr.: There's often conversations about, where protests are concerned, about outside agitators. So I was in Birmingham during the George Floyd moment that we had as a country, and there were a lot of protests. There were a lot of demonstrations. And then there was also this group, this contingency of outside agitators that were coming in and starting a lot of ruckus and hijacking the narrative. And that's what the media chose to run with, more often than not. You spoke of something very interesting in the memoir about how, you know, you all have come through Anniston and the bus has been fire-bombed, and many of you have been beaten within an inch of your life. And you get to Birmingham, and you simply need a doctor. And there were Black doctors who were declining, and understandably so, because of the pressure that they were under, they still had to live here when you all leave. Y'all coming in town and you all in the eyes of some Black people at that time, the Freedom Riders were seen as outside agitators. In the moment, because you go through all the training and all the preparation, how did that feel when you all are in need of medical assistance, and the only people who can give it to you are Black people. But the Black people who give it to you are risking literally their entire fiscal existence to help you. In some cases, may be risking their own lives. Were you all understanding of that rejection? Did it anger you? What was that feeling to you yourself being seen as outside agitators when you knew what you were doing was to try to help the greater good.
Charles Person: At first, it was very disappointing and you didn't know how to react. But as it was explained to me why the doctors had taken their position, but I think it seemed wherever there was a door was closed, another one opened, because what we later found out, the only medical help I received was a nurse in Reverend Shuttlesworth's congregation, and she did a remarkable job, considering that was all the medical help I received. I mean, it was sufficient. However, what happened later, that particular wound drained to the base of my skull, and I developed a knot, which got the be out the size of my fist. But the treatment that she gave, it was the only thing. But it got me through for many, many months. I'm always indebted to her, and that's I guess one of the disappointments for me is a lot of those wonderful people who assisted us in all kinds of ways, is being able to go out and reach out to them, and just say thank you because they made a big difference, you know, that that human touch, especially at the time that we were, we were battered and we were bewildered. And to have folks, strangers, come to us and say they understood, and they supported us. And I think that's why the Riders grew from 13 to over 436 Riders because of the empathy not only towards us, but to all the
replacement Riders as well.
Roy Wood, Jr.: What was...I believe it was Anniston, if I'm not mistaken, I can't remember if this part of memoir happened in Anniston or in Birmingham, but you talked about how - I'm pretty sure this was Anniston - where everyone had gotten off, they had firebombed the bus, everyone is getting off of the bus and people are being beaten and the ambulance arrives and the ambulance says it will only take the White Freedom Riders to the hospital. Did that create any type of division within your group when you all saw the way that your White colleagues were being treated, or was that just dismissed because you knew they were standing tall with you?
Charles Person: Well, I think it's the community are the people that were there, how devoted the Freedom Riders were to each other, because when they refused to take the Black Riders, the White Freedom Riders said, 'If you're not going to take them, then we're not going either.' So which would have created a greater crisis, that they not gotten anyone to the hospital, but that defiance of the White Freedom Riders, what brought all of us closer together, but also, you know, it kept them as a group together, you know, because after they left the site of the burning bus, that crowd followed them to the hospital and they threatened to burn the hospital down. These guys had already proven that they would burn up stuff. So if they would burn up a bus, surely setting fire to a hospital is no big deal to them.
Roy Wood, Jr.: I say sometimes, and I say it being playful on stage because, you know, with comedy, you kind of have to be a little silly. But I do think that there is, you know, as a 42 year old Black man and being raised more in the history of civil rights versus the actual moment of civil rights, there's a different separation. And when I look at the present day racism and tragedies that are put at the feet of Black people, there is a trauma to that. There is something terrible to watching the news. There is something that is depressing to having to always take that in and never see justice for our slain brothers and sisters. Like even with the trial that was happening in Minneapolis with Officer Chauvin, well, former Officer Chauvin, I couldn't watch it, and I just, I followed it some, but I could not watch people recounting step by step, and moment by moment. It was too much. But I have the luxury of turning off the TV and at least trying to find some sort of escape. You were born and you were raised in the South, went to college in the South as a Morehouse man. You can't escape a region. I can turn off the TV. You can't escape Atlanta. You can't escape just riding through Birmingham. And they have the Freedom Riders Monument, which just opened this year in Anniston. How do you feel when you go back to these places? Are you ever able to just exist in the present in the South?
Charles Person: That's a good one. When we went through Anniston for the 40th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, I didn't get off the bus. I didn't want to talk to anybody. I had very negative feelings about the place. 10 years later, the 50th, I came by. The town had changed tremendously. There was a lot of empathy by ruling officials of the government, the Mayor and all those people that, you know, they were reaching out to us and were trying to make amends. And the Anniston today is a whole lot different from Anniston back in 1961. I find it a very warm community. I could live there. That's how much it has changed. And the same way with Birmingham when we came back to Birmingham,
of the people. See what has made the difference is the Black community realizes the importance of what happened then and they're reaching out and saying, 'Hey, we're sorry.' And this is the new us, and that's...the new us is what we can embrace. And that's why those portions of the South don't have the stigma that they once had. And I think what happens, what makes it better is people like you who are born there, and, you know, you're the younger generation. You're in between that old past and that new future. And I guess that's what gives us all hope is the fact that we realize that things and people do change and we can make a difference as to how we relate to one another. And I think, this for me, has been the biggest change because I don't feel any anger towards any of those places. In fact, I dispensed with anger a long time ago. I have no reason to hate. I've given up all those, mainly because we won, you know. If we were still on the effects of Jim Crow, I may have a different attitude. But because there are changes, I can be benevolent and say, 'Hey, I can embrace the change.' And I do.
Roy Wood, Jr.: Let's talk about the medals on your chest there. You're 18 and you survive something ridiculously traumatic in the Freedom Ride. Three months later, you're at Paris Island training to be a United States Marine. For what that country had shown you it could be three months prior, why make the choice to go and defend it in Vietnam?
Charles Person: Well, in two fold reasons. One is that my mother knew that I would stay in the Movement. She knew that there's no way I was going to not be involved some way. So she encouraged me. She says, 'Why don't you join the Army?' And because I hadn't been totally truthful with her from the beginning, and after what had happened, I figured I owed it to her. So I did some, I pursued a different route. At the time, the Army was trying to recruit Blacks for the Academy at West Point. Because in those days, the only way you could get in to West Point was have a congressional appointment. Well, you know, they weren't appointing too many Blacks to West Point out in the South. [Laughter] So I wasn't gonna get that. But the thing is, I had all the tests and all that stuff and, of course, academics, that was never a problem. And the physical, it was no problem. But that particular afternoon, the day before I was supposed to do my final to enlist, there was an article on the Marine Corps. And I said, 'Hey, Let's try this.' I went out to the Marine Corps recruiter and he was happy. I did extremely well on the test. But then he found he couldn't enlist me. Because what had happened, when we were arrested in Atlanta, they put our case on what they call the dead docket, which meant I couldn't leave the city at all.
Roy Wood, Jr.: Blacklisted.
Charles Person: So what happened is the recruiter went down there, and I guess he told them, 'So we can get this one out of your hair.' So they allow the recruiter to enlist me. And that's how I enlisted in the Marine Corps. But, you know, I come from a community, we had a lot of veterans in my neighborhood, in Buttermilk Bottom. We had World War I veteran who was disabled. We had Korean War. And, of course, my dad and his cousin were World War II veterans. So in our community, the military didn't have a stigma. In other words, they would say to us, 'Stay in school, get a good education, or join the Army, they'll make a man out of you.' So that's the kind of environment I grew up in, of course my dad was a very proud soldier, in spite of all the crap he had to put up with when he was in the army. I mean, he endured some stuff that... nothing like I experienced then in the Marine Corp. But, you know, I had heard the stories so I was prepared for all the stuff that could possibly have happened.
Roy Wood, Jr.: What's the biggest difference between the two war zones, Vietnam and the civil rights movement?
Charles Person: Well, in Vietnam, I had a gun. [Laughter]
Roy Wood, Jr.: Touché.
Charles Person: You know, I was a peaceful warrior. My role, I think I was destined to do there because I was one of those people who, I was not afraid. I was not afraid during the Freedom Rides. And when I got the Marine Corps and we got in Vietnam, I was cool as a cucumber because I had experienced stuff like, you say, as a nonviolent person, I endured that. And here I was in a situation where I had colleagues, they all had guns and all that other stuff. But I also, you know, I'm serving my country, and when we get to Vietnam, it showed how ill-prepared America was for that war. For example, we're landing in a country where the native language is either Vietnamese or French. In our command, we had no one could speak either language. So what do they do? They rounded up a bunch of us kids who spoke French, enough high school and college French, and we became the interpreters for the US Marine Corps in Vietnam.
Roy Wood, Jr.: If you all just aren't there on that day, we just not communicating with nobody.
Charles Person: Yeah. You know, it's like, 'duh.' They didn't know the good guys from the bad guys. But like I say, you know, the Freedom Rides prepared me for a lot of things in life, but also they prepared me for Vietnam. And I think I survived Vietnam because of what I learned on the Freedom Rides.
Roy Wood, Jr.: Two more questions, and I'll get you out of here. I know we don't have a lot of time. I feel like there is a disconnect between your generation and the generation that's coming behind me. A little bit of my generation, too, in terms of the tactics that should be employed for getting rights, the tactics that should be employed in terms of social justice and equality. I've always been of the belief that civil rights in Jim Crow....I believe that there was much more of a concrete...racism was more concrete and obvious. 'Hey, stop hitting me in the head. Let me go in that school and get an education, please.' Whereas I feel like racism now, it's a lot of policy, there's a lot of...it's not as solid. It's not as clear, it hides. It's a vapor now. And you have to have different tactics for that. And what do you think the young generation and your generation could learn from one another so that there is more of a cohesiveness
to the ideologies of how to fight oppression?
Charles Person: One of the things that I think the young people need to do, if you're going to be a leader, you have to realize that there are dangers inherent in being a leader. And I think a lot of the Black Lives Matter leaders are intimidated by the people who threaten them. So in many cases, you don't know who is in charge of a Black Lives Matter group in your particular city, and I encourage them: Define who you are. Let people know who you are, let them know what the cause is and why you are fighting. The reason: this way you develop allies. A lot of times people will say, 'Well, I don't know why they're marching. Why are they doing this?' You need to explain. Let people know, and so they can realize that, 'Hey, this is for their benefits, for all of our benefit,' And we need to develop allies. You can't operate in a vacuum. And we all live in a community and everyone can contribute. But if you don't let people know, they're not going to participate. I love the enthusiasm of the young people. I enjoy the numbers that they're able to turn out. And they also have to realize that you are in control and you are responsible for what happens. We always had monitors. Also, we had a dress code. And that's important because if you saw somebody throwing a molotov cocktail with a shirt and tie on, do you know, 'Well, hey that's one of our people?' But in most cases, these people have no dress code and you can't isolate them. But I think that they've gotten a bad rep this past summer. Most of violence was not of they're doing and not of the people that sponsored them, but the narrative changed and a lot of people now think that Black Lives Matter is a terrorist group because they haven't gone out and corrected the record. And I think that's one of the things they need to even now, they need to go out and say, 'Hey, this is who we are, and this is how we operate.'
Roy Wood, Jr.: You spoke about in a previous interview that I saw, you spoke about the relationship with the media that you all were able to forge during your era, which helped with the narrative of what you all were out to accomplish, when you're at these to protest. How much does media play a role in this misrepresentation of Black Lives Matter's intentions? Separate and apart from what you're saying in regards to them needing to have a more cohesive, a more organized cohesive structure, because sometimes I feel like, well, if the story has been covered differently, then maybe that would have helped as well. I'll get you out of here on this question. So, I try to take my Mama to see Selma, Oscar-winning film, and she declined at the time. She eventually watched it with me at the house. Once it came out on HBO or whatever. But my mother said something to me that I didn't understand until I saw the Derek Chauvin trial. She said, 'I don't need to see a movie about it. I lived it.' Do you watch any of the civil rights films that come out from time to time? Do you partake in any of the films that speak to things from your era?
Charles Person: It took me a while to get to that point. At first, I could not watch it, but I have kids, so you got to be able to sit there and talk with them. And once I came out, let them know that I was involved, because for...I was married to my wife, Joetta, for 10 years before she even knew I was a Freedom Rider. It's just not something that comes up. But after a trip to Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, we saw there ... a reporter was there -
Roy Wood, Jr.: There's a piece of the bus there, in an exhibit.
Charles Person: And so we were able to after that, we started talking about it within the family. And then I started getting invitations to talk to groups and stuff. But it was very painful. I mean, even now, though, I probably break up a lot of times. I have flashbacks, and today there's none of us are very few of us receive any psychological training. I mean, after the events. So we never, in other words - It happened, and we went on with our lives. And for me, even now, sometimes I'm in interviews and If I'm not prepared for a question, I'll shut down. My system will shut down. I'll break down in tears. So a lot of it, like, you feel now. I had an interview doing Black history month for a school, and we had four hours continuous with this group. And at the end of the day, I was... I just couldn't respond because I'm telling them the story, but I'm reliving each moment, and it just really got to me, and I said, 'I'll never do that again knowingly,' because I know that the system just can only take so much. And the kids had such good questions, and they would take me back. And I could see myself in Birmingham. And I could see these guys, and I could see - It's not so much what they said or what they called [out], it's how their faces were contorted with hate. And you wonder, 'How can someone who has never seen me, hate me so much, or my people?' You mind is trying to rationalize what's happening and there's no rationalization to an illogical situation.
Roy Wood, Jr.: Well, the memoir is Buses are A Comin', and I'm going to end one more time on Revered Cox's quote: 'So many others made sacrifices so I'm not a slave. It's my turn to sacrifice on behalf of someone else. We can sacrifice now, Charles, for those we will never know, who will never know of our sacrifice, and will never care we did this. Tell you right now, we care. This nation cares. Black America cares. Charles Person, thank you so much for the honor of just sitting and talking with you about this memoir. It's so meaningful. And I hope to get down to Anniston. I had to get me about - I'm going to take all the vaccines. So once I get all three vaccines in my system, I'm going to be out the door, and I'm going to be down to Anniston and I'm going to visit the Freedom Riders National Monument.
Charles Person: Well, thanks for caring.
Roy Wood, Jr.: Yes, Sir. Thank you so much, brother.
Ranger: Thank you for listening to We Will Rise: National Parks and Civil Rights. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to our series. Thank you to the Psalters for use of their song, Turn me 'Round. Until next time.
Episode 2: Rev. Shuttlesworth and the Freedom Rides
In this conversation, we focus on Reverend Shuttlesworth's role in the Freedom Rides. Interviewees include Dr. Martha Bouyer, Executive Director at The Historic Bethel Baptist Church; Reverend Thomas Wilder Jr., the current pastor at The Historic Bethel Baptist Church, and one of Reverend Shuttlesworth's children, Mrs. Ruby Bester.
Welcome to We Will Rise: National Parks and Civil Rights. Close your eyes and imagine a National Park. Are you picturing waterfalls and mountains, or do you think of Dr. King's childhood home, Japanese internment camps, and a school that became a battleground for racial integration? National Parks aren't just wilderness. They are spaces of remembrance founded to preserve the stories of who we are and how we came to be. National Parks inspire us to do better, be better. To climb mountains both physical and figurative. Join park rangers, researchers, authors and activists as we discuss what liberty and justice for all means on our public lands.
Ranger Kat: Thank you all so much for being here. I just so appreciate it. It's really amazing to be able to have this conversation. I've had the pleasure of meeting some of you, but just for the benefit of everybody, My name is Ranger Kat and I'm a park ranger at Freedom Riders National Monument, and I am so incredibly honored today to welcome Dr. Martha Bouyer, Reverend Thomas Wilder, and also Mrs. Ruby Bester. It really is just a pleasure to have you all here. So I'll first introduce Dr. Martha Bouyer. Dr. Bouyer serves as the Executive Director of the Historic Bethel Baptist Church Foundation. She also is involved in many other educational initiatives to strengthen civil rights education in the classroom. Welcome, Dr. Bouyer. Thank you for being here.
Dr. Bouyer: Thank you.
Ranger Kat: And also joining us today is the person who now stands behind the same pulpit where Reverend Shuttlesworth once stood. Reverend Thomas Wilder has been at the helm of The Historic Bethel Baptist Church since 1988, and has helped the Church continue to develop as a space for worship and education. Welcome, Reverend.
Reverend Wilder: Thank you. Thank you so much.
Ranger Kat: And we are especially honored and excited to have Mrs. Ruby Shuttlesworth Bester to join us today. She is the second oldest daughter of Reverend Shuttlesworth himself. Ruby Shuttlesworth Bester is a retired educator, a motivational speaker, author and singer, I've heard. Welcome, Mrs. Bester.
Mrs. Bester: Thank you.
Ranger Kat: So let's start maybe each one of you can explain what your connection to Reverend Shuttlesworth was and is and also your connection to The Historic Bethel Baptist Church. Let's start with Mrs. Bester.
Mrs. Bester: Well, I'm daughter number two, Pat was number one. She came two years earlier, Fred came a year after me, and then five years later, came our baby sister Doctor Carolyn Shuttlesworth. We came to Bethel in 1953 as a pastor. We were there because Reverend….right here. I can't think of his name, right. Madley had suggested that Daddy go to Bethel and we went there and it was a warm fellowship. It was very nice. I was with Bethel from the time I was eight years old until I was 16. I started elementary school and graduated from Parker High School. But we left in 1961 because Pat had been at Spelman for a year and it was really hard to keep her there because we just were poor. And my mother, when Reverend Booth suggested that we come to Cincinnati because Revelations was available, my daddy didn't want to leave, but my mother insisted because Pat was in College, I would go the next year and Fred will come to next year. So we came to Cincinnati for economic reasons, even while she was in the south at Spelman, Pat babysat Dr. King's children. But that's why we came here. Bethel is number one in my heart because they allowed Daddy to change how we thought, using the Lord and dedicated people who believe that if you work together, follow your leader and do it non-violently, we could be successful. It was a terrible time, but they joined together their unity and strength with their faith in the Lord. Okay, that's my introduction.
Ranger Kat: Thank you. Beautiful. Reverend Wilder, what do you like to go next?
Reverend Wilder: Sure. My name is Thomas Wilder. I am the current pastor of Bethel Baptist Church. I've been there as you said since 1988. My connection to Reverend Shuttlesworth is that I served as his last pastor before he passed away. When he came back to Birmingham, he joined Bethel as a member, which I admired tremendously because a person of his stature, of course, everybody looks to him as the pastor. And there was still a lot of members who were there when he was there. But I admire the fact that he never tried to usurp my author or go around me or overshadow me or whatever. He helped me in every way he could. Of course, I was not stupid enough to try to think that I could take his place. So I always tried to honor him and officially named him Pastor Emeritus of Bethel because I think as long as Bethel stands, Reverend Shuttlesworth will always be known as the pastor because he was the one that sort of propelled it into the spotlight. So that's my connection to Reverend Shuttlesworth. I was his last pastor.
Ranger Kat: Alright, Dr. Bouyer.
Dr. Bouyer: Well, my connection really is twofold. I met Reverend Shuttlesworth long before I ever went to Bethel, I'm ashamed to say, but Reverend Shuttlesworth was a speaker for me. I do a lot of teacher workshops and training. I started this project about 20 years ago and the project is Stony the Road we Trod: Alabama’s Role in the Modern Civil Rights Movement. And when I started the project, I reached out to him and asked him about coming to speak to the teachers that I was working with. And he agreed to come. And he said he would always do anything for teachers because he understood their importance in terms of getting the story straight, teaching history and telling the story. So I met him. And as a result of trying to develop the Stony project, we went over to Bethel and I met Reverend Wilder because whenever I would bring teachers over, he would take his lunch break or leave work to come over to meet us. And then in 2014, the Foundation was looking for an Executive Director to run the Bethel project, and I applied for the job, and he hired me.
Ranger Kat: Thank you. Well, I wanted to ask all of you something about the South and kind of setting the stage for people. So there's racism, and then there's racism in the South, and then there's racism in Alabama in the 1960s. And racism in Alabama is like a whole different thing. Can you explain to listeners what set Alabama apart, even from other States in the 1960s?
Mrs. Bester: Oh even before the 60s, in the 50s they were mean. As children, my parents had to buy our books, and they were used books from the white schools, written in, but they had to buy them. We couldn't go to the theaters. And if we did, we had to sit in the balcony. There were certain parts of town you just didn't go in. It wasn't even about after dark, it's no time. You could not be there. In fact, the whole structure of North Birmingham, they were talking about it with this new railroad system, they almost enclosed us in, so we couldn't get out to do whatever we needed to do. I mean, it was a train here, train there: within two or three blocks you had you had to wait on a train. So there were a lot of atrocities that went on that just kept us down as a people. But as a child, I remember the books that all kind of graffiti and whatever was in it. But that's the main thing I remember. Not being able to go places, not being able to do things, having basically to stay in your own community. I really learned how Birmingham is divided on the North and East or is it the north and south? But anyway, after Daddy was sick, I was there so much and I got lost so much that finally I just had to learn Birmingham so that I could get around to Oxmoor, where my Daddy was raised. North Birmingham is just as you come into the city. But then I didn't even know anything about South over there where Cullman and all those places were but we were very restricted to our community, locked in by the trains that… you had to start early to get any place on time. But the people worked together in Birmingham, they worked together to do what needed to be done. And I thank God for those people at Bethel. Mr. Blockman, the chairman of the Deacon board, can't call his name. I'm looking at his face…
Reverend Wilder: M.J. Davis?
Mrs. Bester: Not M.J., the older one, the real old one. Had one tooth.
Reverend Wilder: Okay. That was Charlie Watson.
Mrs. Bester: Yes, yes, no, no, no. Charlie Robinson was across Waterland.
Reverend Wilder: Watson, Watson.
Mrs. Bester: Watson, Right. Mr. Watson, that was it. Wonderful. Wonderful. Mr. Blackson, I mean, those people were they were good people. Miss Clark and her husband, we came into a love situation there. We weren't running from anything when we came, but we came into a situation where they totally accepted and loved on us. And they gave us all, all of the children. Most of the children that came along with me went on to get advanced degrees, not just a college degree but Masters and PhD, because we were always encouraged to learn. We always had something going on at Bethel. I loved Bethel Baptist Church because…and then they had a lot of stuff for the young people to do. When Daddy talks about Bethel, he said, “I loved them because they loved and they followed me.” All of our people were registered voters. And that's very significant because a lot of the people, Black people did not want him to disturb the status quo. In other words, getting us in more trouble. And really, it happened when we came here. There were people that were afraid that Daddy coming here in 1961 was just coming here to make some more trouble. And they actually shunned him, okay. But the Lord is always still in control. And Revelation was the Church we went to because of Reverend Booth. There are three churches I will always love, that is Bethel, Revelation and Greater New Life, because in the time that we needed them, they did for my family what needed to be done. When we were bombed, when we were mobbed at the Church at the school, they were there. And then I was so thankful of how they reached out to Daddy. When he came back at 84, 85, he might have been 84, 85, I think he came back to Birmingham, but they took care of him again. And I'm grateful for those three churches, but especially grateful to Bethel for following him and giving him the love that sustained him, because there was a lot of fear going on. But the mass meetings allowed us to sing, praise God, and just laugh. Just even in the midst of all of what we're going through, they would be telling jokes. And it was a wonderful experience. I loved going to the Monday night mass meeting because, in fact, my brother wrote a poem about the Monday night mass meeting. There was always an encouraging word, somebody to help you. I don't think I, did I answer your question? I have to be careful, because I get to talking.
Ranger Kat: You did. I think that what I heard you say is that racism in Alabama was really entrenched. And you describe how your life, it was the community because you couldn't go out and do things, and even your schooling really, it was second class. And I'm wondering, well…
Mrs. Bester: It was worst than second class. It was at the bottom. Daddy made a statement, and he used it a lot. After we won the civil rights battle that we did, he said, “Segregation might be dead, but her daughter, Racism, is very much alive.” And that's true. Today all you got to do is look at what they're doing in Congress, But racism, that really has to be a thing of the heart. But people don't talk about the people in Birmingham of other races that joined in with us, and those people should be recognized. But there were also people that came in. Dr. King's group was not that many men that traveled with him. I think that Reverend C.K Steele in Tallahassee, Florida, didn't travel with him. He was a pastor, as Daddy was a pastor, but Reverend Wyatt Tee Walker, Reverend C.T. Vivian, and I met some of those other people that traveled with him at a thing at Howard University, and they had a world peace thing later. It was wonderful, and Daddy was able to fly up to be a part of it. But racism is a thing of the heart. And since people's hearts are so bad, that's why we must now legislate.
Ranger Kat: And I'm glad that you brought up that segregation may have ended at racism has not. And I do think that the Freedom Rides in many ways were one of the first really big nails in the coffin of segregation. So I'm wondering maybe we could start with Reverend Wilder. And I'd like to ask all of you, with the recognition that you may not have been very old when this happened, or maybe you weren’t born yet, but what is your most powerful memory that you have of the Freedom Rides?
Reverend Wilder: Okay. I was not a part of the Freedom Rides, per se. I was fairly young, and we live in a very small community, so they didn't come to our community. But one of my earliest remembrances of just things related to civil rights has to do with a man by the name of James Corter, who was the local representative of the NAACP in my community. I remember we met in a church that, it really seemed like it was 10 miles out of town and then 10 miles off the main road. It was way back up in the woods. But I remember going there, my parents going there. And I remember going to another church that was more immediately in town. And I think the guy, I'm not sure who he was, but my memory wants to say he was somebody who is very prominent in civil rights. But I remember as a child, probably six, maybe seven years old, joining with the older people, as they sang, “We Shall Overcome.” That's a very poignant memory in my mind. But I remember the first major civil rights issue that I remember very vividly was the day that John F. Kennedy and Dr. King were shot. I was in the fourth grade, I believe. And I remember we were in a trailer and my teachers coming in and crying like babies. I mean, just absolutely crying like babies because of what had happened to Dr King. And again, it's just a very, very vivid memory because I was so young and because I guess I was just trying to really understand what was going on.
Ranger Kat: Dr. Bouyer, what about you? A memory that you have the Freedom Rides?
Dr. Bouyer: Kat, I really don't have any actual memories growing up of the Freedom Rides and I grew up in Birmingham. A lot of times things that happened in our city, were not broadcast locally. Even if they were placed in the newspaper, they were placed in the back, you know, like another place it would have been in the front page, but not in Birmingham. But what I want to do is I want to help us kind of frame what was going on by reading a couple of Jim Crow laws, laws in Alabama, related to transportation. And this one is about buses. All passenger stations in this state operated by any motor transportation company, shall have separate waiting rooms or space and separate ticket windows for the White and Colored races. For railroads the law stated, the conductor of each passenger train is authorized and required to assign each passenger to the car or the division of a car, which is divided by a partition designated for the race to which such passenger belongs. Now, these were laws that governed transportation, buses, railroads throughout the state of Alabama and even in Birmingham, we had laws that said it was unlawful for a Negro and white person to play together in company one another in a game of pool, billiards, chess. The list went on and on and on and even spelled out punishment for individuals who allowed that. Now, I may not have known about growing up about the Freedom Ride, but I lived here and I understood in many ways the idea of sitting in the back of the bus. I understood we had to do it. I didn't understand the why behind it. And I understand from some of my friends, your question earlier about racism in Alabama, there were laws that did not allow Black people to try on clothes, and that could have also been a particular department store. But if you were Black and you want to buy clothes or a hat or shoes, if you didn't know your size and if you tried it on it did not fit, then you were in many cases forced to buy that even though you can’t wear it because of the law or the thinking behind that is that a white person would not try on something that may have been tried on by a Black person. So I agree with Ruby. That things were hard and that the segregationists were unrelenting, very mean. And they backed up everything by, force and law, this idea of massive resistance ruled the day. We were trying to bring about change through non-violence, their thing was massive resistance at any cost.
Ranger Kat: Well, thank you for sharing, reading those laws. It's so hard to hear them, and have them read because they're just so horrifying. And to think that that was just so recent in our history, too, is also pretty horrifying for me, as someone who didn't grow up, who wasn't alive during that time. I want to talk a little about, and Mrs. Bester, I know you have a lot of personal memories of the Freedom Rides, but I have a question specifically for you about that, but I want to turn now to Reverend Shuttlesworth and how he continuously chose faith over fear. So here's a person who literally has a target slapped on his back. And I think Mrs. Bester did a really good job of explaining how even the local African American community being concerned about him coming into the community because he was so driven to change things. The police were surveilling him. The parsonage and the church had been bombed three times. He was being sued by the City. So here is a person that already has a lot going on for him, a lot that he's dealing with and then in come the Freedom Riders, and they don't have a peaceful journey until Alabama. They met with some resistance. But in Alabama, things go terrible. The bus and Anniston is fire bombed. Many of the Freedom Riders, they're all beaten. They're all beaten with fists, with iron pipes. And then another bus is stopped in Birmingham. And again they are beaten with fists, with iron pipes by these huge mobs of hundreds of white supremacists. And many of those Freedom Riders are then trying to find a place where they can regroup and recuperate. But the police didn't really do much to protect them. So who's to say that they won't be attacked again? And whoever welcomes them in to try to help them to regroup and recuperate might also become a target. And they call Reverend Shuttlesoworth and he says, “Come into my home, come stay with my family, with my wife, with my children, come into my home.” And I just keep thinking about that moment when he gets that call. It wasn't his responsibility. It wasn't his Freedom Ride. He hadn't been planning it. He actually even discouraged Freedom Riders from coming into Alabama because he thought it was so dangerous. But he repeatedly chooses his faith over fear. And I want to know how he did that.
Mrs. Bester: God. He had a tremendous faith in the Lord. I didn't realize the strength of my father's faith, although I witnessed it so many times. I didn't realize it until I got very old and started reading more of the things he had gone through. It was so bad, our phones were tapped. We were, like, you say, surveilled by the police. We got calls all time of night, funny calls, whistles being blown, for whatever he did. If they knocked on the door at 3:00 in the morning, Daddy would always open the door. “Good morning, officers. How are you?” Big smile. You just never knew. Let them know that you weren’t anxious. Even when he wanted to announce what we were doing, Demonstrations, to tell other people in other cities, they would travel out of Birmingham to mail it because we knew that we were a target. I found that faith over fear, and fear is really False Evidence Appearing Real, faith over fear will arm you because God has your back. And if you really believe in the Lord, you just believe it. Daddy said when the Lord tell him to jump, he don't say how high. He just starts jumping, because he knows that He will make a way for him to land. I'm sorry you didn't ask me, but I just had to say that.
Ranger Kat: Well, that question really was for you.
Mrs. Bester: Okay, good.
Ranger Kat: And I have another question, Mrs. Bester, about your mom, actually. So your mom, this is Ruby Keeler Shuttlesworth, after whom you're named, I assume, she also welcomes the Freedom Riders into her home. Her story is one that we don't hear much about. But she was right alongside the Reverend when it came to -
Mrs. Bester: Oh, yeah.
Ranger Kat: I mean, she also suffered when the parsonage was bombed. She also attempted to integrate the school along with yourself, I understand, and she was stabbed during that integration attempt. So she was in the trenches with her husband every step of the way.
Mrs. Bester: Yeah. They also tried integrated train station. Go ahead. I'm sorry, dear.
Ranger Kat: I wonder, could you shed some light on what she thought of the Freedom Rides and what she thought of the Freedom Riders being welcomed into her home and what her role in all of that was?
Mrs. Bester: My mother was the kindest woman that I've ever known in my life. Ain't saying because she's my mother. Other people have said that to me. In College, they called her Ruby Sweet. But she truly loved my father. And she supported what he did. She protected us. There were times that she wouldn't let us go. But she always gave in to whatever daddy he wanted to have done. She and Daddy integrated the train station in Birmingham, where Reverend Lamar Weaver, went into the colored section, his car was rocked. He was attacked and everything. And they just went in and sat down and got their ticket and got on the train. But as far as the Freedom Riders, my mother, our home was a gathering place for whoever was trying to do what was right. For whoever had a question on what to do. And a lot of times, the Freedom Riders, Diane Nash, Hank Johnson [sic], they would call because they knew that he had their back as much as he could. When that bus was stopped in Anniston, and they wouldn't let anybody go get them. But Daddy, he had to stop his men on the way and say, “Take your guns out. I know you got them. Just leave them here in this garden. But we came to know what our guns against, what they got, waiting up on us at that bus.” But I interviewed Mr. Johnson and I was moved to tears as he told the story. Is that I always say, thank you, darling. It was just amazing. But the thing is, there are people that are still alive that are still within their right mind that know the story. And we're asking people that heard about it. We need to talk to them, if they are able to tell it. Because, and every time I speak to young people, which I've done over the years, I say, you need to get a pencil and paper and go sit with your grandmother and ask her how it was so that you can compare how good it is. Our young people today they don't know what we had to go through. Like you read those laws, Dr. Bouyer, I have that little book. And even in reading the books, your heart just sinks because it shows how disdained we, as a people, were thought of, just nothing. But like I said, the Lord made us able to do this because he gave us that strength to just keep on going. I never will forget the Monday night meeting. Where Reverend Phillips, No, Yeah, I think it was Reverend Phillips admired the suit of one of the two detectives that came to our meetings. He just touched his lapel. “I like your suit.” A new suit. Well, the next day, they had beat him up and carved KKK on his chest. Okay, so what happened there? Lent itself to other things. Just like when the house was bombed, the police said to daddy, “Reverend, I didn't think they would go this far.” And he said, “Well, you go back and tell your Klan brothers if the Lord can keep me through this, I'm here for the duration.” And they always say before the bombing, he wouldn't get on a plane. He didn't even want to go on a plane while it was sitting. But after that, he lost his fear of flying and other things. And he traveled all over the world later. But it was God keeping us, God letting us know that whatever, wherever I'm going to be there. And the people believed that because we had this movement Choir, Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights choir. Nims Gay and Mamie Brown were asked to start that. So when we got to the meeting, we had a lot of good singing, a lot of good speaking, a lot of good inspiration because everybody was on fire in this place, at this time, in this Church, we say we are equal. This is what we will do to work on it. And he worked on the schools, the police department, housing, everything that said negativity, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights dealt with it. And I have a picture of the board members like Ms. Dust Brooks, Lucinda Bruce Brown Roby, people that were heroes in their own ways. But when these people came together for a time, and we did every Monday night, people looked forward to going. They looked forward to doing. And then we were trained how to do, how to march. Like, for instance, if we didn't have a lot of people, you stretched the line out. Whatever you needed to do for that situation, you do it right now. It's called be ready and ask the Lord to help you do it. But faith and fear. We did not show fear. We might have had it. But joining hands together, it made us stronger. You can't break a line. You can't break a chain that's gripped, you know. Segregation was so bad that even today, there are people who have the mindset of still being there, because it was so ground into them. I don't care what you did, what you accomplish, you remember how you were disdained in earlier life. But the Alabama Christian Movement, the Movement choir, the people that joined in, it made life hopeful. I did an interview called History to Hope, History and Hope. And I told them that our history has always been hope, hoping that the Lord will again provide for our safety, for our children, for whatever we were proposing to do, and give us the right way to do it. Our young people today don't know that it's not what you say, but how you say it. And after the civil rights movement was over, people used to say, “Ooh, that's an old fashioned to say, yes, ma'am and no, ma'am.” That's what we did. And at 76, I still say it because it's habit. We were trained to do what we needed to do to get through a terrible time. And even though many people well, really, I feel an interview, too. The four little girls were bombed after the March on Washington, and there was another man, Aaron, who was castrated. But somebody came back and put turpentine on the wound. And there were two other boys killed on the same day those four little girls were killed. But Birmingham was not as violent or murderers, I'll say, as other places have been. But we felt the stain of it. And I think the fact that when Dr. King finally came to Birmingham, he had been invited seven times, according to Andrew Young, we just, it made a difference. The nation considered Dr. King as the only leader. But there were many leaders in many cities, and many people left their cities to come and join with him. And that's why the story should be told. I'm really thankful what people are saying about Daddy, but they need to talk about the Colonel and some other people that helped him do what he did, because he could not have done it without support. But the thing that I really want our readers to know is that a lot of people hit the Internet to get information. Internet is what somebody put on there, and you really have to check your facts. In fact, I need to call Wikipedia because they call Daddy Reverend Fred, Frederica Shuttlesworth. And I'm named after my mother and father, Ruby Fredricka, and that's cause when my brother was well, when my sister was born, he thought the next one will be a boy. And so he immediately put Ruby, no Fred Lee Shuttlesworth Jr. And the lady said, “But Reverend, she's a girl.” He says, “Okay, give her her momma’s first name, Ruby Fredericka.” And everybody calls me Ricky. But that's significant in the fact that if anybody says Ricky, I know I know them from way, way back. But our trials in Birmingham with faith and fear, we were always reminded, even when they called in blue whistles on the phone. And we couldn't slam that phone down because you're going to get in trouble with the FLS. You had to put the receiver. I don't care what people said or did. We were instructed and knew better than to retaliate, because that's not what we do. So we had a lot of good training out of the experience in Birmingham to be ready. Like, for instance, if somebody didn't show up for a speaker. “Okay, Ricky, here, say something.” A singer, “Pat sing something.” He used his resources. And a lot of times people don't realize you don't have to pay for anything. Just look around. Everything we need to do, what we need to do is right there. All we have to do is ask the Lord. And I don't mean to be ecclesiastic and start preaching. But the more I think about what we went through, the more I praise God for bringing us through it.
Ranger Kat: Thank you and thank you for shedding some light on your Mom and the role she played..
Mrs. Bester: I didn't hear you.
Ranger Kat: I said, I'm glad you shed some light on the role that your Mom played too. And you mentioned Diane Nash, who was one of the Freedom Riders. And there's a quote of Diane Nash in a book about your father that's called A Fire You Can't Put Out. And she said that: “Fred was practically a legend. I think it was important for there to be somebody that really represented strength. And that's certainly what Fred did. He would not back down, and you could count on it. You know, I'm wondering if maybe Dr. Bouyer, I know you studied the story quite a bit, and you help educators to teach about it. How important was it to have somebody like Reverend Shuttlesworth in Birmingham to encourage the Rides to keep going? Because after that first ride, with all the violence that they encountered in Alabama, it would have been very understandable if they just sort of called it off. But pretty immediately, Diane Nash and the Nashville Student Movement send down new reinforcements. What do you think about Fred’s role in paving the way for that?
Dr. Bouyer: I really do think that Reverend Shuttlesworth was not just the man for the hour, but the man for the movement. As Ruby said, her father was the man not only in Birmingham, but I also refer to him as the architect of the movement in Birmingham. And just for a moment, I will talk about SNCC and Diane Nash and the students. And definitely the role that Reverend Shuttlesworth played when the attack happened in Anniston. As Ruby pointed out, he dispatched members of his organization, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. This was an organization established in Alabama after the then Attorney General Patterson outlawed the NAACP. Reverend Shuttlesworth was the Alabama President, and the NAACP was just really winning the race for equal rights to the court. And after the Brown v. Board decision, Alabama and all the Deep South States became really afraid as to what the NAACP might do. So therefore they asked Reverend Shuttlesworth to give up a list of all the members. He refused to do so. So the organization was declared an out of state or foreign Corporation and could not operate here. There was a flaw in the law that the state established about businesses, that an organization that could function. In the law, they stated that literary organizations and religious organizations did not have to turn over their membership list. So Reverend Shuttlesworth and a group of five other minutes got together down, really downtown, at the A.G. Gaston Funeral Home. This is where they met. And they decided it with him as a leader. What are we going to do? Do we stop working? Because the state of Alabama says we can't operate here as NAACP? But they found the flaw in the law and they established a new organization. They were very deliberate in the name of the organization, being Alabama, so they could not declare it to be a foreign corporation. And then Christian. Remember, I just said a flaw in the law stated that religious organizations did not have to give up their membership roll. So this new organization would be the driving force for civil rights activities in Alabama, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. And one of the things that I want to say about Ruby Shuttlesworth work that is so important, is the day after the beating of the civil rights activist with the Freedom Rides at the Trailways bus station and Birmingham. They all came once again to Reverend Shuttlesworth. He brought those people to his home, to his Church. And one of the men, James Peck, was beaten so badly all about the face and head, he was bleeding profusely. So he received some treatment but was fearful about staying in the hospital. So they brought him to the parsonage where the Shuttlesworth family lives. And Ruby tells the story better. But she said her mom, it was Mother's Day, and she had put a favorite white chenille bed spread on the bed. And when they brought him in, she said, “Put him on the bed,” and everybody's looking at this… put him on the bed. She did not care that, you know about the injuries, the wounds, what might happen. And when Ruby told this story, I read about it in the book Freedom’s Children. She said they could never, ever wash out the stains from that spread. But it didn't bother the Mrs. Shuttlesworth. She was willing to give everything that she had to support the movement in any way. And I just think it's important that we teach students in our schools about civil disobedience. And I've often made the point of comparing Reverend Shuttlesworth to Sam Adams. When we talk about the American Revolution, we go on and on about what a great, wonderful, brave person Sam Adams was. Well, Reverend Shuttlesworth is my Sam Adams. And I realized that at the time he came to Birmingham, in regards to civil rights and this whole idea that we've been talking about racism. I was doing a study once on the Holocaust, and they talked about six steps to a Holocaust. And really, by the time he came, we were at step six. And then I feel like Ruby, that God, particularly called him for this particular time and purpose. So he's my personal hero. I've been honored to have him as a dinner guest at my home on two separate occassions. But like I pointed out earlier, he would do anything he said for teachers because he understood that if the teachers got it right, if the teachers were able to teach us these lessons with a passion, conviction and knowledge, really based on the truth, that they could change things. So he always availed himself. He always came to participate in a Stony workshop, and always because the idea of empowering teachers, and he would more or less arm them. “You go back to your schools and you teach this history and you let the students know.” It's like for me, Kat, that anybody can be a hero. Anybody can stand up against wrong, against evil. And just having an example like Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth helps us to know that we, too, can stand up for right.
Ranger Kat: Beautiful. Thank you. I think Dr. Bouyer, you touched a little bit on the importance of education. But I would like to ask both of Dr. Bouyer and Mrs. Bester, given that you're both educators, what is a part of the Freedom Rider story as it relates to Reverend Shuttlesworth that people get wrong that you wish that teachers knew more about so they could teach correctly in the classroom?
Mrs. Bester: I just did a, when I knew we were going to be talking, I read a lot about the Phillips, about the Freedom Riders. And James Peck was on a bus that was led by somebody else. I can't remember his name. But then he had to leave, and Peck had to bring them on in, and they called Daddy to say it, he did tell them to be careful. And then when the bus had been messed up and everything, they called him to come and get him. But the Freedom Riders story is significant because these young people in college before they left made their wills. They were determined that to do what they did. But if they didn't do it, they want to set their things in orders, whether they did it or not. They left everything in order. And that type of discipline, facing, knowing that you might be facing death, lets you see the death and width of their love, but doing what is right and attaining equality for all citizens. The Freedom Riders were young and they left school where their parents had saved money. And, you know, it was hard back in those days to have money, but they did it because they had a belief that we can do this. And they didn't think about their lives. They just went ahead and did it. We have a lady here, Mrs. Betty Roseman in Cincinnati who was on a Freedom Ride, and she was the one assigned to go call if anything went wrong. And something indeed did go wrong when they stopped. And anyway, she was making the phone call back to the office and the bus left her. But a man came by, A White man came by, told her to get in the car and on the floor. And he took her to safety. And she never, ever was able to thank him because he just told her, “Get out here. You'll be safe here.” He took her back where the people, there were so many people that assisted, but those Freedom Riders, you have to look at what they were giving up. My father was there because they knew he would be there, Okay? And they knew from what he had done before that if they called him, he would answer. But when I interviewed um, is it Hank Thompson? Dr. Bouyer?
Dr. Bouyer: Yes – Thomas, Thomas.
Mrs. Bester: Thomas, okay. I realized that how much they meant. And we have yet to thank them for the many things that have happened because of what they did. Frederick Douglass started it. Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, all of those. But each year we have had people that were willing to sacrifice their life, their time, their reputation, whatever it took to gain citizenship, humanity. And the people that are coming now have like when Obama said, he stands when he acknowledged Daddy's airport. He said, “I stand on your shoulders.” To hear him say that was really nice because he is so accomplished. But I look at the movement now. The Black Lives Latter, and I'm so grateful that it's just not black lives out there demonstrating. In fact, there are maybe five times the number of Blacks in the protests. And that just shows you where we have come as a country. And it's just a blessing. It is just a blessing. But we must remember the Freedom Riders themselves. They chose to get on a bus without a policeman, without any protection, no weapons. And they put their lives on the line in the city in each aspect of the bus rider. We did a bus riding thing in Birmingham, and I was with this white guy and two other white guys and two other teenagers, and he got on first and went to the back. The Black teenager stopped in the front. Well, I was a fourth one to get on, and by the time I got on, the bus driver realized what was going on, and he just kind of closed the door on my back as I was getting in. But people still did whatever they did to us. What it was throwing coffee, spitting, sometimes cigarettes put out on you for whatever the thing you were doing. The people were non-violent and that was trained, in the people that came, before they got on the bus, they told them what would happen. And so the Lord has equipped us to do what we needed to have done during those times. And yes, it was fear. But we didn't show fear. We kept on because we believe in the Lord and each other and the cause. And I hope I answered your question.
Ranger Kat: You did. I think bringing up the training piece is something that people don't often realize how much extensive training in non violence people went through in leading up to the Freedom Rides and also the application process to become a freedom rider, and I think they needed letters of recommendation. It was a very long, extensive process and a deep understanding that no matter how much pain you may experience, that you are not going to lift a fist and I can't imagine that level of dedication and commitment. It's really amazing. Dr. Bouyer, is there something that you try to counter when you're teaching teachers how to share the story that you feel is really critical that people know this is the real deal, something that people are not teaching correctly, that you really would like to tell educators to inform them.
Dr. Bouyer: I think that what happens is that we overlook a lot of the, I call them unsung heroes of the modern civil rights movement. As people begin to study and teach about this, they teach about maybe just two people. These are names that have been lifted up internationally, but we forget about people like Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth, Colonel Stone Johnson, Reverend C.T. Vivian, names that Ruby lifted up earlier. So I try to provide teachers a full or a fuller view of this time period and the role that Alabama played, the idea of looking at legislation like the 1964 Civil Rights Act, that all of that came out of Birmingham. So I try to address, what are your issues as to why you don't teach it? Is it a matter you don't have time, you don't know what to teach them about. You don't know names to lift up. So I take away all the excuses as to why it's not taught, and then I provide the information. But Kat, one thing we've got to also understand is that a lot of other teachers who may even be in their 40s, 50s and still in the classroom, the civil rights movement was never formally taught, in a lot of common settings. We are now finally sifting through all of this knowledge and all of this information, and we're finding out the who's, what, why, when, why is it important and we're able to do that? And part of what we do with the Stony project is that I take teachers all across the state, and then they get to meet people that participated in the movement. They get to walk in places that they sometimes only heard about. And it's amazing. When we look at being able to say I was there, I met, I understand better, will increase the likelihood of teachers doing a better job.
Mrs. Bester: They’re going to teach it better.
Dr. Bouyer: They can because of their interactions. It used to be when I started the Stony Project that we tried to do all of this in a week. But my teachers always said, “we don't have enough time, Martha, is there any way we could increase the time?” So now I offer the Stony Project as a three week teacher institute, and I still have in most cases, I've had at least, I do this for 30 teachers on purpose. I want to really make an impact. If I've got 50, 60 teachers, I can't really do what I would like to do with a number that large. So I've got 30 teachers, and I really try to make an impact With, over the three week period. And when I think about it, 30 teachers, even if 20 of them stayed in the classroom an additional 3,5, 10 years, look at the impact of this particular program. So it really is very planned. Very specific. If I can get 30 teachers, elementary school, middle, high school, home school situations. And the teachers are all given an opportunity to develop curriculum based on what they saw, what they heard. I bring in noted scholars from all over the country to come and talk. I provide them with all of the resources so that they can do a better job. And I'm going to send you something, Kat. We don't have time this morning for me to read it, but it's a quote from Reverend Shuttlesworth that every time, I just want to read just a little bit, but I'm going to send it to you. Okay. And this is entitled, America means Integration. Just a little bit. America.
Mrs. Bester: America what?
Dr. Bouyer: America means Integration. I’ll strike from the flag those colors of red, white and blue. America means integration. Else take out of the Declaration of Independence the words all men are created equal. America means integration. Else take from the flag - the pledge, I'm sorry. One nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all. America means integration. Else close down your courthouses and tear the meaningless signs down from over the doors. America means integration. Else we open the crack in the Liberty Bell and let it no more proclaim liberty through the land. I'm going to send you this because
Mrs. Bester: Would you send me that too, please.
Dr. Bouyer: Yes, it is so profound.
Mrs. Bester: I’ve never heard it.
Dr. Bouyer: Ruby I share with teachers and visitors who come to the church. But, I'm sorry. I'm going to have to read the rest of it. I'll still send it. But America means integration. Else send back the Irish to Ireland, the Orientals to Asia, the Anglo Saxon back to Europe, the Negro to Africa and call the Indian from his reservation, give him keys to the country and write sonnets and epics of his heroic deeds. America means integration. Else knocked down the Statue of Liberty and chisel off her base of slogan, Give me your poor, etcetera. America means integration. Else quit singing, Our Father's Got to be, Author of liberty. And this was written by Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth proclaiming –
Mrs. Bester: Never heard it.
Dr. Bouyer: to what we say were are. And I still believe this. And whenever people are just moved, whenever they read this as to what he had to say about our nation, he was not trying to destroy the United States. He was trying to build our country to be what we say we are and what the world looks for us to be. And that includes all of us who call the United States of America home, regardless of our skin color.
Mrs. Bester: That was beautiful. Thank you, Dr. Martha. Kat, can I say one thing?
Ranger Kat: Of course.
Mrs. Bester: America needs Integration was great. Daddy also wrote a thing that if you were going to participate in any way, marching, whatever you did, there were ten things that you had to do and sign, and they were scripturally based. And at the bottom he said that if you can't demonstrate, you know, non-violently, we also need people to drive people, to prepare food, to make signs. But I think you should send her that. And then I want to tell you, Kat, that I met Dr. Martha because Daddy was doing the Stony the Road Project, and he had a brain tumor. So we had to travel with him. They would fly him in and my brother and I would drive to wherever he was. And this was in Birmingham at the Civil Rights Institute. And after Daddy died, Dr. Martha asked me to continue, which I've done to take his part in that. But I had never gone on the full tour, okay. And I was blessed to be able to go to 2, 3 of her tours with her teachers. They were on the bus and I had my car and Jackie was with me. And we were there when Obama on the fiftieth anniversary, called Daddy's names as he was talking about the people that had made that thing possible, Even Glenn Eskew’s book, when we were talking about the Civil Rights Bill, it starts with, But for Birmingham, we wouldn't be here today. And that's because Birmingham opened, when the people of the world saw the dog biting children and the fire holes being put on them, everybody said, “What is going on?” and people looked up. Four Little Girls tells the story very good. When Daddy was hit by the fire hose and had to be hospitalized, someone came and told him that President Kennedy and Reverend, Dr. King, had called off the movement because it was just getting too violent, or whatever reason, Daddy got out of the hospital after having two high poles, those put you out, and went to A.G. Gaston, and in the movie the man say, “The weak one came to the door.” But because he came to the door at the A.G. Gaston motel, the demonstrations did not stop. And we went on to get the civil rights bill that year in ‘64 and then the next year, the Voting Rights bill. But people don't realize that this group of people that started the Southern Christian Leadership Conference worked together. They went from city to city to do what they had to do. But I am so thankful for Dr. Bouyer for starting this, because you can't show what you don't know, and our kids don't know the history of the Black man. We have the history that the white man has allowed us to be shown and taught in school. We had the one month of February to do, but all Americans are significant. They've changed Black history now to diversity. And that's good. We are all diverse, but we're all Americans because we were born here. Doctor Bouyer, if you would send her that sign up form, do you have a copy of that?
Dr. Bouyer: I do. And Reverend Wilder, I’ll let him talk about the pledge, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights pledge. Reverend Wilder, will you share that with us?
Reverend Wilder: Absolutely. I was going to comment when she mentioned that. It was important. It was important that people remain non-violent. It was important that people understood what they were doing. It was important, and he stressed it, that this was a Christian movement, not that they were trying to make everybody Christians, but it was operated by Christian principles. And he started off with meditate daily on the teaching of Jesus Christ. You keep yourself physically strong and neat. And Dr. Bouyer often mentions, and I agree, that the one that I had said would probably trip me was the number eight, where it says that I would refrain from violence, of fist and of tongue and of thought. And I say I could probably make it past the fist, but I had something to say and I know I'd have something to think about, but that was Reverend Shuttlesworth. He was fiercely nonviolent.
Mrs. Bester: He really made it plain.
Reverend Wilder: Yeah, it was.
Mrs. Bester: And don't use your hands, your mouth and don't even think about being bad. That's not what we do.
Reverend Wilder: Thank you for the introduction on that. I think that was just very critical to show that this was not just lip service. This was not just something he did when the cameras were rolling or when the writers were there. This is what he believed.
Mrs. Bester: Exactly.
Ranger Kat: I'd like to ask you to all of you what the significance of this moment is. We're approaching the 60th anniversary of the Freedom Rides. All of you have a connection, personal, spiritual and otherwise, with Reverend Shuttlesworth. I wonder if you could think about what is the meaning of this moment for you, this upcoming anniversary, where we are in history, how we're doing, how we're moving forward. And if you could maybe think about it as an opportunity to share, maybe in like, a minute, what it is that you feel about this upcoming anniversary.
Reverend Wilder: I'll start if you don't mind, and then maybe we can build on a crescendo, since I'm probably the least informed. We’ll start at the bottom and go to the top. I think it is important, particularly in light of the backdrop we have with the death of George Floyd and all the protests and everything else. That was a rainbow of people. And we saw the same thing, I think, in the Freedom Rides. We saw young people who were willing to risk and who were willing to challenge because of their youthful idealism, which is absolutely great, as opposed to cynicism. I but I see a reflection of the 1961 Freedom Rides reflect the same thing what we're doing now, reflect what was done in the 1960s. There were young people who saw what the law said, who heard what the law said, and they were willing to stand up for and suffer whatever consequences they could. So that's my minute.
Mrs. Bester: And they were prepared.
Dr. Bouyer: My minute. I would like to use a line form a very popular song. But the song is We've Come This Far by Faith.
Mrs. Bester: Yes.
Dr. Bouyer: But I want to say we still have a long way to go.
Mrs. Bester: Oh, yes.
Dr. Bouyer: And we know that we didn't get through all of that on our own, that it took men and women and children. And I'm sure the children didn't even fully understand what they were doing. Those Freedom Riders that came out of Nashville, the SNCC Group, as Ruby said, before they left, they all wrote their last will so that their parents would understand what was going on. A lot of those young people who came into Birmingham and they were so beaten, Bull Connor called their parents. And is like, “Do you know what your son and daughter, do you know what they're doing?” And their parents really, for a lot of them, sent them to plane tickets and they left here on TWA Transworld Airlines, going back home. And some of them flew directly from Birmingham to Louisiana, which was their final stop. But I still want to say that as a nation, it's wonderful to look back 60 years ago to see how far we've come, and to know that that's by faith. But let's look forward to the future, 60 years from now. Where will we be? And I just think based on what Reverend Wilder said, that we've accomplished a lot, but we still have a long ways to go.
Mrs. Bester: Amen. As far as my minute, these Freedom Riders were ordinary people who in those days got lucky because they were able to go to college by the sweat of their parents brow, or whatever they did, which was a great accomplishment. But they left college. They left it because they wanted freedom, humanity for all people. They risked everything. So I salute the Freedom Riders, and I'm so glad that people are finally recognizing what they did. There are so many people that did lot of things to make our country better. And the Freedom Riders definitely made a difference. They were…the bus that stands right now in the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. And the descriptors of what happened on that bus and many other buses that they were on, shows you the terror that these young people went through. But they did it because they believed in freedom. And the one thing about it, is that everybody worked together. And I think it helped a whole lot in integration. We were forced to be with. But when I went to the March on Washington from Cincinnati, I was 18 years old, and it was amazing just to walk down the streets. We didn't associate with white people, but everybody was calm, cool, collected and connected in the sense that we will show the world that we want to stand together for human dignity. Human rights. That's why I love the name of that award. Fred Shuttlesworth Human Rights. And it doesn't matter your color, because if you cut us all, we bleed red. But Reverend Shuttlesworth honor is for the Human Rights Award. And the recipients of these awards have been outstanding and doing things for the people as a whole, being knocked down. Like I tell people all the time, if Reverend Vivian had not died three days before John Lewis, many people in America would still not know who he was. But I remember John Lewis. I remember him being an integral part. He was a different person. He chose to serve. In fact, John Lewis got a ticket to come and work with Dr. King. Rev. C.T. Vivian was also invited to come and work with Dr. King because what he had done on his campus as a student, but one inspires another, the others go out and inspires. And that's what it was. It was touch and move. And the Freedom Riders have not been given the credit that they deserve. But they did a lot. They went into unchartered, mean territories and suffered a lot. But it made a difference. It made other people know that this should not be, we should be more proactive. And really, you can see it rolls up. Like you said, Dr. Martha, is moved up to right now. People have joined in a freedom protests. Freedom from hatred and the keyword should be love. I am thankful to the Freedom Riders for what they did. Can you tell me, Kate, what is the date for the celebration? Where will it be? I looked it up, but I couldn't find it.
Ranger Kat: So May 14 is the exact anniversary, and we will have a virtual event taking place that day. We have a number of virtual events that are taking place leading up to that date. And then really, because the Rides went from May through December, there will be events through December that will commemorate the Freedom Rides. And ultimately, once we have a more concrete list, I will make sure that you receive it. And I'd love to close out by asking you all to share the one word that you feel best describes Reverend Shuttlesworth.
Dr. Bouyer: Courageous.
Mrs. Bester: God’s man for the times. Oh you said one word. Servant. Okay.
Reverend Wilder: My word would be sincere because my interactions with him, he sincerely believed what he said. This was not pressed. This was not written for him. He believed that God was going to take care of him, and he acted like it.
Mrs. Bester: He did.
Dr. Bouyer: Because they said more than one word, I'm going to just say a few more. And the reason I chose courageous, it's like where there is no conflict, there is no need for courage. And because of the conflicts that African American people, black people face on a daily basis, not just in Alabama, but even in Washington, DC, our nation's capital, it was also segregated. So the conflict was segregation and therefore Reverend Shuttlesworth, God gave him the courage to challenge the conflict.
Ranger Kat: Well, thank you. It truly has been an honor and a pleasure to spend time with you today. And we're planning to use excerpts of this to share with the public the role that reference Shuttlesworth played in the Freedom Rides because it's a piece of his story and his activism that doesn't often get shared. So we're really excited to educate people about that. Before I close, is there a question I didn't ask that you wish I had that you would like to sort of expound upon to share with the public?
Mrs. Bester: I just want to thank Reverend Wilder for upholding what they say, I did a thing in Howard University is called Passing the Torch, and it was people that have worked with Dr. King passing the torch, basically, to the young students at Howard. But Reverend Wilder has been so essential in helping me educate Northern children. I've been to Bethel many times, and he's always opened his doors, even treated us to lunch on several times to share the history. Because people today can't imagine. Our young people can't imagine what we went through, and a lot of them think it didn't happen. And that's where we need to say. You got to check your sources. And I just wanted to appreciate and thank Reverend Wilder and Dr. Bouyer for your intense work in making known what happened in Birmingham and affecting the lives of so many people that are better because of it. And I thank you, Kate, for including me in this discussion. I truly learned a lot.
Ranger Kat: Thank you. I'm really glad that you were able to join everybody else.
Dr. Bouyer: I think you did a great job, your questions were really challenging and caused us to really, I think, just go deep within ourselves to actively participate in this. And I just want to thank you again, like Ruby, for including me.
Reverend Wilder: Ditto for me as well. And I want to thank both Dr. Bouyer for all of the work that she's been doing since she's been with us for that time, but also Mrs. Bester for joining us on such short notice. I was just…Dr. Bouyer and I were talking the other day, and we said, I wonder if Mrs. Bester would be willing to join us on the call. And when we reached out to you, you graciously accepted. So let me say publicly how much we appreciate that.
Mrs. Bester: I appreciate that. Thank you, sir. Thank you. That somebody can be moved forward from hearing our discussion. That's the blessing and hopefully they will share and do their research so that they can be a better person in their neighborhood. Because we are all at this state of our country, we need each other, and we need to understand that God is still in control. Thank you, Kate. I appreciate this opportunity.
Ranger: This is We Will Rise: National Parks and Civil Rights. Thanks to the Psalters for use of their song, Turn Me Around. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to our series. Until next time.
(Music continues in background)
Episode 3: Ashley M. Jones, Poet Laureate of Alabama
Listen in to our latest podcast with Ashley M. Jones, the first person of color to be the Poet Laureate for the state of Alabama. Ms. Jones shares what it means to her to hold this post, the magic in the Magic City, and lessons we can all learn from the movie Frozen. Join us.
Ranger Introduction: Welcome to We Will Rise: National Parks and Civil Rights. Close your eyes and imagine a National Park. Are you picturing waterfalls and mountains? Or do you think of Dr. King's childhood home, Japanese internment camps, and a school that became a battleground for racial integration? National parks aren't just wilderness. They are spaces of remembrance, founded to preserve the stories of who we are and how we came to be. National parks inspire us to do better, be better. To climb mountains, both physical and figurative. Join Park Rangers, researchers, authors, and activists as we discuss what liberty and justice for all means on our public lands.
Kat: All right. Well, here we go. From our, like, 8 feet apart.
Ashley: Yes. Very COVID safe.
Kat: Very COVID safe, wearing our masks. And I want to say welcome. My name is Kat, and I'm a Park Ranger at Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument. I also work at Freedom Riders National Monument as well. But I'm based here, and I'm so honored to welcome you here today, Ms. Ashley M. Jones, the poet laureate of Alabama. Truly it is just such a joy to have you here. Ashley holds an MFA in poetry from Florida International University and is the author of a number of poetry collections. And I hear that you brought a few of them in your purse.
Ashley: I did.
Kat: So thank you so much for joining us today.
Ashley: Thank you for having me. This is so fun.
Kat: Yeah. I'm glad that you're here. Well, I want to start first and foremost with the poet laureateship because that's, like, the big news in your life. And I'm curious, could you set the scene for us as to how you found out that you were awarded this honor, if you knew you were going to be considered? What you felt and experienced when you found out? Where were you when you found out and how the people in your life responded to the news?
Ashley: Well, it's interesting. A lot of people assume that it was like the Oscars or something like, you don't know if you're going to get it. And the moment is, the moment you're like, oh, wow, what a surprise. And it's a little bit different than that. At least in Alabama, the process is pretty long. So I knew that I was interested a few years ago. I knew that it was a four year term for each laureate, and I knew that the previous laureate didn't express an interest in doing it again. So I thought, okay, here's an opportunity. Hopefully, somebody wants to nominate me. And so last year, several people from the community sent in nomination packets on my behalf. And so what that entails is they asked for my consent. First of all, it's not a surprise at any stage, like, you have to be willing, which is great. So they asked me for my consent. And in the packets, there is a little demographic portion, and then there's a letter of support from them, and they could also ask others to write letters in that packet. And then there's also a writing sample in that packet. So there were, like, I think four or five people who nominated me. Those nominations then went to the Alabama Writers Cooperative. And the Alabama Writers Cooperative is an organization which serves writers here in Alabama. It's the oldest, fairly certain it's the oldest writing organization in our state. It was founded in 1923, and they shepherd this process for the state of Alabama. So the packets were sent into them to a committee that was assembled by the AWC President, TJ Beitelman. And the committee is made up of different writers and professionals from across the state. They deliberate on all of the nominations. I believe there were a total of four people nominated last year, and I was chosen unanimously as the selection to go forward before the membership of the AWC. And they had to then vote me in as the official selection. From there, I'm awaiting my firm date from Governor Ivy's office to be commissioned by her. So that's the whole process. And like I said, it's a lot longer than most people realize. And then, so as far as my surprise, I wasn't surprised for the whole year that it was all happening because I was a part of the whole process. But I was surprised, and I did not think I would be, but I was very surprised during the voting process. So it was over Zoom, obviously, because you know how it is. We were on Zoom, and I knew all the people who were voting because I'm a board member of AWC. So these were friends of mine, which doesn't mean that it was like nepotism, by the way. It just means I know the people. That's kind of part of the job as poet laureate, you know the people. So I saw them voting. And as I was looking out into the Zoom, and of course, I had on my special voting day outfit. We can get back to that later. I was in my parent’s house because that's where I've been staying for a while since my father passed in April. We've all just kind of converged at my parents house, which I mean, we always were there before, but now it's a different sort of togetherness. So I was there and I knew my mom and siblings were upstairs watching the Zoom in another room. And we all just kind of were waiting to see, like, okay, are they really going to do it? And so seeing the people raise their hands, that just sort of threw me in a way that I wasn't expecting. I really felt…it's hard to really put into words. I felt just thrilled and then also a little nervous and really just honored and humbled that all these people really believe in me and believe I can do the job. And then the gravity of the history of it started to sort of descend. I knew for months, okay, I'm going to be the first Black one, blah, blah. It’s kind of like, whatever, that's cool But I didn't really understand, like, oh, wait, this is a whole paradigm shift happening before my eyes. And I'm the one. I think it started to hit me that I was the one who had to do the thing before. I was like, oh, yeah, I'll do it. But in that moment, I was like, oh, I'm going to do it. Who am I? What said that this was my destiny. It's moments like those where you just really start to step back and say, wow, was I really put here for a purpose? And is it right now that I'm realizing I'm walking in it? Anyway, so I had this whole moment and everyone was so proud. And what I didn't say too, is that TJ, the President of the AWC, he also is my Department chair at the Alabama School of Fine Arts. And he was one of my first teachers when I went to school there. So I've known him since I was twelve years old.
Ashley: So you see where I'm going here, the layers are just unreal.
Ashley: And to see the pride on his face too, meant so, so much. Here's someone who has really been with me from almost the start of my writing journey. And he was such an important teacher for me in school because he encouraged me so much and I felt like he really saw me. And that's so important as a teenager to feel like an adult actually acknowledges you as a human being. And then the media started coming in and that's when I really was like, wait a minute, what am I doing? What have I signed up for? But it really was what you dream about when you're a little person wanting to be a writer. You hope that people care about what you say. You hope that you can make a difference. You hope that the little person that you were has someone that they were looking for. I was looking, I think, for me as a little girl. And it's just so incredible to think sometimes we are the ones that we are looking for. I think somebody maybe has said that before. So whoever's quote that is, thank you for the quote.
Kat: I think it's in the movie Frozen.
Ashley: Oh, no.
Kat: I'm sure someone else set it besides, but I just remember it very distinctly because many little girls do love that movie [points at self].
Ashley: Wow. Maybe I'm like a 90s Disney purist.
Kat: Okay. I can respect that.
Ashley: I don't know. I hate to be a purist in any way, but I just…really nothing quite hits like those movies of my youth. And I don't have kids of my own, so Frozen never quite made it for me. And I love watching kid’s stuff. But something about Frozen just hasn't quite…maybe because everybody likes it. I'm like kind of a hipster, which is maybe embarrassing to say, but everybody loves it so much. I'm like, okay, yeah. Something's got to be amiss, right? No shade to Frozen, though. We love Frozen. The twist ending, my goodness. Right?
Kat: Yeah, for sure. Yeah.
Ashley: But anyway, I just have been feeling a lot of feelings, and I'm so glad that my dad did know that it was going to happen before he passed away. And of course, the first thing he asked was like, oh, how much does it pay?
Kat: Because he's your dad. Right.
Ashley: But he was very proud. He was proud of us. If we just took a breath, like, you could do anything. And he was just so proud that we existed, which is what you want in a parent.
Ashley: We have been me and my siblings, we've been so blessed to have our mom and our dad. I would not be anything if I didn't have them, honestly. They laid the path for us in every way, truly, from little babies, making sure we're cared for, making sure we could read and write and imagine. Gosh, I can go on a tangent about that.
Kat: Well, actually, I do want to ask about your parents, so I can skip to those questions, actually, because I read about your parents and how much they valued creativity. And I read that your father did pencil drawings.
Kat: And I know your mother encouraged reading and writing, and I'm sure had a creative practice of her own. And I wonder if you could speak a little bit to where they absorbed that love of creativity from, and if there's something in particular that they created, particularly your dad or your mom, like a pencil drawing that is meaningful to you or has informed your work in some way.
Ashley: Well, yeah, there's a lot of answers I have to give now to this question. I'll start with my dad, who, as you said, he could use a pencil to create, like a photo realistic portrait. He had no lessons ever. When we asked him, how did you know you could do this? He said, well, I just picked up a pencil one day, and I was bored. And I said, I want to draw Mickey Mouse. And so I did. And it was only when I think his mom said, oh, that's really good. He realized I'm good at this thing. And he never really made a career of doing art. He would help us with our projects. Both of my parents are very hands on, like, super hands on parents, but he would, like, help us draw things for school. And actually in our house, we have these portraits of all the kids, so me, my sisters and my brother that he drew by hand and they're hanging up in the living room. But other than that, he didn't really draw very often at all, even though he had this amazing talent. But he did do a lot of things in the garden and that was sort of the way his visual arts manifested, creating beautiful… How do I say, I'm not a gardener, but you know how the flowers are arranged in the little plot. He did that thing.
Ashley: And he built things out of wood. We have these herb… I'm not a gardener. The things that herbs grow in, like the planters. People assume that I'm so good at gardening because of my dad. That was his thing. I enjoyed the fruits of his labor and did what he told me to do when I was out there.
Kat: There's a lot of weeding.
Ashley: Yeah. That was not something that I enjoyed at all. But he built these things by hand and he loved imagining how to rig something up. He could fix literally anything. We rarely had to call any sort of repairman. That's why now it's like what do we do when something breaks? Who do we call? Because usually dad would just fix it even if he didn't know what he was doing as a kid. I thought he just had all this experience in fixing, but he just was figuring it out by himself because he was brilliant. I don't know where that came from for him, honestly. He wasn't raised in a particularly creative household. He was one of twelve children and he endured abuse from his father. He was a terrible man. I never met my grandfather at all. But my aunts and uncles and my dad tell these horrible stories about him. Clearly a very hurt man. There's no way you can do things like that to children or to your wife if there's not something broken inside of you.
Ashley: So I have always wondered what that is and what of that lives in me because it lived in my dad too. He spent his whole life fighting the history of that and the shadows of that.
Ashley: He did a great job of not repeating what his father did. That was very clear in his mind that he would not be that kind of father and he was not at all. But I can't imagine what he was carrying. Anyway, so I'm not sure why he decided to draw that day if it really was just I'm bored and want to do something. I don't know. I would say that it was given to him. I believe all of us are given something and I believe that God or the universe or whatever you call it reveals that to you at whatever time you need it. And so perhaps he needed to escape or to feel valuable because his father was one who told him that he was not valuable, told him he wasn't smart all these things. And so maybe being able to draw gave him some sort of confidence. I don't know. And then my mom, I'll transition. My mom, she is not an artist in any traditional sense. She doesn't draw or sing. I mean, she sings, but she doesn't sing very well, which I love.
Kat: [laughing] Do you want me to edit that out in post?
Ashley: [laughing] Oh, she knows she can't sing because I told her. I'm so nostalgic for her bad singing, like she would sing us lullabies terribly and she was kind of making it worse for fun.
Ashley: But she's not a singer at all. And I told her, Mom, if you've been pretending this whole time and you actually are a super good singer, I'm going to be so angry. Not because I want the good singing, but I've grown so attached to this terrible singing, right? And then you just do this. But so far she's not pretending, she's not a singer and she doesn't write, like she's not a writer or anything. However, I think if someone had made her do that as a young person, she definitely would be doing it. And she's got such a good eye. I've always gone to her with my work since I was young to ask her, what does it sound like? Is it good? What should I fix? Give me some ideas. And she always is able to do it very naturally. So she never discouraged us. Neither of my parents, we were raised in a household where what we did was art. We were reading by age three, which I think is maybe unusual, I don't know, but we were reading a lot and she taught us how to write very early, made sure we knew how to do sentences and vocabulary and all of that. We watched public TV. We didn't have cable when we were little, which I didn't know was like a marker of economic standing. I had no idea. I was like, oh, well, we just have this channel. It's good. As a kid, you'd never know, right, until you meet other kids and they're like, oh, you don't have this, you don't do that. You're like, oh, well, I don't, but I'm not unhappy. But we would watch Barney, Arthur, Sesame Street and at night we'd watch Lawrence Welk, which I know is like ridiculous for little kids to look forward to. The Lawrence Welk Show, right? But we did. And during the day too, we would be able to do like, little arts and crafts. My mom would make Play-Doh from scratch, which again I thought was just like a cool thing that parents could do. I did not understand that it's because Play-Doh was expensive. Just didn't even cross my mind when I said, we've been so blessed like our parents and are just amazing, providing us with every experience we could ever need and not really letting us know that maybe our situation was different than some other people. So we would do that and paint, draw. I used to draw a lot before I knew that I wasn't good at it. I just did it because again, my parents didn't say like, oh, you suck. They were like, oh, good job, you're doing so great. Keep exploring, whatever. And so, yeah, she and my dad definitely encouraged us to just be ourselves. And I think they noticed all us kids like imagination and reading and that kind of thing. And they didn't say, you need to be more practical. Stop making believe, stop running through the backyard singing, stop reading all those books. None of that. They were very encouraging and put us in schools that fostered that as well. I think I answered the question.
Kat: Yeah, I know I sort of threw, like four questions at you, which I apologize for that. But no, I think that you really hit it. And thank you for sharing more about your parents, because I think that where we come from that just informs so much of who we are. And it's just such a beautiful testimony to your relationship with them that they've given you this incredible gift of always affirming you and then never letting you know that maybe there was a struggle, regardless of the situation, they provided these really wonderful, enriching opportunities for you. And it was never like, oh, we don't have access to X, Y, or Z. How can we be creative, maybe even just in our ability to be parents? And I want to just double check that this is recording so I can keep kind of checking up on it. Cool. [checks podcasting equipment]
Ashley: I'm trying not to move my arm too much because I'm a very much a this kind of talker [waves arms].
Kat: Your bracelet actually sounds really great in the mic. It does. So if you ever want to exclaim and move your bracelet, it's not a bad idea.
Kat: Oh, man. We're building this airplane as we're flying it over here. So you did touch on this. But I do want to return to this because I think it is such an important thing to address. And especially, here I am. I'm a representative of a civil rights park, and I just want to talk about the amazing milestone that you've achieved as the first person of color, but also like, wow, it took that long. Here we are in the year 2021. It's just astounding to me. As I mentioned to you, I have read and listened to some of the interviews that you've done, and in a previous interview, you said you felt honored, but it shouldn't have taken this long. And I wanted to ask you, are there some poets in Alabama's, past or present, people that you feel should have been considered for this honor, whose names you'd like to lift up now?
Ashley: Well, as far as the past, I don't know the names, and I think that definitely says something. I don't know a lot of poets of color who remained here, or at least who were celebrated by the literary community enough that I would know them. And that definitely speaks to how insular it was when all this began. The poet laureate office was started in 1930, which is just seven years after the AWC was started, as well. And you can probably imagine who was eligible to be in those groups. And so a lot of the time of not having a person of color was because we literally couldn't. I mean, it was probably against the law or whatever for us to even enter the physical room and certainly the metaphorical room as well. So I'm not really sure. I'd have to do some research to learn who was making space for Black poets in Alabama throughout all of that time. As far as right now, there's so many amazing poets in Alabama. And I hope after I'm done after these four years, that there'll just be a bunch of people who have the opportunity to serve. I mean, I can think of a few just off the top of my head who are doing amazing work. One is Jacqueline Trimble, Dr. Jacqueline Trimble. I like to give her her respect. I playfully call her the Reverend Dr. Jacqueline Trimble. She's not a Reverend yet, but I feel like she's got to do it eventually. But she teaches at Alabama State University, which is dear to me because where my parents met is ASU. They attended there for undergrad, and that's where they met. So I love that school for that reason. But anyway, she teaches down there. And she has one book out currently called American Happiness, which I highly recommend. If you like my book, you're going to love her book. I mean, she writes about race and Southern-ness and the difficulty of holding those two identities as a Southern woman, as a Black woman, as someone who's politically engaged, as a mother, as a Christian woman. All of these intersections meet in her book. And she has another book coming out next year, I want to say, called How to Survive the Apocalypse, which the poems in there… You want to be ready. That's all I will say. You need to go ahead and seek out the Pre-order link for that book because it's amazing. And you may see a familiar face on the back giving it a blurb. I don't know. You didn't hear that from me, right? But yeah, she's definitely someone who's done a lot of important work in Alabama and represents so many communities. She's also Black, but we have an age difference, too. So she represents those who have families. I don't have any children. She calls herself an emerging poet. To me, she's just like part of the landscape. But since this is her second book and we're not the same age, I'll say it that way. And so she's like, well, I'm just starting. And a lot of people like me who took a long break from getting their degree, she stopped because her mother passed away and she had to raise her family. And she came back to writing poetry after all those years after she had already established her career as a scholar and worked at various universities, she's now kind of returning to her passion for writing. And so I think she does represent people who aren't always celebrated in our community. Like, right now it's all about the hot young virtuoso. And I'm not calling myself that, by the way. I really am not. But that's kind of what's in fashion. And people feel self-conscious if they're not 30 and got billions of books and rising to the top of all these lists and everything.
Kat: I think there's this prevalence to have these lists like 30 under 30 and 40 under 40. And what I'm really drawn to is, like the 80 over 80, like, who are the people who are still creative, still doing interesting things, regardless of the barriers that present themselves as people age? That I think is truly remarkable - for people to set their work aside, set their life’s passions aside, because there are other roles that we play in our lives and then to pick it back up, that is truly inspiring.
Ashley: I can't imagine, truly. Like, I literally cannot imagine stopping and coming back to it after living all of that. I told her this, actually, we were on a podcast together earlier this year and I said, well, it's interesting that you say you're self-conscious because I feel self-conscious being a Southern woman who's now 31, I'm unmarried. I'm not about to get married or anything. I don't have kids. I feel like I'm not whole in some way because of what society has told us about being a woman anywhere but especially in the south. And she said to me, no, you're walking your correct path, so don't even worry about that. So I said back to her, well, so are you. If I'm doing the thing I'm supposed to do, then you had to do what you had to do as well. It all had to happen that way for some reason. I don't know what's going to happen to me in ten years. I don't mean that in a bad way, whoever's listening. But I just mean, like, maybe it's that I'm getting this done now so that I can leave to do something else, have a family or whatever I need to do.
Ashley: But yeah, there are many of us working in Alabama now, and I really just hope if nothing else comes from my appointment, I just hope that it shows whoever is out there that it is possible for them that they can represent Alabama and not feel like, I don't know. I'll say it this way. It can be hard to tell people where you're from if you're from the deep south. People make so many assumptions and most of them are wrong unless they assume that we know how to cook. Usually that's true. But other than that, and it can be hard to be someone who is political and progressive and inclusive. And also I'm representing Alabama. But I'm hoping that through me serving these four years, people of all belief systems of all genders and gender identities, sexual orientations, economic situations. I hope everybody is like, oh, cool. That could be something I could do, too. It is possible. It's not a closed off club. Not to say that everything is solved by me being here. That's the furthest thing from the truth, I think.
Ashley: Which maybe we'll get into. But, yeah, that's the hope. That we'll have so many more names we can say and it won't be some like, wow, it's been almost a century. Hopefully it's well, okay, in this four years we had this person, that four years we had that person, and we have just a plethora of names we can look at.
Kat: Right. Yeah. It's interesting that you brought up the perception that people have of the South. I'm from Michigan and my husband is not white. And his mother, his father passed away, but his mother was so terrified for us to move down here. And she's from the south, and she's also not white, and I think has a lot of her own traumas from growing up as a Black woman in Tennessee. And we've moved down here and like, absolutely, there are so many issues. It's still, in many ways the city is segregated. But we've also been really impressed with a lot of aspects of the city as well. So we've realized it's not an either or. It's an and. And Alabama and Birmingham can sort of encompass so much. And it's sort of almost in this like… maybe if we look cosmically, maybe in this space of limbo, of transitioning from one thing to the next, and it's just a lot is happening, but a lot of good.
Kat: So we've talked a little bit about the poet laureate-ship, and I want to respect your time. So maybe I'll skip the next question that I planned to ask you. Unless you feel strongly about it.
Ashley: I don't remember it.
Kat: It was about tokenism. But do you want to?
Ashley: I think we may have to talk about that a little bit.
Kat: Okay. Let's go for it. Let's go for it. So anyway, I have been thinking a lot about tokenism and how the successes of a few African Americans are often held up to demonstrate change when obviously for so many, the meaningful change is yet to come. And I was thinking about your situation in regards to this, and I'm wondering, too, reading the poems that you wrote, reading a little bit about your background in terms of education, if to you there's any comparison in terms of experiences being the first person of color to hold this position and then thinking back to your days in primary and secondary school where you wrote you were the only Black girl in most of your classes, is there like a connection there? And if so, how would you describe that connection?
Ashley: Yes, I think there absolutely is a connection. And this is the thing that most people don't really want to get into because it makes them uncomfortable, because it's really easy to sort of tie it up and say, oh, well, you're here, we did it. It's done.
Ashley: But if we even look at integration and integrating schools in the, I guess, 50s and 60s and beyond, honestly, we don't have to get into it. But looking at that practice, we know it didn't solve anything at all. If anything, it created new problems. Thinking about my dad who integrated a school in Bessemer when he was a kid, he said it was like going to war every day. People were just fighting them, throwing things at them, and it's like, wow, what am I even doing here? This is supposed to be, quote, unquote, better. But of course it's not better because the actual problem is not being solved. Simply putting two people in the room together doesn't erase what they've been taught, what they're expected to do when they see someone of a different race. It doesn't erase the pressure to perform hatred. I'm sure not every kid who threw something, who threw a rock at my dad, I'm sure not every one of them believed he was worthy of that rock, but they also knew that some other kids or their parents or someone made a situation where they had to do that thing. And that's not being addressed. If we're just, okay, come into our school, that's the end. If we're not changing the curriculum at all, if we're not addressing the ways in which Black children are taught differently than white children, if we're not addressing the homes that they go back to, the redlining that happens, what are we actually addressing? Nothing. And so it's necessary. That's not a step. That's I think maybe apart of it, but it's not the complete solution. And I do think people are way too eager for an easy solution to a complicated problem. Because, again, if you think about where the problem began, it wasn't as simple as a white person went to Africa and was mean to someone. It was a lot more than that. We're trying to repair just a horrible I mean, all the words you use to describe it are just terrible. Genocide, rape, pillage, trafficking, brutalizing, whatever. All of those things are so deep, it's difficult to just say, oh, here's our Black person at our office. We have diversity. It's the end. Absolutely not. And the same is true for me, even though I did not integrate a school like my dad did, just sitting in a room knowing that you're either one of, like, three or five or one, period. It's not a great feeling. You don't feel like, oh, now I've made it. You really feel like, where are my people? Does anyone see me here? Am I a check mark for them? Are people patting themselves on the back because now they have one in their school, in their classroom, whatever. And so a similar thing can happen with some of these firsts, obviously. Again, like I said in the last answer, it is a good thing to be visible as a Black person holding this position. That's fantastic. I'm very proud to do that. But I don't want anyone to confuse that with now we're done. The work is just beginning. Actually, there's a lot more to do. And for me personally, I do feel like it is the case often with these firsts that the first who is allowed to cross the border, this metaphorical border has to be held to such a ridiculously high standard. Yes, and I'm not being boastful at all, but I've been working myself to the literal bone, like, for my whole life to hold myself to an unreasonably high standard, because I know I'm not going to be able to enter any room at average like other people might be able to. That's just not true. Obviously, I'm proud of my accomplishments. I worked hard because I wanted to work hard. But I also understand there's a reason it's me, if I'm put here to be that person, to allow maybe others down the line to not almost kill themselves working, great. I'm glad that I can do that service, but I do want to make sure people understand thinking of someone as exceptional is not a compliment, making it seem like, oh, you are doing well despite your race. That's not good. There's nothing about being Black that has held me back inherently. It's not like my Black brain can't work like other people. It's the society that I'm working against, not my own Blackness. And that's sort of how I think about this whole situation. Not just with me again, just with any first that we've ever studied in school. Those people are always held to a ridiculous standard. And by the same token, those of us who are murdered very publicly are held to an interesting standard as well. When someone is murdered, and I have to say murdered and not killed because it's very important in how we use our language, all of a sudden reports of, oh, they weren't perfect, though. They one time smoked some weed. So that's why they got killed, or they weren't a very nice person. That's why they got killed. They lived in a bad neighborhood. It's ridiculous, truly, that we're still not allowed to just be human beings as Black people. That's really what I'm trying to do with the Reparations book that I just released is just assert that we are human beings, that's it. The sooner we can get to that point, we're not going to have to do all these political gymnastics to justify people's murders or to say, oh, we have our first Black, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, let's be proud of ourselves. If we just understand that Black people are human beings already, maybe we can eliminate some of these problems in the future.
Kat: Wow, it seems like such a big role to step in on so many levels generationally, personally, and then reflecting multiple generations down what the work that you're doing will mean for so many little Black girls, so many people of color. But I think so many Black girls in particular, to have what you're doing and the voice that you're giving to this experience. Not to say that every experience is the same, but the aspects of it that are a collective experience, I'm sure it's going to be really transformative for you and then for the state. Certainly they chose you for a reason. They know your work. They know your voice. So I'm really looking forward to seeing the work that you do in the realm specifically of civil rights, human rights, social justice. Kind of like going back to that idea of ancestry and how the past informs the present, which then informs the future. It's so weird. Someone once said, and I know this was not in the movie Frozen, that the past has never passed.
Kat: And I think that is just such a true statement. In the previous interview, multiple interviews, you've described reciting a poem in class about Harriet Tubman written by Eloise Greenfield. Right?
Kat: And I think it was when you were in the second grade, which is, that's a big deal, as a second grader, because I think you had memorized the poem, like dang, girl, well done. And in an interview, said that you felt a power you hadn't felt before. And I'm wondering if you could describe what that power felt like in your body, and did you feel that transmitting to the people you were reading in front of? Was there something happening there collectively? And then who or what was transmitting that power to you?
Ashley: Okay, I'm going to try to answer each of those questions.
Kat: I'll repeat them, because again, I'm tossing multiple questions at you, which is not fair.
Ashley: No, I mean, this is how the game works. People have been interviewing me and just asked me five questions at the same time. So I'm getting better. Okay. Yeah. That moment is so funny. Honestly, I had forgotten about that moment until a few years ago because there's a poem in my second book about the actual recitation day. And I don't know what it was that made me remember that it happened, but once I remembered it, it all just came flooding back. And I don't think, to answer one of your questions, I don't think anybody in the room but me felt the power. I'm pretty sure the other seven year olds were just, like, nervous about their presentation. Nobody really cared. You know what I’m saying? My teacher, I'm sure she was pleased that I did what I had to do, but I don't know that… I could ask her. She's still in my orbit. I maybe should ask her one day if she remembers. But no, it was definitely just for me, within me, this feeling, and it felt a lot of ways. For one, I'll explain a little bit about who I was at age seven. That's pretty important, I think, to the story, as you may know, I was a very different sort of child. I always joke that I was born an old lady. Like all of my siblings, we're all just little old people always like, weirdly mature for our age. And watching Lawrence Welk unironically. Like, we were literally entertained by the Lawrence Welk Show. If you don't know what that is -
Kat: [laughing] I actually don't. I've been too embarrassed to say it up until now. But now, since it's a theme, that's going to be…
Ashley: That’s because you’re young enough, like I shouldn’t know what it is.
Kat: Well, I'm older than you, so…
Ashley: You’re not old enough to know Lawrence Welk.
Kat: Yeah, I'm definitely not.
Ashley: When you look it up, you're really going to laugh, because it's truly ridiculous that these little Black children were looking forward to the Lawrence Welk Show. It was like a variety show. And I don't even know the years that it ran, but it looked like the 50s and 60s, I guess, all white, like very milk toast, like picture Perry Como, Bing Crosby kind of feeling. And they would do little numbers together, sing little songs, and all very happy. The world is perfect, that kind of thing.
Ashley: And my favorite part was the opening. Like, when they put the title screen up, there was all these bubbles that came across the name the Laurence Welk Show. And we loved that.
Kat: The simple things in life.
Ashley: Well, yes. I mean, looking back, it's truly ridiculous, the things that we were excited about. But you are who you are.
Kat: It's true. Yeah. You might as well own it.
Ashley: Exactly. So that's the kind of kid I was. Watching Laurence Welk and reading all these books and just living in my own world of imagination. And I was in the self-contained gifted class from second grade to fifth grade, which is a really interesting program. I don't know if you've heard of this before, but I think they don't do it anymore. And for very good reason. Actually, it does, I think, a lot of damage to a student on either side because they had what was called the typical classes, the non-gifted, which already you're setting up a weird hierarchy. And then the gifted students who were self-contained. We had a small class of about ten students, and we got to do the interesting stuff, right. We would go on trips and we'd get to read more exciting books than maybe the other children because we were advanced, quote unquote. But for me, little empath Ashley, I was just like constantly wishing I could have friends in the other classes because in the gifted class, there was this sort of competitiveness that I really was not into. I mean, I'm a Leo, but I'm a very different sort of Leo. It's not that I don't like competition.
Kat: We'll ask your siblings later. We'll be interviewing them, and –
Ashley: They would probably be really nice. But also, I'm sure they'd have a take on my competitive nature, right?
Kat: Every sibling does.
Ashley: Yeah. Wow. Anyway, so it wasn't really conducive to who I was at the time to be so worried about my grades. And I think I really learned a lot of bad habits about equating my worth with my grades because we all want to make the highest grade possible. And I remember if you made a 90, it was like, shameful, almost.
Ashley: Not from the teacher necessarily, but just the other kids. They were like, oh, well, I'm in 98. And I'm like, wow, I must be stupid. I'm in a gifted class. I got to stay here. And I remember, too. We would get math assignments that were not what the other kids were learning. And I would take it home to my dad and be like, dad, do you know what this is? Because I don't know how to do this. They didn't tell us. We're supposed to know because we're gifted. At least that's my memory of it. I'm sure if you interviewed other people, they might have another thing to say, but that's how it felt for me. And on top of all of that, I had enlarged tonsils and adenoids. So I was always congested. I had a voice that I did not like because it was just all sick sounding. And I would always look at the other kids, especially the other little girls, who could breathe through their noses. And I thought, oh, they're so pretty. They can just breathe. I'm like, over here heaving. It was terrible. So I had a lot was going on in my mind, and on top of that, I had this proper way of speaking. I couldn't do the amazing, cool way of speaking that I heard my family, like, my aunts, uncles, grandma, mom, and dad, like, they all had amazing, like, the jazz that Black people can bring to a thing. Oh, yes, they had that. The way they even laughed. It was just, like, so free. And I was just very like, oh, my gosh, very structured. Which that's another conversation perhaps. But anyway, all this was in my mind, and I got this book from the library, Honey I Love. And I didn't really read poetry that much back then. Actually, it was mostly fiction books. I was obsessed at that time with the book Harriet the Spy, because I had a little spy Journal that I carried around just like her. And I would spy on my family, which is super creepy, I know. But anyway, for whatever reason, was reading Honey I Love. And it was just, like, thrilling to see Black characters and they weren't in pain. That's the other thing. I had been very afraid of Black history because my parents had us to watch Roots, which I appreciate. Like, now as an older person, I'm like, okay, good. We learned about it, blah, blah, blah. But at the time, I was, like, so scared.
Kat: There was a poem about it in Magic City Gospel. I think you wrote that you were three years old. I've watched Roots. It's really intense.
Ashley: It's extremely intense. And I definitely thought that it was possible to be put into slavery. And that's no shade to my parents at all. They explained all they could. But as a kid, you just can't comprehend. As an adult, you can't comprehend it either. No, but certainly as a child, it doesn't make any sense.
Kat: Well, time also is sort of this hazy concept for a child.
Ashley: It is. Roots wasn't made in slavery times. It's like with these people, Lavar Burton is on Reading Rainbow right now. I love that guy right there. If he is there, then…
Kat: Yeah, if the guy from Reading Rainbow can be enslaved, any of us can.
Ashley: Any of us. Yeah. So I had stopped reading Black books. That was my thing as a kid. Our parents made sure we were always surrounded by Blackness in every single way, which, again, going back to how did we get blessed with these parents? I don't know what I did in the past life to award me these parents, but I took a left from Black history because I was so scared of it. So reading this book where there was none of that, and I saw the Black people smiling in the book. They just were alive. It was amazing. And I felt like, oh, man, yeah, this is great. I'm Black, just like these people. And so I memorized the poem, “Harriet Tubman.” And I remember the day that it was time to recite. My mom came to the school, which was, like, amazing, because you feel protected, because your mom… none of the scary elementary school things can happen to you because there's your mom. And so she dressed me up as Harry Tubman in a white dress. Who knows how to dress like Harry Tubman, truly. But that's what we did. And I got in front of the class and I was ready to go because, of course, I've been practicing over and over again. My mom made sure, she still makes sure we know what we're doing all the time. And I remember standing up there and I began to recite the poem. It began: “Harriet Tubman didn't take no stuff, wasn't scared of nothing neither. Didn't come in this world to be no slave and wasn't going to stay one either.” And it goes on a little bit. But I remember saying the words and just feeling like, oh, yeah, I don't fully realize. I didn't have those words as a seven year old, but I just felt, like, not self conscious. I didn't scrutinize my voice. I didn't feel awkward saying, didn't take no stuff because I was very proper English kind of little girl. But I just felt, like, free in a way. And for me, it just was a clear like, okay, cool. This is what I want to do now. I've done my little stories, but now it's time for the real stuff. I'm going to write like this. And I did write about race as a young person. Somebody just asked me the other day, when did you start? I started as soon as I started writing poems. I was concerned with that as a young person because that poem, that book, was the one that turned me on to it. So I didn't see it as like a problem to write about race at all. And I just felt more empowered, I guess. Harriet Tubman was definitely speaking to me through that poem. She was leading me out of something, maybe not literal slavery, but she definitely helped me get away from whatever mental trap I have set for myself. And then Eloise Greenfield, of course, I hope that she knew what she did for black children with all of her books just to give us something to read that had our faces in it, something that had joy in it. It's vital for us to learn about our history. It is vital, but it's also vital for us to understand that we can be joyful as well for us to know that we're humans as well, because it does get to a point sometimes when you're in school and all you want about Black people is that they may be invented some stuff, and they were enslaved for forever, and everybody hated them. That's all you get. You don't get: and here is the long history of how Black hairstyles have traveled from Africa. Here are the songs that they sang, and here's what they meant. Here is the great history of the literature. You don't get that. You just don't. And so, yeah, those people were speaking to me for sure. And I think I was also speaking to me. Interestingly enough, I think I finally heard myself for the first time. And that's not to say that it was all like, boom, now I'm totally fixed, but it was the beginning of a journey for me. I think hopefully that answers.
Kat: Oh, that was such a beautiful answer. There's so many things I want to follow up on. I'm so glad you brought up Black joy, because one of the things that we've been really wrestling with is we're putting together a Junior Ranger book, which I mentioned to you. And the Junior Ranger book is typically marketed towards young people under 17, but we joke that ours is for kids from three to 93. And obviously, we want to recount the history and not shy away from the harder details. But how do you represent the resiliency and the entrepreneurship and creativity that happened despite that situation, which I think is such a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit, but certainly the creativity of Black culture and all the innovations that have been brought to the United States to the Americas, really, through Black culture. And so we're wrestling with that and wanting to find a balance with it. It's been hard. Yeah.
Ashley: I mean, I do think it has to do with kind of goes back to language. For me, when you think about Black history, there's a feeling that you feel when you hear that phrase. Right. Like you expect a certain sort of thing, you expect some tears, you expect some sad thing to have happened. And I think for me, what I've been thinking about as an educator, too is framing the history not as this thing that happened to Black people as their history, but that the people who did the things, that's their history as well. If we frame it as this is the story of America, here is what these people did to others. It sort of changes it a little bit. It takes some pressure off of the Black kids who are learning it, for one, to not feel like I have to carry now the hurt that was put upon me, because it does feel that way. I think every Black person of a certain age, my age, I feel like I'm talking like I'm old, but most of us.
Kat: Right. A little kid will look at you and be like, you're 45. They have no concept of age. Yeah. I think that that's a really great point. And to me, it's like the difference between passive and active voice.
Kat: It's like this was done to Black people, and it's like, no white supremacy did this.
Ashley: Actively. It wasn’t that it just fell into their hands, like, oh, here we have these Klan robes. What are we going to do with them?
Ashley: They went out of their way to make it. They did that to others and to themselves. Honestly. We also need to start including how white supremacy hurts white people as well.
Ashley: Because that's always left off for some reason. And I guess if you go through, I'm not white. So tell me your experience, I guess. But if you go through life believing that this thing has only hurt others and you're somehow safe from it, what does that do to your mind? There's no way for you to understand how to interact or have empathy or whatever.
Kat: Yeah, absolutely. Well, when I think about the benefits of civil rights and the benefactors of civil rights, a lot of researchers say it's been predominantly white women that have benefited from the legislative advances that were pursued on behalf, in large part because of the African American community. And then you look at the differently abled community as well and all the legislation that was passed to support them. There are so many individuals worldwide who have benefited because of the efforts of the African American community. So.
Ashley: Yeah, absolutely.
Kat: You should look up what female Rangers used to wear because there was like a white gogo boot, like short miniskirt situation.
Ashley: Are you kidding? In the park in the park?
Ashley: How are you going to be outside?
Kat: I don't know. I don't know what they were thinking if, like, maybe a red carpet sort of rolled its way out in front of all the Lady Rangers. But yeah, it's our history.
Ashley: People are so ridiculous.
Kat: Yeah. I'll show you a picture afterwards, but definitely take a look at it. Okay. So let me look through the rest of my questions. Let's pivot to the role of poems, okay? We've talked about human and civil rights, and we've talked about what that means in terms of you holding this position as the first person of color to be the poet laureate of Alabama. But I want to talk about the power of a poem in itself, not the role that you're playing right now, but, like, the poetry that you write and its impact in the world. What have you seen as the power of a poem in terms of achieving human and civil rights?
Ashley: I've seen it in so many ways, and I'm really looking forward to seeing all the other ways as I continue living, because poetry is something I think that's so multifaceted. Like, it's definitely not just some words on the page. The poem is also the spirit who wrote it, the person who's listening, the person who it's about, it's everybody. And I've seen it change me. As I explained earlier, that poem, those words in a book. I did not hear someone say it. I did not watch it on a movie. I read it, and it did something within me. I see it in my students as well, of all ages, not just my young ones. They feel, I guess powerful is another word to use. They feel like their voice is meaningful because they see it there on the page. And then as the teacher, I can say, this is a voice. It's yours. It's worthy of being here. But a story that I like to tell that I think illustrates the changing power of poetry in a very tangible way. I am a part of a lot of different things, we know. But I'm a part of a group, a trio of organizers. It's myself, Alina Stefanescu and Laura Secord, and we're all poets, and we actually all are on the board of my nonprofit, the Magic City Poetry Festival. But before the poetry festival existed, we were just planning events throughout the city, kind of unattached to our organization. And this particular event that we've been doing for the past few years is called 100,000 Poets for Change. And it's a worldwide event where people from all over the world converge on the last Saturday of September. And events are planned and everybody's, town or city or wherever. And those events are centered around socially conscious poetry in Birmingham. For the past few years, we've added a fundraising arm to our efforts. So we not only do the readings, but we try to raise money for a local organization each year. So we've done this for a few years, and we've worked with several organizations throughout our time. But one particular year, I think it was 2018. What is time, honestly? But I think it was 2018. People can Google this once I say all the names of the organizations. It's easy to find. But we partnered up with Shut Down Etowa, which is a nonprofit working to assist those who are detained in Etowa County Detention Center, which is one of the worst in the nation, specifically for immigrant detention. And so we partnered up with them to raise money during our event. And we also partnered with Glass Poetry Press. And we did a commemorative issue where we published local writers and their socially conscious work. So during this particular year, we had two events. We usually just had one, but we had two this year to feature all these writers. And the events were just poetry readings. We asked for donations, as we did every single year. And usually you raise like maybe $500, which in nonprofit land is both big and small, as you know.
Ashley: But it's the best we can do. We just do whatever we can, whatever can help. That's all we want to do. So we set our little goal, maybe raise $500 again, like we always do. And at one of the events, we learned that if we raised $1,000, then that money could be matched by the group and it could be used to actually free somebody from detention. And we were like, okay, well, let's try. We don't know if we're going to make it, but we'll try. So we have our two events, and they're just readings. People are reading their poems. One of the representatives from the organization started reading letters from those who were inside as well. And through our purely just reading things, like, I can't emphasize this enough. We were not doing anything but literally reading poems, letters, whatever. We raised over $1,000, I think around $1,500. So we were able to give that money, which I mean, I don't think we were able to know specifics because legal things. But to know that that money could then be used to literally free a human being. Money raised just by people listening to poems, listening to words written. We are not politicians. We're not salespeople. We're just regular old poets reading poetry. That's it. And like I said, I already knew that poetry was powerful. I knew it. I mean, just looking at the history of our work and of my people, we have used art. The way that we create art is just unlike any other. I mean, my goodness, to survive. Even if you think about the songs that were sung by slaves, enslaved people, language is important. Using the art to literally save people or to give them guidance or whatever. This story is something that I think modern people can understand. Like, we were able to go from nothing, we had nothing to start out with, to let's free somebody with this money that we've raised. And even last year, during the I don't know what we're calling it, the political unrest. People have some PC term for what was happening, but you know what? It was people being angry because we watched a man get murdered before our eyes. During that time, my organization did poems for bail money, and a lot of people were doing it across the country. But in Birmingham, we had just like other people, it set up where if you donated to a bail fund or we broadened it to any liberation focused organization. So that included donating to places that helped unhoused people, places that provided food, etc. And all the places that are doing the work, ACLU, whatever, and the exchange. If you send them your receipt, you got a personalized poem by a team of poets we had assembled and they would write a poem just for you. And we raised gosh, I don't remember how much, but it was like, I want to say $2,000 something for all those different organizations, which again, is like tangible, usable money. One of the organizations that we fundraise for is called Be a Blessing Birmingham, and they work specifically with the unhoused community. And they were able to finally purchase an outdoor mobile shower unit for our unhoused neighbors, which is incredible. I mean, again, I'm rambling, but the point is, poems really can do so much because it's not just words, literature, whatever. It's the actual spirit. Sometimes people really make it too academic for me. Like, yes, I've studied it. I have all the degrees. That's great. But it's really a soul thing for me as an artist. Yes, I'm really excited to write a sonnet rhyme and blah, blah, blah. That's all fun. It's great. I love it. But I'm more excited to have that conversation with my own soul, with somebody else's soul. That's what I'm really doing it for, because it's not given to me by the God of Words. It's given to me, at least in my mind, by a God who is concerned with our hearts and our souls. So of course the work is doing that, too. But that's what a poem can do. Long answer. I'm sorry.
Kat: No, please don't apologize. That was beautiful. I was not aware of these aspects of your work and definitely want to hear more. And certainly the closure of a lot of public restroom facilities or just facilities in general is tied to the struggle towards civil rights with desegregation happening, and many cities in the south just closing down facilities rather than desegregating. So the issues that a lot of the unhomed are facing right now are in many ways related to the civil rights movement of the 60s and before and beyond. So, yeah, it's beautiful to hear how you've been able to make such a tangible difference. And I'm sure that of course informed your selection as the poet laureate, and I imagine we'll also inform a lot of your work in the rest of your life. So thank you for the gift of your service.
Ashley: Well, thank you. I'm glad to serve. Truly.
Kat: Well, I have a closing question, I think. Yeah. Thank you for being on this journey with me as I learned how to interview folks.
Ashley: You're doing great.
Kat: Thank you. I appreciate it. So before I ask my closing question, is there anything else that you wanted to mention before I ask about or ask you to read a poem from your book, Magic City Gospel?
Ashley: I don't know. People always ask you, what else do you want to say? I don't know what to say about myself. My goodness.
Kat: Yeah, I know. Okay, we'll move on. There was a question that is sort of a question I wanted to ask. We'll ask it after this.
Kat: And if we want to cut it, we can. You don't have to answer it.
Kat: So as closing thoughts, one of the things I found, one of the many things I found so lovely about your book, Magic City Gospel, and I look forward to reading your other ones. This one was available at the Birmingham Public Library quickly, so that's the one I read. One of the things I love is that you weave together poems that touch on beauty, love and hope alongside poems that unflinchingly assess the legacy of racism here in Birmingham. And you named it Magic City Gospel, which is for those of you who are not in Birmingham, that is a nickname for Birmingham. I wonder if we could close with you sharing what or who gives you hope in Birmingham? And then a reading of “God Speaks to Alabama,” which is on page 20.
Ashley: Oh, I haven't read that in a long time. Okay. I saw it in the questions, but even then when I read it, I was like, wow, what a deep cut. Yeah. What gives me hope, right?
Kat: Yeah. What gives you hope here in Birmingham? Or who? What a question.
Ashley: Well, okay, so honestly, what gives me hope is the community that I'm a part of or the various communities I'm a part of. The poets who are here really make me excited to be here, makes me excited to continue investing time and other things in the city. But also, I hate to be a cliche. And the older I get, it's like, we can't avoid being a cliche no matter what you do, whatever. But it's the children. As they say, children are our future, but they really are. I am so grateful to be a teacher, honestly. I mean, I definitely would not be a good writer if I was not a teacher. There's only so much the book learning can do. You got to be around youthful energy and really humble yourself as a teacher. If you're not humbling yourself, I don't think you're really teaching you really have to understand that the students are teaching you as well. They're showing you new ways. But, yeah, I'm just really hopeful seeing how excited they still are about writing. The world would want us to think that nobody is paying attention to books anymore, that we're all just on the Internet, we're all TikToking all day long, and that we need to stop teaching history, et cetera, et cetera. But seeing them engage, I mean, literally yesterday, oh, my goodness, yesterday. But I wish you'd been there, truly. So we had our competition for Poetry Out Loud, which is a national poetry competition. And so we had our school competition, which is like the first stage in a lot of different stages, anyway. So our students competed against each other to win a spot to go to the regionals. So every year it's really fun to see them do this because it's a little bit different than their typical performances, because we don't teach spoken word necessarily, not yet, anyway. Working on it, we teach more traditional, which I hate the distinctions. Everything is everything, truly. But you know how it is. So they're more used to reading from behind a podium, and some of them don't emote as much, whatever. So during Poetry Out Loud, the whole goal is for you to be emotive and just more animated than you may normally be. And they've also introduced a new category called the social justice category, which I think is just amazing that they did that. They did it last year. They started it last year in Alabama, maybe all over the country. I have to double check. But they started last year to respond to, I guess, the growing number of students who were writing original poems about social justice and in an effort to… D.I. is everywhere. So everybody's trying to do their diversity inclusion branch. So this was theirs. You know how it goes, right? But it's good. I'm glad that the students have that ability to win prizes for writing about issues. So yesterday, this is answering the question. I'm getting there. Yesterday we had our competition, and I was expecting it to be good, like it always is. It's good to see the kids doing their thing, and they love seeing each other perform. It's a very supportive Department that we have. And we had, like, guests. Our judges were from other parts of the school, which is always fun to have somebody else see what we do every day. So they get up and every single student is like, I don't even know where this came from. And I know that they're talented. I work with them. I know it. But something about these poems this year, people were just on it. The poems that they shared, I mean, just beyond. One young man wrote about how difficult it is to be a biracial person and to have, I'm misquoting this poem, I'm sorry, but one of the lines was like, how does it feel to have both the blood of the master and the blood of the slave in the same body? And I was like, well, okay, then let me get back to writing, because it's amazing. It was truly amazing. And to see how proud they were to share their work and to see us be proud of them sharing their work, that's the thing that gives me the most hope for humanity, truly, that these young people have a chance still to not become jaded, to not become soured in some way, that they can still see a way through that they feel empowered to speak their truth. I have to keep doing what I'm doing, if only to make sure that there is a path laid out for them, just like everyone did for me. They did it for me. I have to do it for them. They'll do it for someone else. That's the hope. I don't have hope in systems ever, because they are what they are. But in people, I absolutely do. And Birmingham is such a magical place, no pun intended, but it's really somewhere where I think there's so much possibility. And I think we are still struggling to understand what that means in Alabama in general. But in Birmingham specifically, I think we are in a moment where we can decide who we're going to be moving forward. We can look back at the history and understand that we can still be that kind of leader in social justice. We can still be a place people look to and look up to. But coming out of the pandemic and just trying to figure out what it is that we can do as we build the city that will determine what happens in the next 50 years, what kind of a place this will be. But I do think we can be an amazing destination, not just for our amazing national parks, but for other things like the arts and culture that we have here.
Kat: And the barbecue and the barbecue.
Kat: Let's not forget, I will admit this was a question I was going to ask, but I'll just admit this aspect of my past life that I was really fortunate to go to school with someone, with a teacher who was an excellent spoken word teacher. His name is Jeff Kass, and he was all about like, you know, Def Jam poetry. And he created a nonprofit that ended up being where a lot of those activities were housed. And they actually cut records of high schoolers writing their poetry. So I'm just like putting that little, just dropping that in your lap.
Ashley: I do not need anymore.
Kat: I know, I'm not suggesting you do it, but I'm just saying that I could see that being something that happens here because of, was it “The Voice” Porter who passed away recently and just all the work that he did and how much of a role he played in the Birmingham Public Library system and all the spoken word events that he hosted. It seems like there's a really great space for that in Birmingham. I know that was huge for me as a young adult, feeling like there was a space where my voice, my words mattered. And getting in front of a group of people and saying things out loud is such an important skill, especially when it's something that you really feel passionately about. That is the most important skill that I feel that I've ever learned, probably in my life. Besides just being a nice person.
Kat: Besides just general empathy and kindness. So it's so wonderful that you're creating that space for your students and celebrating their success and acknowledging that they have something to teach you because everybody has something to teach others, and that empowers us to know that we can. Great. Well, why don't you read God Speaks to Alabama for us.
Ashley: Sure. I'm really curious why you chose this poem. Actually, nobody ever chooses this poem for me to read.
Kat: Yeah. I guess I was thinking a lot about your appointment as the poet laureate for Alabama. And again, this is the only collection of your work that I've read, and it's so much about place and then thinking about how the education work that we do is so place based. What is Alabama to you? What can Alabama be in the future? What can we hope for our not only our heritage spaces and the role that they play in our communities, but how can we see that reverberating beyond those spaces? Like, how can we see all of it grow and change and improve?
Ashley: I like that. Yeah. This little poem.
Kat: But then afterwards, you could tell me what the poem is all about because maybe I misinterpreted it.
Ashley: No, no, I think you're on the right track. It's just nobody ever really thinks about that about this poem specifically, or this is the way that I am celebrating the space. Usually people are very focused on my historical pieces, which is I mean, I do what I do. That's all well and good. But I also forget about these moments where I'm really focusing on the place and what the place is and what it can be, what it feels like. Yeah. So thank you for reminding me of that.
God Speaks to Alabama.
I molded you from red clay, sweet cornbread, the slow
drip of a lemon squeezed over sugar and ice.
I kissed you to life on the lips, Mama
bird, I am, my tongue feeds you blood.
I have waited in this heat for
you to pucker and say my name.
I give you fire and
blackberries and white, thick cotton.
I give you the honey bee and the yellow hammer.
Find me, swallow me down and whisper me to passers
by as you sit nightly on the creaky front porch.
Kat: Thank you.
Ashley: Thank you. I like that poem. Goodness, I forgot about this poem. Wow.
Kat: Is there anything you'd like to say about it?
Ashley: You know, I think it really exemplifies the beauty that I feel here in Alabama. I wrote this when I was in Miami in grad school and, like, super homesick and just sad. Honestly, I was glad to be there for many reasons. It was a great experience, but I'm very, very close to my family, and I realized how much I really missed just the feeling of this place. And so this poem, all of these were a part of my attempt to get back, even if it was just by writing it down. And I think it was also a part of my realization that I saw just so much good in the actual place of Alabama. Excuse me. As you know, Miami does not look like Alabama in any shape or form.
Kat: I've actually lived there, so I do.
Ashley: Oh, bless you.
Kat: I've survived the traffic.
Ashley: Look, that's a whole other conversation.
Kat: It is.
Ashley: I don't know how either of us are standing.
Kat: No, it's a blessing.
Ashley: Oh, my gosh. But yeah, just thinking back to, like, there's a certain way. And I know you haven't been here long, but I think you may have already started to understand there's a way that the landscape is telling you a story. There's a sweetness sometimes in the air, like right when the sun is going down and you see just the trees and the way that the sky looks. And it's just beautiful, at least for me, when I see - I'm looking at an office, but I'm imagining the landscape when I see the beauty of the state of Alabama in all the big and small ways, even down to the way the pebbles might look, or the red dirt near my grandma's house, or the clouds on a particular day, or the way the rain falls on the crops in the backyard that my dad has planted, the way the leaves fall, the way the birds chirp, all of these things I can't help but recognize, oh, there is something greater than us. It has made this beauty for us. For me, that thing is God. And I can even see it here in Alabama, which is supposed to be such a scary place. And I mean, the whole country truly is a scary place for many of us. But there is at least still that. And it does go back to my parents because they raised us in such a way that we knew we could actually see God in a much more expansive way than traditionally seen. We can see God in the grass. That's also God. We can see God in a line in our palm. That's God, too. We can see God in books, in an evening spent around a little television watching Laurence Welk. It's everywhere. They're everywhere. God is everywhere. Gender is weird for me with God, because how can I? I don't know.
Kat: Yes. It's hard to ask God their preferred pronouns
Ashley: You can't so I just stick to God. That's good enough for me. But yeah, that's what it brings up for me. Just this moment I must have had I can't remember exactly where I was when I wrote it, but I do remember the feeling of trying to see Alabama again through the poem. So hopefully that happens to the listeners. They can feel just hugged by that image of God in Alabama.
Kat: Well, thank you for sharing that and thank you for that last image of beauty and sense of place and hope. It has truly been a joy to speak with you and I'm so excited for all that you've done, all that you will do not just in this appointment as poet laureate, but in your life work and we look forward to seeing how we might collaborate on some poetry related events as they touch on civil rights and human rights. So thank you again, so much.
Ashley: Thank you. This has been great.
Conclusion: This is We Will Rise: National Parks and Civil Rights. Thanks to the Psalters for use of their song Turn me Round. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to our series. Until next time. [music: keep on walking, keep on talking, marching on to freedom land].
Episode 4: But for Birmingham
Tune in as we interview Dr. Glenn Eskew, author of the book But for Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle.
Ranger: Welcome to We Will Rise: National Parks and Civil Rights. Close your eyes and imagine a National Park. Are you picturing waterfalls and mountains, or do you think of Dr. King's childhood home, Japanese internment camps, or a school that became a battleground for racial integration? National Parks aren't just wilderness. They are spaces of remembrance founded to preserve the stories of who we are and how we came to be. National parks inspire us to do better, be better. To climb mountains both physical and figurative. Join park rangers, researchers, authors and activists as we discuss what liberty and justice for all means on our public lands. The following episode features an interview with Dr. Glenn Eskew, author of the book, But for Birmingham. The first 30 minutes are detailed synopsis of the book. If you haven't read it, this is a great opportunity for a deep dive. If you have read it or just want to listen to the author interview, skip to minute 30.
Ranger Kat: So I'm so thrilled to be speaking with you about your book, But for Birmingham: the Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle. And I have to say just a couple of days ago, an uncle of mine teaches African American history at a college in Michigan, and he and his wife sent us a bunch of books about African American history in the region. And one of the books he sent us was your book wonderful?
Dr. Eskew: Wonderful!
Ranger Kat: Yeah. And I haven't spoken to him about it yet, but I can't wait to message him and say, guess who I spoke to today? Your book has traveled far and wide and is one of the books that really, I think, does an incredible job of explaining the movement in Birmingham, a really overall incredible, incredible summary, but also really gets into the details. And I've had the good fortune of reading it. But I'm wondering for those who haven't read it, if you could give us a couple of minutes of a synopsis of the book?
Dr. Eskew: Sure. And what I would do and sketching out the story is begin by setting the stage of looking at Birmingham. Most people are aware that it's a city rooted in industry, that was founded after the Civil War. So it has no Antebellum past, no official history with quote the enslavement of people, and was rather born of the brash New South, with foreign capital coming in to invest and extract the mineral wealth from the region. And that aspect of that, that story is accurate up through really the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 60s. And so it helps to frame the story within the context of the iron and steel industry. Because the iron and steel industry, while it was not premised in enslavement, it used a racially divisive bifurcated wage to exploit labor for the benefit of the industrialists. White people ended up earning about twice as much as Black people. That goes back to after the war, all the way up to the civil rights era. And so if you begin to comprehend that the story is rooted in economic exploitation that used race to divide people and to take advantage of them economically, then you can see how folks got so vested in maintaining segregation. White people who saw it is their only way to get an advantage, and African Americans as the barrier that's keeping them from gaining access. And it's within that framework that we find the civil rights struggle itself. Now the movement comes about in the post-World War II era. It's led by, the modern civil rights movement is led by ministers, people in churches who are, by virtue of that, independent of white authorities and white business owners. So they're able to speak with that kind of independent voice. And these Church leaders were articulating the goals and aspirations of their members, members who wanted in the post-World War II period to gain access to the system, to get the better things in America that were being mass produced, now that the country had defeated the Nazis and Japan and created American hegemony. And to get that, they recognize the need for education, the need to get into schools that were adequately supported. And the civil rights movement then clearly reflects this expression of desire to gain access to the system across the board, both economically and politically and socially, all lumped into the notion of integration. In Birmingham, that movement, which was really kind of a new reflection, was symbolized by the work of the Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, a group formed in 1956 that brought together the activist members of the city's NAACP chapter that had really been kind of moribund. Shuttlesworth, when he moved to the city, he was a native of the city, well, he had grown up in Birmingham, he had left, but came back after the Second World War when he was brought in as pastor at Bethel Baptist Church in Collegeville, which was a prominent Black church in Birmingham. And as pastor of that congregation, he became active in the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, as its membership chairman, working to recruit people into the organization. But the state of Alabama in 1956 hands down a ruling trying to get the membership records of the NAACP. And in the process, the organization decided to close its doors in Alabama rather than identify the people who were in it, knowing that they would be the targets then of white supremist violence. And so when the NAACP got outlawed, Shuttlesworth decided to create a new group. Well, in many ways, there had already been pushing within the NAACP to reflect this kind of activism. But Shuttlesworth was particularly charismatic man, and he believed that God was helping him fight segregation and that he was, in a sense, especially after he survived the bombing of the Church, Bethel Baptist and the Parsonage on Christmas night of 1956, believed that God had saved him to fight against segregation. Now, he had attended Alabama State University in Montgomery. He was friends with Ralph David Abernathy. Abernathy is a key pastor involved with the Montgomery bus boycott. He's the one who encouraged his friend at that point, Martin Luther King, Jr. to get involved in the bus boycott. King, of course, gets selected to lead the MIA. And Shuttlesworth was actually in Montgomery witnessing all of this taking place in 1955 when the organization is formed. Consequently, he takes that idea with him up to Birmingham in 1956. And it's through his Alabama Christian Movement that we see the nascent civil rights movement in the city accomplish its successes, challenging segregation at the railroad depot, challenging Birmingham Terminal station it was called, challenging segregation with the effort to desegregate the public schools, this occurring during the height of the Little Rock crisis in 1957. When the bus boycott decision is handed down the year before in Montgomery, in December of 56, Shuttlesworth and the Alabama Christian Movement announced they're going to ride the buses in Birmingham in a desegregated fashion because the courts have ruled that legal, and it's on that night that the Klan bombs the Church and Parsonage and nearly killed Shuttlesworth. He really reflected that desire for change, and as a charismatic leader, was willing to risk his life to achieve those goals of gaining equal access to the American system, ending segregation and achieving first class citizenship, as it was called. The movement, though, kind of runs along. Because of its emergence in 1957, Bull Connor, who had been the city Commissioner since the 1930s and had gained a reputation for at first preventing biracial unionism and then resisting desegregation, had been able to come back into political power just barely by something like 110 votes. He beat the incumbent who had replaced him in office and Connor returned to power as the Commissioner of Public Safety basically vowing to defeat Shuttlesworth in the Alabama Christian movement. The larger, one of the larger arguments in the book is to contrast this local struggle with the national movement. Now, when I started the research back in the 1980s, there was a general assumption about the Birmingham story that Dr. King had come to Birmingham, created a movement, and had a strategy that played out as he envisioned, forcing the hand of the federal government to then declare desegregation. And that general narrative, written by journalists and by some of the early scholars, never really looked at what happened on the local level, downplayed the significance of Reverend Shuttlesworth and the Alabama Christian Movement and really kind of misinterpreted the story, seeing civil rights as an external thing that came into communities, a national movement brought into local protests. In that sense, it played into the old arguments of the white supremists who tried to dismiss the civil rights struggle as one of outside agitators. But the reality was, of course, that no, there had been a local movement, this local movement demanding change had existed before Montgomery and had really come about in tandem with the effort there with the bus boycott, so that there were a series of these local movements that came together to create what will be called the Southern Christian Leadership Conference SCLC and select Dr. King to lead it. And that effort by Dr. King was to coordinate these local protest groups. Now there had already been a national movement in what you would call the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. It had existed since 1910 and had focused on voting rights and other kinds of reform, pushing legislation with the federal government. And it had chapters in Birmingham and elsewhere, that’s what the state had outlawed. But those were really tightly controlled by the external organization in New York, and they largely worked within the framework of segregation. They kind of compromised with a larger segregated social structure to accommodate the interests of the Black elite that ran the organization. What Shuttlesworth does is challenge that and the Black elite in Birmingham, what was called at the time the Negro leadership class. The traditional Negro leadership class didn't control Shuttlesworth or these ministers of these congregations of these Black working class people who were demanding a more activist approach. That's the organization, the Alabama Christian Movement, that invites King and the SCLC to come to Birmingham in the spring of 1963. They created the great event we know of as the Birmingham Demonstrations, where Bull Connor brings out the police dogs at first and tries to use violence to suppress the demonstrations, ultimately turning to fire hoses to blast the youth who get involved in the demonstrations and tip the scale in the end to achieve the victory won in the streets of Birmingham. And that larger story that we know of also points to something fundamental that I argue in the book. And just quite simply, that is, the old iron and steel industry was in decline. The political economy of the south has been changing since the 1930s and 40s. The Great Depression and the Second World War: those 2 global events had brought about the end to the industrial paternalism that was the basis of the bifurcated race wage, the segregated system. And once that industrial economy began to collapse, that segregated social structure no longer made sense. And the bifurcated race wage that justified paying white people a little more than Black was increasingly impractical. What was replacing it was a potentially new economy, one rooted in the service sector that saw racism as a kind of irrationality on capitalism, and as a result, was willing to sacrifice segregation for the benefit of a larger, integrated economy. There was more to be gained. “Money is green,” as A.G. Gaston, the Black millionaire in Birmingham, liked to say. And there were representatives of that new political economy, recognizing what was going on in Birmingham and seeing how a defensive racism was really holding the city down, limiting its evolution and development and mobilized against it. That effort was led by a man named Sidney Smyer, who was the head of the Birmingham Realty Company, real estate being one of the key elements of the service sector, where you rent space for your business or commercial enterprise. And Smyer mobilized likeminded progressives, people, many of whom were inspired by John F. Kennedy in this era of the space age and opportunity. Smyer mobilized them to at first change the form of government to try to get rid of Bull Connor. And this was accomplished by adopting legislation to replace the City Commission with the Mayor Council form of government. Connor challenged that defeat of his election as Mayor by filing a lawsuit against the very change of government that he had just run for Mayor off. But it tied it up in the courts, and it left two governments in charge of Birmingham at the height of the demonstrations. One, the old City Commission, with Connor still in charge of the police and the fire departments, and the other, the new City Government of a Mayor and City Council. They kind of duplicated their actions day after day. And so you see, Birmingham itself was undergoing a very
significant transformation. And then finally, what the book looks at that was distinctive about it, too, is how the Black community was no more monolithic than the white community. White people had long seen the Black community is kind of monolithic, meaning that there weren't really distinctions or divisions within it per se. Rather than seeing the Black community as divided as the white one with an elite Black class kind of dominating institutions, and the Black masses of people working in these menial jobs, and the two not necessarily having the same interest at heart. Such was the case, certainly, with the white community. There was a white elite in Birmingham. There was the white working class in Birmingham, and there was a middle class and a kind of petty bourgeoisie between the working class and the middle class in Birmingham. And they all had different interests in seeing the city function. The white elite, as residents of the city know full well, live in the privately incorporated communities of Mountain Brook and Vestavia Hills, and Homewood. And that's where they lived at the time of the civil rights struggle. The white working class was scattered across the entire industrial sector of Birmingham, the Birmingham district it's called. And there was a kind of middle class that if it didn't live over the mountain, it lived in the city proper, but had vested interests in maintaining segregation. That was the electorate of Bull Connor, and he would pull a majority of it. These were people who held their jobs as firemen or policemen or clerks in the city government or staff at a local store because they were white, because they were given that privilege, and so they had a vested interest in maintaining it. Now, looking back, we can see how this all came together in the demonstrations of 1963, and through federal intervention, we get desegregation, which brings about an end to the legal white supremacy that required the separation of Black and white, got rid of justifying the bifurcated race wage that allowed legal payment of white people more than Black people for the same job. That got rid of disenfranchisement, preventing African Americans from voting, and enabled them to gain Black political empowerment. We can see how all that played out. But what we also can see now is that the service economy emerged full blown, that that transformation allowed for things like the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the medical school to expand and become the dominant employer in the city, bringing with it those dynamic jobs in the medical industries that employed people regardless of their race and still exploited labor. But did it through different means. It wasn't simply rooted in race, and that transfer information becomes more clear. And the economy then became in sync with really the national economy that had evolved by the time of the Second World War and was the case across the nation by the Sixties and and Seventies. The protest in Birmingham also brought to a head this clash between local and national interests. And one thing my book argues that some people agree with and others disagree with is the idea that the local movement led by Shuttlesworth did not appear to receive its objectives in the immediate outcome of the demonstration. And then, in fact, as the protests were playing out in May of 1963, it looked as if Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the SCLC had been able to wrestle out of a snatch victory at the very last moment by convincing the federal government to intervene and therefore achieve desegregation. And Shuttlesworth and the Alabama Christian Movement had been holding out for a wider transformation of the system. In some ways, that argument is rooted in the notion of the protests, really, in the even in the 1930s, when during the unionization drives the Great Depression, there were calls for what was known as industrial democracy, getting better jobs that paid living wages, economic change in the system with a redistribution of wealth. And yet, as things evolved by the 1950s and 60s, the economic issues have been pushed off the table, and reform has really kind of centered on the idea of civil rights, meaning an end to discrimination in the public sphere. Getting rid of the white and colored signs, having a seat at the lunch counter. But as Ella Baker would note, you know, if you don't have the money to buy the hamburger, it doesn't do you a lot of good to get the seat, right? And so Shuttlesworth and the Alabama Christian Movement had been pushing for getting African Americans hired as policemen, getting them hired as clerks in the local stores, gaining economic change in addition to removing the signs. But it appeared in ‘63 that King was able to end the demonstrations with the promise that something was going to change. And so that feeling of shortcoming became very real. And the book’s epilogue points to this shortcoming in its persistence. And this is what we're hearing today. It's all about the failure of the movement to have addressed the fundamental issue of economic inequality. To be fair to the Movement, that wasn't always part of the effort. The local and national movements struggled because the national movement claimed the victory of change and left Birmingham, King did, and as it happens, he kind of left in charge people like AG Gaston or Lucius Pitts at Miles and certainly Arthur Shores, members of the Black elite and kind of left Shuttlesworth and the leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement out of that leadership, Black leadership that was working with the white one. And we'll see Attorney Shores then become the first African American on the city Council. And we see the Black elite having been able to work within the desegregated framework that emerges of political leadership in the city that's in the 19, latter Sixties and Seventies. But the issue of economic reforms became more ambiguous. And the epilogue of the book kind of points to that. When the logic of how the civil rights movement occurs, removing the signs, gaining equal access, desegregating the space, plays out at Shoal Creek, an exclusive white country club south of the city that not only didn't let black folk in, didn't let Jewish people in, wouldn't let you were me in or anybody else who's just white and happens to maybe you're a nice guy, but if you're not a millionaire, you can't join my club. Right. And the logic for the movement was, well, until you let some African American in and treat them as equal, then your not, of course, it's not an equal set up. It's a class thing. And it really pointed to instead, we have gross inequality in this nation. It persists. It existed back then, and the movement didn't really mobilize to tackle it like it might have. There had been an effort in the 1930s, but it had failed. Nevertheless, the changes that occurred in Birmingham in 1963 were of not only national significance but global significance, because those demonstrations, those nonviolent protests that kept going because of a handful of people committed for weeks and ultimately tipping the scale with the thousands of people who filled the streets and filled the jails. That transformation did bring about the end legal white supremacy in the nation through the implementation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that required desegregation of public space, the right to sit at a lunch counter or a restaurant, assuming you have the money, the right to vote and participate in the political system, of the right to go to the school that you want to go to. That change happened. And it happened because of Birmingham.
Ranger Kat: Thank you. And you brought up a lot of things that hopefully will have time to discuss later. But before we go into some of the details of the book, I want to ask you a personal question. I did some Googling and looked into you as a person. And I know you've been working and living in Georgia for a number of years as a College Professor and researcher and author, of course. And I'm curious if you're from the south, and just in general, what spurred this deep interest in looking so in depth at the story in Birmingham?
Dr. Eskew: Sure. Yes. I'm a native Southerner, although I was born in 1960, so these events happened when I was in diapers, and I was not aware of any of it when it was taking place. But I became fascinated with the idea of Southern history and the transformation of it. And so I wanted to explore that story. And my approach was to find somewhere that would allow me to consider how the south went from being the region of agricultural production of cotton, the old plantation, labored on by the enslaved. How did that change into the dynamic south that we saw in the 80s when I was in graduate school in a place like Atlanta, o,r as my major professor encouraged me, to look at Birmingham, and so I did. And looking at Birmingham was able to not only explore that transformation, because in many ways, Sloss furnaces, the Alice furnaces, and the housing near it on the south side, those were industrial plantations. This is not that different from what you would find in Dallas County, outside Selma or anywhere else in the Deep South. And indeed, the culture of industrial paternalism that developed in Birmingham was very similar to the culture of the plantation itself. And so finding that and then seeing how it was completely transformed by the 1980s was the challenge for me. And Atlanta offered a great contrast with Birmingham, because Birmingham was a company town and the big horse, not the only horse, but it was the main horse in town, was the United States Steel Corporation, locally, the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company. And as a result of that, it controlled town like any small Southern County seat that has a textile mill in it. The mill would control town. Here we find the industry being controlled by this entity, and it was externally owned. It was owned by shareholders in New York and in Pennsylvania and around the world. And that undue influence of external forces, this outside control, created its own dynamic of inferiority among the white elite in Birmingham who, you know, they didn't really control their destiny. They were trapped within it. Unlike in Atlanta, where Atlanta, you had this interesting mix. It had manufacturing. It also had service. It had transportation, and those elements were all in kind of balance. And so there wasn't a single economic structure or entity or industry or political economy that dominated Atlanta. The diversity allowed for a greater influence of local people and Atlanta had the good fortune of indigenous capital, that is, money generated in the region that was put in local banks and control by local people that could then benefit the local community. Unlike Birmingham, where the money was really externally brought in and then taken right back out with interest through profits.
Ranger Kat: I want to ask you a question about money and the role that money plays in racism. One of the things that I found incredibly well researched in your book was the economic disadvantage that's woven into racism. And you mentioned just a moment ago, it's one thing to take down signs that delineate where African Americans can go and where white people can go. It's another to be able to access a system that is financially just out of your league. You mentioned the quote by Ella Baker, and you know how she said, there's no use at gaining a seat at the table if you don't have any money to buy anything at the restaurant, which I think is an excellent quote. And you also mentioned, too, how obvious that disparity was if you look back at what salaries were like. And in your book, for example, in 1950, the average annual salary for a white man was $2274, and the average for a black man was $1,087. These are annual salaries. I'm wondering, why is it important to remind people that racism isn't about signs? It's not about name calling. It's about economic disenfranchisement. Why is that important? And why is that often not discussed?
Dr. Eskew: Oh, that's an excellent question and a hard one. And I'll begin by also emphasizing Ella Baker observation that it's bigger than a hamburger. Right? So it's more than just economic. These gains in the sense that civil rights reform and an end to racial discrimination, of course, has all kinds of implication for reflection of self-worth and value and just the whole notion of equality among people and freedom. True freedom. So I don't want to sound like it's simply a matter of economic issues or that it's simply a matter of spatial issues, of gaining actual space to something like being able to sit at the lunch counter. However, the reality is that political economies often use divisions for purposes of exploitation. One of the maximum principles of capitalism is you reduce cost and you can increase profits. And one of the easiest ways to reduce cost is to lower wages. And this could be, in the case we're looking at with the struggle in Birmingham it's over race, but it's also seen in gender, with gender discrimination in employment. We're still trying to get the Equal Rights Amendment past to pay women the same wage as men. And as we've seen in this pandemic, the gross inequalities in wages that women earn and the terrible situation in which they find themselves so vulnerable because of the pandemic as a result of the employment opportunities that they confront. So it could be written from the perspective of these industrialists, places like Pittsburgh were rife with ethnic discrimination. And you had had some of that in Birmingham with Italians who had been brought in to work in the iron and steel industry in the Birmingham district being discriminated kind of in between Asians, same way, in between Black and white. But the bigger crux in the bigger point is simply that economies often use tactics such as racism to divide workers. And I think it's no surprise that we can apply many of these lessons that I discovered, so clearly evident in the Birmingham of the 1950s and 60s to the recent past we've just experienced. ow racism is used to divide workers. I think we could even go so far as to see our nation currently confronting a declining old economy like the iron and steel one in in Birmingham, only today, it's the Petroleum based economy, which is not just the gas pump, mind you, it's the banks that finance all of that. It's the insurance companies that prop it all up. It's the plastic industries and then the use of plastics by consumers and manufacturers, all that's coming out of petroleum, all of that reflective of this economy that is no longer sustainable in our changing environmental situation. We see evidence of that being propped up. And yet we also see a new economy that's proposed that is transnational or global, if you like, that is driving a different kind of focus, that being one of renewable energies that creates its own dynamic for jobs and opportunities in progress. Those two political economies are currently at war. And the question is, in the end, which is going to win out. And we know deep down the petroleum one's going to die. We're going to run out of petroleum. Well, likewise, the use of race can be used in that old political economy. And I think that's why, in part, we've seen efforts to emphasize racial division and our recent political climate.
Ranger Kat: I'd like to ask you about the role of women, the LGBTQ+ community, differently-abled folks, in both the local and the national movement. I think, especially in the Birmingham campaign, where you have these really charismatic leaders like Shuttlesworth and Dr King, it's easy to focus the Movement and what they accomplished on their ability to lead. But through reading your book and understanding more of the movement, it really was this diverse movement of many. I mean, you mentioned the Children's Crusade and how that was sort of the tipping point, an inflection point in the Movement. How seeing these foot soldiers, some as young as six years old marching in the streets, really sort of shifted federal policy. But there were also folks like Ella Baker who we've quoted now a couple times, and students at Miles College who were really sort of encouraging this direct action campaign rather than the rhetoric that was more common among national leaders. And I'm wondering if you could maybe mention some women or some other diverse individuals who feel really contributed to the Movement that maybe we don't hear about, and maybe we should talk about more and hear about more.
Dr. Eskew: Well, Ranger Gardiner, you just pointed out the big flaw in the book, I'm afraid. I did not give women enough credit in the narrative and that I fully believe is a result of being attracted to the charisma of Reverend Shuttlesworth and other African American male leaders, particularly in the church, who are the typical ones we seem to think of in this period of the Movement. But Ella Baker was very familiar with Alabama, having for years worked with the NAACP, mobilizing chapters and running voter registration campaigns in the state. And I would really call out several names, number one, for the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, it's true success, it wasn't just Reverend Shuttlesworth in his charisma or his, quote, lieutenants like Bishop Calvin Woods and his brother Abraham or some of the other pastors. But it was Miss Lola Hendrix, an African American woman who helped keep the records and who ran the telephone tree that was integral to the Movement’s success. She would be tipped off by Reverend Shuttlesworth that he wanted to hold a meeting or that there would be someone at a mass meeting that he wanted the community to hear. And she would get on the phone and use that phone to contact other women who contacted other women who contacted other women. And everyone then materialized, at Shuttlesworth’s request, but it was a role of the women that accomplished that. And it's the women who are demonstrating as well as the men. Men might have led the March, but they're women participating in it. And I think of young women students during the Children's Crusade of 1963. Myra Carter Jackson was one of the great one of the great foot soldiers of this effort. And yet her family had gotten involved years before with the Alabama Christian Movement, before the Children's Crusade came about. And she had been participating in these mass meetings. And then when the children marched, she was right out there marching, as was Janice Wesley Kelsey. She, too, was a student who got recruited into the Children's Crusade and then demonstrated. And I have in the book there are a couple of white people, like Martha Turnipseed, a white woman who was a student at Birmingham-Southern who was interested in the idea of what's going on here with this civil rights protest. She attends a demonstration. Tommy Reeves, a seminarian, gets involved and just shows sympathy, and white Methodist authorities run him out of town. I think Turnipseed got expelled from Birmingham-Southern. So young people and women are really the key to the success. And in the end, it really is that crowd of young folk in the Children's Crusade that forces the change. But I would add, if it hadn't been for Reverend Shuttlesworth and that Alabama Christian Movement, that group of churches scattered around the Birmingham District that met on Monday nights, week after week after week in mass meetings since 1956, had he not kept that going, there never would have been a Birmingham demonstration to attract all those students and protesting in May of ‘63 to begin with. And I believe it was Andrew Young who, coming into Birmingham and confronting this really shocked that Dr King discovered when he got there in April, that not all of the Black ministerial leadership was behind Reverend Shuttlesworth, that the Black community was not united in support of the demonstrations, as had been the case in Montgomery with the bus boycott. Young would say that it was only about 10% of the churches, Black churches in Birmingham, that were actively in the movement, and that's the reality of it. But what that tells me and should tell everyone is it never will be everybody getting involved. It's always that committed core, that dedicated few who don't give up, who keep fighting, who make the change. And I think we see that time and again in history.
Ranger Kat: So I thought to ask you more in depth questions about that push and pull between the national and the local movement. But I think you did a really excellent job summarizing that initially, as well also as the ambiguity of the ending of the Birmingham campaign. But I'm wondering, there's a moment in the epilogue, which you titled Ambiguous Resolution, which I think kind of says it all, where you mention the story of the integration of Birmingham's Shoal Creek Country Club in 1990. I believe I'm calling it the right name, and you mentioned it briefly in your summary. But I'm wondering if you could go more into detail as to what happened and why, for you, that's kind of emblematic of the source of changes it actually took place in Birmingham and how, for the Black masses, a lot of those changes were more symbolic rather than material. So I'm wondering if you could explain that one case study and may be connect it to the larger story of what happened as a result of the movement in Birmingham.
Dr. Eskew: I'll try if I don't get it right, ask me again on another day, and I'll, I'll actually get through reading that epilogue again.
Ranger Kat: [laughter] Fair enough.
Dr. Eskew: And get to that. But Ambiguous Resolution, I think, points to why we're still having problems today. And for a lot of people, certainly in the white community, I believe their attitude has been, “we solved this already with the civil rights movement,” and the reality is the movement was successful. I don't want to suggest anything else in the sense that, as Congressman John Lewis was oft to say, “all you have to do is go back and look and see what it was like when we started and see what things are like today. And you'll see the change.” There has been dramatic change in the 50 years since the demonstration. We no longer have spaces that are demarcated white and colored. We no longer have laws that are designed to project onto society white supremacy. All of that was removed through the Civil Rights Act 1964, the Fair Housing Act of 1968, and we received a great deal of support through Black political empowerment accomplished by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Yet what we've seen is the erosion of those rights in voting by new strategies of disfranchisement and voter suppression that are rampant today. And yet taking away the vote of someone is not the same thing as forcing them to sit on the back of a bus. Right? Those are separate things. Alright. So ambiguous resolution really points to the fact that the civil rights movement didn't address because, quite frankly, it was outside the purview of it economic inequalities, the persistence of that. It did try to resolve the problem of vested racism and white supremacy in institutions. And yet I would suggest your readers if they make it through the chapter on Bull’s Birmingham, and they discover how horrific police brutality was in Birmingham with the legal lynchings, they were called. The justifiable homicides of unarmed Black men by white policemen in 1950s Birmingham. How's that different than today? Right? This is nothing new. And of course, the violence is used just to really kind of prop up law and order. The law and order designed to protect private property and economic interests. Only today it's not denying someone access to the shopping mall. Everybody can go in the mall. Right? Doesn’t d you any good if you don't have any money. And so in the ambiguous resolution epilogue, I kind of point to, and in some ways it's unfair of me to, suggest that Abraham Woods and the local Black leadership is up in arms over the need to have an African American millionaire admitted to a private white country club on the outskirts of town as a symbolic gesture that yes, indeed, we are all equal. I understand why they did it. And I understand the logic that led them to that point, being the logic of the civil rights struggle, gaining equal access to the system. Now, to be fair, in the civil rights era, that meant the public sphere, things that were open to the public in general, private places were left out of the realm of this sphere. What you do in your private community is your business. If you want to be a Church that does not allow Black people in your Church because you believe in the Church of white supremacy. And somehow you can rationalize that with your, quote, Christianity. It's a private entity. Right? But it pointed to the hypocrisy that was the reason Kneel-Ins were held at white churches during the civil rights movement. How dare you express Christian belief and not extend the welcoming hand to your Black brothers and sisters? Well, Shoal Creek was a country club which still exists south of Birmingham, a beautiful space that had an outstanding golf course that was so impressive it had been able to attract the PGA, the international golfing competition. And this too points to the kind of the contradictions of the larger transformation. It pointed to Birmingham's success. The success of having weathered ‘63, undergone racial change, created a brand new dynamic service economy that was no longer rooted in the filthy, racist iron and steel industry, but now expressive of a dynamic medical industry and education and progress and thinking and the whole consumption and all of that stretch from 65 to 280 and in between that you can see south of town suggested that. Economic growth, progress, the change that the city had experienced and slap in the middle of it: Shoal Creek. And here it was hosting this international spotlight, and the founder of the country club, Hall Thompson, made the mistake of saying that, “well, we let everybody in here except the Blacks,” right? And consequently, the protests began and understandably so. And in the end, Shoal Creek desegregates by allowing an African American member, a member of the Black elite in Birmingham, to become a member of the Country Club. And through that, desegregation really provided a similar kind of resolution to what had occurred initially in ‘63. It didn't change the lives of any of the Black masses of folk trapped in the inner city of Birmingham in public housing that was increasingly being bull-dozed in slum areas with limited opportunities, in schools that were struggling to to educate the students, and in a new dynamic political economy that without an education, left you with limited job opportunities. And I would dare say that one could suggest we still confront these problems today.
Ranger Kat: I think many would agree with that. So I wanted to ask you a question about the role of children in the Birmingham campaign and segue into a question about a message to young people today. And I think that your conversation around this ambiguous resolution is a good segue in that there's more work to do, there's more work to be done, and that's kind of how the book ends. When I finished the book, I'll admit I felt sad. I felt frustrated. I felt like I wasn't given the resolution that we’re often given and more simplistic narratives about the civil rights movement. And I both appreciated you for that and also felt, again, that sense of frustration and like, wow, what was it, what truly was accomplished materially, economically, because it still seemed in your appraisal that the financial political situation in Birmingham remained very fraught. So, something that is, I think, really inspiring about the Birmingham Campaign is the role that children played in the Children's Crusade predominantly. And today we're seeing another resurgence of young people who are incredibly involved in trying to make the world a better place, whether that's racial justice, climate change, etcetera. And I'm curious, based on your deep historic knowledge of social movements, specifically civil rights in the South, would you say that the involvement of young people is critical to that success. And then, given that there is obviously still work to be done, what is your message to young people today who want to make changes for the better?
Dr. Eskew: Young people hold the key. They're the ones who have the most to gain. If you consider the role of the youth in Birmingham, coming in at just the right moment, the crucial time with the Children's Crusade in May of ‘63, and they were brought in in part because of the leaders of the struggle, Dorothy Cotton, one of Dr. King's key staff members, James Bevel, Isaac Reynolds, Ike Reynolds. These folks worked with those young people, training them in nonviolence. But young folks are committed, and they're willing to work and put their necks out to gain change. And we see that in the Black Lives Matter effort today. It's young people who are driving the demand for change in race relations in America today, who are pushing to force reconciliation with the past, to come to terms with America's legacy as a white supremacy nation, and to address those inequalities that persist, recognizing how racism has functioned for so long, to hurt so many people. And if we look at the civil rights struggle as a whole, the real push at key moments that kept it moving forward was that of young people. We often think of the Brown versus Board of Education case with Linda Brown. It's her father who files the lawsuit. But I like to point to Moton High School in Virginia, which is also one of the five cases that made up the Brown decision. There we find the students themselves walking out of their school because of the inequality that they experienced in that facility, the failure of the local community, the white school board, to provide African American youth with educational facilities that would enable them to be prepared for the future. It's the Little Rock students who confront the violence and hostility of the white mob as they bravely continue to participate in the year-long process of desegregating Central High. And while after Montgomery, Dr. King and other civil rights leaders in local communities like Reverend Shuttlesworth and elsewhere across the south mobilized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. It really kind of spun its wheels, this national movement, looking at replicating what the NAACP had been doing, holding voter registration drives, waiting to come to the aid of a demonstration or protest like Montgomery had been, something that erupted organically, in a sense, out of a local community. And it's the students who are the ones, the young people who create those opportunities. They do it with the sit-in movement in Greensboro, North Carolina, on February 1, 1960, when four black men from North Carolina A&T sit down at a Woolworths and refuse to leave, demanding equal access to service. It's young people like John Lewis, who is a seminarian in Nashville, volunteers to participate in the first Freedom Ride that it is civil rights organizations that mobilize it, CORE, Congress Of Racial Equality, but it's young people like John Lewis who volunteers and gets on that Freedom Ride and gets beat up on that Freedom Ride. And when the original ride is called off after Birmingham, it's young people from Nashville who had organized to sit-in movement led by Diane Nash and others, who come to Birmingham to continue the Freedom Ride and to maintain that dynamic. It's young people from around the nation who to join in Freedom Fides and get arrested, white and black, and be sent up to Parchment Prison in Mississippi, it’s young people that bring in that demand for change time and again. And it's the same story we see today. I think it's clear not just in Black Lives Matter, but Greta Thunberg and others who are pushing the demand for change on the environment. They're doing so because they know full well that world they're inheriting, and either it's going to be scorched or or it's going to be livable. And similarly, America has to come to grips with its history and address the wrongs of the past. That was really the final outgrowth of Dr. King's strategy of nonviolence. It wasn't just to have a demonstration and then to affect change at the local level. It was also to accomplish a reconciliation, to come to terms with the past and to create what he called the beloved community, a world in which we all can live. And humanity has lots of examples of the need to come together or confront annihilation. We used to hear more frequently about nuclear weapons and disarmament, and that's been pushed aside. But it's still very much a reality in our society, but it's been displaced by the greater needs of the need to address the environment. But we also have to address gross inequality, or we're going to see the masses of the people pushed to the limit and rise up and challenge the handful of one percenters out there who seem to be benefiting from the system.
Ranger Kat: I'd like to close on the question about World Heritage Sites, and I know that you've been working to add many civil rights sites to be a part of UNESCO's World Heritage Site roster. So I was looking into a little bit about what it takes to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site and what the mission statement is. So I'll read just the small portion. The mission statement of the World Heritage Sites is “to preserve and protect sites around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity.” What is the value that the story of Birmingham and the sites in this region, what is the value that they bring to humanity? And why do you feel they deserve to be recognized on a global scale?
Dr. Eskew: Thank you for that question, too, because, yes, I've been hard at work with colleagues on developing a serial nomination of US civil rights movement sites to be proposed for potential inscription on the World Heritage list. And Birmingham, I think, and to go back just to say about young people again. Young people hold the key, but it does no good if they don't get involved. Whenever I meet with students and talk about what occurred in Birmingham during the civil rights era, I encourage them to get involved for change for the change that they believe in, to get registered, to be able to vote so they can vote change in with politicians. If you don't get involved, if the children hadn’t marched in the Children's Crusade, there would not have been the changes we see coming out of Birmingham. And it's that very change. It's that outgrowth of those young people, Black folk standing up against Bull Connor’s fire hoses in Kelly Ingram Park, those six year old little kids who marched down the street and then on to a city bus to go off to the Stockade at the state fair ground and be locked up. It’s those young people who were spun down the street like a tumble weed through the force of the water of the hoses or got bitten by the dogs. Those young people point to why Birmingham is globally significant. It's globally significant because it demonstrated the power of nonviolent protest to force a nation to address injustice. As a result of the demonstrations in Birmingham, the federal government, through the Civil Rights Act of 1964, required desegregation, required an end to legal white supremacy in American society. If you consider that within the framework of the world and you think about how around the globe there's always been discrimination, it might not be racial, might be ethnic, might be based in rooted in religion. It might be gender discrimination or sexuality might be against the aging or against people with issues of ability. There's so much evidence of discrimination written into and built into the fabric of societies. And here, for the first time, a federal government said, no longer. We're going to require the space be open to all people equally. Public space accessible all. And as it has come to be interpreted, well, initially, it was the issue of race. When the Civil Rights Act was being prepared in the Congress and debated, a slick legislator put in the word gender, thinking it would kill it, because who's going to give women the same spaces they give men? It got passed instead. And suddenly we see among the greatest beneficiaries of this are women. We since interpreted it to mean equality over sexuality issues for gays and lesbians, queer, transgendered people. It was applied to the needs of folks with disabilities so that they would have access to public space, too. We've seen it writ large across the board. Nowhere else in the world had that occurred. And it comes out of the demonstrations and protests that happened in Birmingham. It's a glorious story. It's one of which to be proud. And it's one to celebrate. That here, local people, young people mobilized, came together, demanded change. And through that demand ultimately forced the federal government power to answer. And it's the only way we're ever going to get change on any of these other issues is if people mobilize and demand it.
Ranger Kat: Thank you so much. This has been such an amazing conversation. I really appreciate not only your knowledge about the story, but the passion with which you speak about it. It will be a conversation I return to for many, many years to come, and hopefully we can have others, too.
Dr. Eskew: Well, thank you. It's wonderful to get to write about the brave people who made the difference. Certainly, it's driven by a desire to see us also deal with the problems in our own societies and accomplish the change we need for us all to be able to live together.
Ranger: This is We Will Rise: National Parks and Civil Rights. Thanks to the Psalters for use of their song, Turn Me Around. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to our series. Until next time.
Episode 5: Racial Equity and Social Justice with Denise Gilmore
Join Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument superintendent Kristofer Butcher as he interviews Denise Gilmore. Ms. Gilmore serves the City of Birmingham as the Senior Director in the Division of Social Justice and Racial Equity in the Mayor's office. The City of Birmingham and the National Park Service co-own and co-manage the A.G. Gaston Motel, and collaboratively support the other stakeholders that make up the National Monument.
Welcome to We Will Rise: National Parks and Civil Rights. Close your eyes and imagine a National Park. Are you picturing waterfalls and mountains? Or do you think of Dr. King's childhood home, Japanese internment camps, and a school that became a battleground for racial integration? National Parks aren't just wilderness. They are spaces of remembrance, founded to preserve the stories of who we are and how we came to be. National parks inspire us to do better, be better, to climb mountains both physical and figurative. Join park rangers, researchers, authors, and activists as we discuss what liberty and justice for all means on our public lands.
Kris: Hello, and welcome to the We Will Rise: National Parks and Civil Rights Podcast. I'm Kris Butcher, the superintendent of Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument, and I am joined today by Denise Gilmore. Denise serves the city of Birmingham as the Senior Director in the Division of Social Justice and Racial Equity in the Mayor's office. She started her career in the city as a Director of Cultural Preservation in 2018. Previously, she worked in Washington, DC at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which, she worked in Detroit, Louisville, Philadelphia, and Atlanta on projects that focused on using historic preservation as a catalyst for neighborhood revitalization. She hails from Kansas City, Missouri, where she has reported the barbecue is superb. Denise, welcome. Good morning.
Denise: Well, good morning and thank you, Kris. So you know that I'm a barbecue snob, so you might want to start our conversation off that way.
Kris: I in no way want to be confrontational about barbecue.
Denise: I am so delighted to join you today for this conversation.
Kris: Yes, thank you so much for joining us. And again, I think it's such an important conversation, and your broad experience, I think, is going to be so informative and inspirational and challenging as we go into the second century of the National Park Service existence. And in 2021, we're having these conversations, unfortunately, are as relevant today as they've ever been in history. So before we get into the really hard hitting topics and subjects, if you could, can you talk a little bit about yourself and how you ended up coming to Birmingham?
Denise: Okay, let me go back to Kansas City because I think that really is probably the beginning of the work that I'm doing today. It goes back to Kansas City, which, as you said, that is my home. I am officially a Kansas Jayhawk, but in terms of claiming teams and the Chiefs and the Royals, so I claim them all. But my work in the cultural preservation and equitable redevelopment space really began at 18th and Vine in
Kansas City, which is the historic African American neighborhood where the Negro Leagues were founded. And, of course, the heyday of the jazz scene was in the 18th and Vine Jazz District. And so I had the opportunity in Kansas City to really lead the redevelopment and revitalization of the 18th and Vine Jazz District. Again, because of desegregation, it had been a good 40 years that the district had really just declined and there hadn't been investment in the district. And I always want to acknowledge our then-Mayor, Emmanuel Cleaver, who is Congressman Emmanuel Cleaver today. He has the vision as mayor that it was so important that this history and culture be saved. I had the opportunity to join the Jazz District and then ultimately to lead the revitalization. And so one of the things that when we talk about the work today, I have to reflect on the fact that I've been in this equitable development and equitable opportunity space long before - it's fashionable now, but 18 years ago, people really weren't talking about that. In fact, people would run the other way when you talked about equity and preserving African American culture and history. It has been really a privilege to be able to know that the work that I'm doing and have done has been to help preserve these African American spaces and places. From there, I had the opportunity to go to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, really as focusing on helping frame the National Trust approach to community development and revitalization. And it comes as no secret to you, Kris, that the historic preservation field has largely been a white led field, and I would say probably up until really about the last five to seven years when there's been a turn to really understanding the importance of saving places for people of color, for Black, indigenous, people of color, for women, LGBTQ, to broaden those stories that are being preserved and told. And so I had the opportunity at the Trust to work in different cities, including Washington, DC, in the Anacostia neighborhood, but also Birmingham was one of the cities in that portfolio and had an opportunity with other colleagues from the Trust to come to Birmingham in 2017 and lead a preservation leadership training. Really, it was for Birmingham, but it was regional in that people from across the state were invited. And then we also had some national participants. And that was really my first opportunity to be in Birmingham and to engage Birmingham, looking at the cultural space. From that, I'll kind of fast forward because I know that we have a lot of other things to get to. But from that, I had the opportunity, of course, you know, 2017 was a pivotal year. So President Barack Obama had just created the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument before he left office. And so at the federal level, there was a national election, and then locally in Birmingham, there was a municipal election, and Mayor Randall Woodfin was successfully elected in 2017. And so you kind of had that whole year because the political changes at the local and federal level that while the National Monument had been created, there really hadn't been anything really focused to really stand it up. I like to say it was beautiful words on paper, but now how do we put the there there? I had opportunity, Mayor Woodfin invited those of us that had been working on this prior to his election to come and to meet with him and his key leaders at the time to really talk about how do we stand this thing up. So, long story short, the Mayor invited me to come and join his team to help stand up the National Monument. So that's what brought me to Birmingham. I came as Director of Cultural Preservation because the Mayor recognized that Birmingham's legacy and history was important and sacred and that it really needed focused attention on saving these historic sites.
Kris: Wow, that's great. It's amazing how all of the things that have happened up until this point really kind of came together in this opportunity that we have in this position and role that you're in now. It's really great and inspiring how things like that happen. So besides Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument, working for the National Trust, what's been your experience with National Parks? I'm going to assume that Birmingham is your favorite National Park site, selfishly, but what is your favorite National Park maybe experience and why?
Denise: So that's kind of interesting because you're right. In terms of favorite, it's really hard to pick because for different reasons, of course, I've had the opportunity to experience different national parks for different reasons. So I would say for historic significance, of course, having the opportunity to work in the historic Anacostia neighborhood, the Frederick Douglas Historic Site, his Cedar Hill home. One of the opportunities I had in DC at the Trust was to really work with the local neighborhood preservationist to make sure that we could preserve the homes there, which is hard in DC. So I'm going to even pause before I say this, to try to ensure that incumbent residents could stay, just because of the gentrification pressures in Washington DC. But again, it was another place that it was hard to navigate that neighborhood. And you see that Cedar Hill home site and just know that this was one of our premier thought leaders and so far ahead of his time. I never could figure out too, with all those steps, I said, boy, they really were in good shape.
Kris: No doubt.
Denise: So that one is one really that was inspiring to me and to really be able to work closely around the historic site in that neighborhood. Another one that I think that always just touches me is the African Burial Grounds in New York City. And again, it's just a thought to understand that these bodies were buried without ceremony, without recognition, without…there. And so that one is always inspiring to me. When I get to New York, I try to go there just for the peace of the site. And so I'll say just for the natural beauty. I have a lot, I don't have just one. But for simple natural beauty, I love Muir Woods and that's one that actually I saw something today that they were trying to protect the trees from the fires that are burning right now, and of course, the Grand Canyon, because I had an opportunity to experience that ground level and took a helicopter ride over it and promised that I would never do that again.
Kris: Yeah. Wow. It's really interesting and amazing to hear when people talk about their experiences. And so many people like, their first reaction is Grand Canyon or Muir Woods or Yellowstone or Yosemite. But I think I'm with you. For me, the most inspirational are a lot of the ones that you talked about, especially when you contrast, like, going to Arlington National Cemetery and seeing the respect and the reverence that occurs around the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. And then you contrast that with African Burial Grounds. Wow, this is a really stark difference and a very telling and powerful moment to think about. And honestly, we could go have entire additional conversations about gentrification pressures and what that means and the legacies of desegregation and how that's impacted communities and what that means.
So we won't crack into that. We'll maybe have to schedule you for a follow up discussion. But you had mentioned you originally came here as the Director for Cultural Preservation. So can you talk about the transition into your current role as the Senior Director in the Division of Social Justice and Racial Equity? Kind of what inspired that change, and why do you think it's important to the city and to you?
Denise: So, in 2018, Mayor Woodfin set out a strategic vision for his administration. And one of those goals included to establish an Office of Social Justice and Racial Equity to focus on creating a just and equitable city. And so because of my work, not only within cultural preservation, but as I said to you, that my work really predates the work in Birmingham and going back to Kansas City and looking at really working in the equity space. And so our office was created really to be the lens for the city, to help really employ social justice as a core principle in the city's policies and the operations and decision making through advocacy, engagement and implementation. Our office is really charged with bringing an equity lens to policies, initiatives and practices. So we had separate offices that were all really impacting the social justice and racial equity spaces, so our LGBTQ liaison on our Office of Peace and Policy, our special initiatives, we had a faith-based outreach, immigrant affairs. So we had people that were doing different things, but all really operating in this space. And so the mayor's vision really was to try to consolidate those efforts through this office. And then, of course, I was pleased when he asked me if I would lead the team. And so I still maintain the cultural preservation portfolio. Kris, as you well know, I'm really good at doing two or three jobs.
Kris: That's the understatement of the day there, Denise, yes, ma'am.
Denise: So I maintain our cultural preservation portfolio in addition to leading the Division of Social Justice and Racial Equity.
Kris: Fantastic. So obviously you've touched on it and helped us understand what racial equity and social justice means. But can you help us understand how these principles are fundamental to your work? You kind of talked about you're wanting it to be a part of everything that the city does. But in kind of maybe a layman definition, what does that mean? What is racial equity and social justice in kind of a day to day context?
Denise: So I'll start with, social justice is the belief that everyone deserves equal economic, political, civil and human rights and opportunities. Racial equity is the treatment of people of all races that really results in equitable opportunities and outcomes. So racial equity often addresses systemic and structural change. While there may be a focus on antiracism, it's not just the absence of discriminatory practices and inequities, but the presence of deliberate and intentional practices to change and challenge systems and to redistribute power in an equitable manner. So racial equity is a process. And so these principles are fundamentally embedded in our work in the city through social equity, which includes the space that we work in, Kris, the cultural preservation and historic preservation and promotion of tradition, stories and cultures. Birmingham's history really requires that we respect these legacies of the past, which was as much about social and economic justice as it was about civil rights. My position as Director of Cultural Preservation was unique at the time. There were not positions equivalent to that in other cities and it was really a focus on the cultural assets and the preservation. And I also say promotion, right. So how do we actually develop them for tourism? How do we make sure that people appreciate and they're educated about these sites as well? And so that was a very unique position at the time to be really focused on preservation, both cultural and historic. So when we look at other cities, I'm going to say maybe positions that were similar but not specific. Other cities have like Cultural Affairs or Multicultural Offices and they primarily focus on observances, special events, festivals. So really to maybe celebrate the diversity of the city, if that makes sense, which is equally important. But to draw the contrast between the position that was focused on recognizing that Birmingham had really special, significant historic resources that needed focused attention. Now, the position as Senior Director of Social Justice and Racial Equity was also a unique position. So some cities have offices that focus on diversity and inclusion, which is very common cities, universities, corporations that focus on diversity and inclusion. What you're seeing now is that expansion to diversity, equity and inclusion. So there's more focused attention on not just kind of an equal representation, but the opportunities to make sure that we are really focused on equitable opportunities for all. And so I guess I've had really the opportunity, thanks to Mayor Woodfin, to really kind of be a trailblazer in those two areas as far as municipal government is concerned. So it has been really a privilege to serve in both capacities. It's never a dull moment, Kris. There's so much work that needs to be done, as you well know, through your lens at the Park Service.
Kris: Yeah, you're exactly right. It's amazing to have the opportunity and the privilege to work in Birmingham, like you said, that is really blazing the trail and being a leader in this arena and having these conversations and with the Park Service, I think everybody that at least has a passing interest in kind of the Park Service as an organization understands the challenges that it's had with its representation, or lack thereof, being more than 60% male, the workforce, I think almost 80% white. So thinking about the Park Service recently celebrated its first kind of century, its anniversary. What is a National Park Service or any organization, right, that truly values and strives for racial justice and social equity, what does that look like in kind of talking about the access and representation and all the things we've discussed up to this point?
Denise: So I would say, first of all, it's really just acknowledgment of the work that has to be done. So when you have data that tells you that your workforce is you said 80%...
Kris: Sorry, it's 60% male…
Denise: …and 80% white. So that's not even reflective of the diversity of the country, right? And so when you really think about that so, first of all, we really have to acknowledge the work that has to be done. So I'm saying “we” but within the National Park Service, acknowledge where you are, look at your data, and then be willing to assess what that means. So look at your organizational efforts. Does it really reflect the diversity? Look at your top leadership staff, in particular, friends organizations, the people that supports the work of the National Park Service. So it's much more than being caretakers of sites with diverse history, right? It's internal. It's looking at your leadership and holding yourself accountable to establish measurable outcomes. So if you're starting with those stats, then what any organization would say is, okay, this is where we are, but this is where we want to be. And so the leadership would pick something, a five year plan or something, some concrete, measurable numbers that they can work towards so that we can be more diverse and more equitable. But I would also say with numbers like that, it also tells us that it's structural, that it's systemic. It's the way that your hiring practices are. It is that, for whatever the reason, there are barriers to women and Black, indigenous, people of color being able to be in the National Park System from an employee and a leadership standpoint. And so it really calls for really candid, honest conversation when you sit in a conference room, and I'm just going to say, you have 20 leaders and you look around and they all kind of look the same, somebody has to say, why do we look like this? And what we need to do, in a real serious manner, to start changing it? And I would guess that it's structural. So some of it really comes down to the things that, doing things the way you've always done, doesn't work. And so you've got to change that. So I just kind of think about, for example, when my daughter was in college and of course they look for these internship opportunities over the summer. And a lot of the internships, particularly in DC, were unpaid internships. And so a lot of Black children were not able to do these unpaid internships at these, either prestigious…either Capitol Hill or other organizations because they needed to earn money over the summer. Well my daughter actually had the opportunity to do an unpaid internship just because of other scholarship opportunities that she had. But when you look at that, that, again, is the basis for other opportunities. So if you're not able to have basic level entry, it's really hard then later on to say that these people are prepared for leadership. Not knowing the inner workings of the Park Service, but Kris, you asked me, so, you know, I'm going to opine, I would say that it really needs a real hard look at those numbers and then a leader to say, “We're going to change that.”
Kris: Wow. Yeah. I think you absolutely hit the nail on the head. There's not just one challenge, right. There are multiple. The barriers to entry and just the intake, but also something at the very foundation. Right. If you keep doing the same thing for 100 years and it has always looked the same, then that's probably one of the issues, right. And like you talked about unpaid internships, that's not necessarily, I think most of our internships, there's at least a stipend that comes along with it. But for so many employees, specifically in the park ranger field, which is what, so many people who visit a national park site, their first and in many cases only experience with the National Park Service or employees, it's not uncommon to be a seasonal, which is four to six months over multiple years at different places across the country, and then having to find a different job somewhere else until you get enough hours in that you can qualify for a hiring authority to be brought into the Park Service. And it's a huge barrier for people who can't have that level of uncertainty for where their paycheck is going to come in when this temporary assignment is over.
Denise: That's an absolute barrier because especially if you think about people young and starting their careers, they're probably looking for at least something that resembles full time employment. But that's a perfect opportunity for the Park Service to really examine that and to change their structure and their systems so that it becomes more available to people of color.
Denise: So, yeah, it's a big undertaking.
Kris: And it requires all of us, and it requires, I think, voices like yours that have, again, such a diverse experience and robust experience to help us examine ourselves, because that's always hard to find, maybe identify your own shortcomings or weaknesses. So have trusted voices help you identify areas that you can be better, I think is so important. So thank you so much for your observation. I think I think it's spot on.
Denise: Well, you have to be willing to actually acknowledge the work that needs to be done.
Denise: You have to acknowledge that you're not where you want to be. And so what do we need to do to get there? Does that mean that we need, for example, implicit bias training for leadership and for staff and for people to understand that we all have biases and they show up different ways? And so it's not just a racial bias. They're all different types of biases that we have. So I think it's really recognizing that and having a leader that's willing to say, “We're going to change this. We're not going to continue to do what we've always done.”
Kris: Right. Well, I think, again, I can't thank you enough for one of the conversations that we had about and you kind of challenging me, and to look at where are we getting services from. And essentially, where are we putting our financial resources as the Park Service to procure services and supplies? Are we patroning minority owned businesses and women own businesses, equitably. Right. Or are we going to kind of the same old tried and true places we've always gone? Because that's easy, right. That's quick, right.
Denise: And those vendors you've always worked with, they have learned how to navigate the system. Where the BIPOC community, maybe they've not. And so that means are there extra steps that we have to take? Do we need to do workshops to train, to understand how to complete the RFPs, to how do we become a vendor? And it takes some extra effort, as opposed to just, “We posted it and these are the people that responded, so we're done.” I think that that's the other thing, not just the Park Service. You said earlier this is really the challenge for the country in many different aspects, is to really look at how we have done, really, I'm going to say business as usual. And that to rethink that if we really want to reach people that we've not reached, we really have to change our behaviors and our approach.
Kris: Yeah, that's so true. So we can pivot a moment. Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument is fairly unique in the National Park Service. There are almost 425 National Parks Service sites across the country, some large, some small, some old, some new. But Birmingham is fairly unique in that it was established with the intent of having federal ownership or the piece of the Park Service directly owns and manages be very small in the footprint of the national monument boundary. And everything else within it is either a city owned property or park or building, nonprofit, a church, something like that. And all of us are charged and obligated to manage this together collaboratively and to work together, which is a challenge, right. The more people in a room you have, the harder it is sometimes to get consensus, but it's also an unbelievable opportunity to bring together people who've been doing this work forever and lived this story and truly embody everything that the park and the Park Service wants to do. Can you talk a little bit about some of the successes and the things that have been achieved specifically in the civil rights district, in the national monument, but really even citywide in regards to racial equity and social justice?
Denise: So, Kris, basically your comment is really one of the things I think is really one of the biggest successes, is that we have all come together to work for the preservation of these historic sites. And I think actually to form a collective vision for social justice, racial equity, preserving the history, to ensure that I always say current generations, because we can't skip to future generations without making sure we're engaging current generations. And so that's one of the things that I really think that we can't overlook, was our ability for all of us to come together and to work collectively toward this thing that was decreed as the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument. And it's our collective efforts that are really making the national monument a success. And I think that, again, we have so many opportunities within the various sites to be able to tell these stories. But also, for example, right, 16th Street Baptist Church, they were offering a COVID vaccine. So, I mean, you think about it, so history, yes, current day needs, absolutely. So being responsive to the needs right now. And so it has, of course, the foundation of the history to build upon. But all of these sites, Historic Bethel is actively working to help redevelop and to stabilize the neighborhood around the church. So the sites become a catalyst for other revitalization and other opportunities around these historic sites. And of course, with Urban Impact leading the northwest downtown planning process, it really gives an opportunity to really look at redeveloping, revitalization of the broader civil rights district. So I am really proud of our collective, collaborative efforts and the fact that as far as the city, the city is able to support these efforts, we're able to bring resources, even our work on the Gaston Motel, to be able to understand that the work that we're doing is really not for us, it's for future generations and it's for posterity sake as well. So I'm really pleased with our collaborative work.
Kris: I'm so glad you said that because I think, again, so many national park sites stand as monuments or testaments to something that happened in the past and we can infer and take lessons and apply them, like you said, to the current generation but also to the future. But here in Birmingham, the sites that make up the national monument and countless others in the city, their work and advocacy and their fight for what we're talking about didn't stop, right? They are still leaders in their communities and in their city and in this world. And it's such an inspiring place to be because it is really hallowed ground all across the city. So we've talked about a lot about, I think, organizational change which can be kind of overwhelming, especially if you feel like you're at maybe the lower rungs of an organization. You're not in the boardroom or whatever. But obviously we all have a responsibility as individuals to be leaders and to be people who are championing and fighting for equity and justice. Can you help tell and help us talk about how can an individual contribute towards achieving these goals? What can I do as a single person to be on the front lines fighting for this thing or these things that I believe in and think are important?
Denise: So, first of all, recognizing that racial equity is not a program. It's not something that we just plan, we do and we're done. That, it really is about a process. It's an approach. It's a mindset with achievable outcomes. And so it's really about a day to day practice of how we shift our behaviors and powers. So what does that mean? Does that mean that we adopt antiracist principles? That we are holding ourselves accountable at all levels? We're trying to work together to transform our respective spaces and then really just the commitment to continued improvement and education. So for an individual, if you're not really understanding or familiar with racial equity and racial equity principles I always say education is really probably the best place to start with most things is to inform yourself. So does that mean that maybe you take a training on implicit bias or antiracist principles so that you understand how you show up? Are there things that you're doing individually that you could take a different approach or a different attitude or that you didn't even recognize, maybe, that you had certain, I'm going to say prejudices meaning as prejudging people, right? I would say that certainly as an individual, start with your own knowledge and your own understanding of how you show up in your spaces and what you can do to contribute to a better workplace, it could be your church, it could be your school, wherever you are. But in this case, we're talking about the spaces in which we work. And it becomes important because we interact with the public in the work that we do. I think it's even more important for training for park rangers, training for our respective staff, to understand - and leadership - to understand some of these, I'm going to say, kind of basic principles in regard to social justice and racial equity.
Kris: That's so powerful. And you're right, they are basic. They should naturally just be a part of everything we do. But I think to your point earlier, assuming that is really what partly we're failing because there is some ignorance and a lack of understanding, education about what this means. And so thank you so much for taking the time to help us have this dialogue and hopefully begin to expose this idea, this kind of way of being an employee, a citizen, just a human being of valuing social justice and racial equity and understanding that there are things in place, systematic things in place that have been in place for so long that prevent that equity and truly are challenges for so many of our neighbors and our family and our friends to succeed. And again, just thank you so much for taking the time to speak to us. Is there anything, as we kind of wrap up here that you'd like to say?
Denise: Again, thank you, Kris. So as we really think about our conversation today, just recognizing that from the city's perspective, I'm here because Mayor Woodfin was intentional in that he wanted an administration to reflect his goals and his values, which included embracing and directing the organization to be deliberate in assessing our policies, our practices, initiatives, and really in recognition that we are, as is the National Park Service, a public service organization, and in that we serve the public, we have to demonstrate a commitment to practicing social justice and racial equity principles, basically with the goal to make sure that we can achieve equitable outcomes. That honest assessment of where we are is really the starting point for that. I have the opportunity now to participate with a cohort of cities through the Living Cities Network Closing the Gap Initiative that really strives to help municipalities work on racial equity efforts to close the wealth gap. It has been really for this past year that we participated and so that has allowed us access to resources, access to training. It really becomes important not only just to say we're going to be in this space, but that we're educated. We also have the opportunity within the city to participate as part of the Complete Communities Initiative with Implicit Bias training for all of the city's department and division directors. So again, understanding that the policies and the way that we show up is representative of how the city shows up and what a resident sees. And I would say that if you just extrapolate that out, that when the Gaston Motel is complete and we have visitors coming in, we want to make sure that all of the folks who staff that site and as well as our other sites, that we understand the space that we're, in we understand that we're able to interact with our visitors in a way that is respectful of them, of their culture and is welcoming. And so I would just say, in closing, that our work is just really too important not to give it our full selves. And I actually would even say that what we have the privilege to do, Kris, is not even work. It's really a calling. It's because we get to preserve these historic sites for future generations and understand that we do step on sacred ground every day that we show up at these sites.
Kris: There's absolutely no way to improve upon that. So I will just say I could not agree more. Thank you so much. And I hope all of us have been inspired and challenged to, like you said, embody and live these principles in every day and everything that we do. Denise, thank you so much for your time.
Denise: Thank you, Kris. I really appreciate it. Thank you.
Ranger: This is We Will Rise: National Parks and Civil Rights. Thanks to the Psalters for use of their song Turn Me Round. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to our series. Until next time.
Episode 6: Candacy Taylor, Author of Overground Railroad: The Green Book Roots of Black Travel in America
Author Candacy Taylor discusses the Green Book, known as the “Black travel guide to America.” The conversation spans Black female entrepreneurs, the role of music and clubs in racial integration, and the prison-industrial complex.
Welcome to We Will Rise: National Parks and Civil Rights. Close your eyes and imagine a national park. Are you picturing waterfalls and mountains? Or do you think of Dr. King's childhood home, Japanese internment camps, and a school that became a battleground for racial integration? National parks aren't just wilderness. They are spaces of remembrance, founded to preserve the stories of who we are and how we came to be. National parks inspire us to do better, be better, to climb mountains both physical and figurative. Join park rangers, researchers, authors and activists as we discuss what liberty and justice for all means on our public lands.
Ranger: Okay, all right. Well, hello, everyone. My name is Kat and I'm a park ranger at Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument. It is my honor to be speaking today with Candacy Taylor, author of Overground Railroad, the Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America. Published from 1936 to 1966, the Green Book was known as the Black Travel Guide to America. Because of segregation throughout the country, not just in the south, it was incredibly dangerous for African Americans to travel. This guidebook helped them to do so more safely. In recent years, awareness of The Green Book has increased, even leading to a Hollywood movie by the same name. This awareness is certainly thanks in part to Ms. Taylor's work. Ms. Taylor is an award-winning author, photographer, and cultural documentarian. Her work has been featured in The New Yorker and The Atlantic. She is a recipient of numerous fellowships and grants, including those from the Hutchins Center for African American Research at Harvard University and the National Endowment for the Humanities. She has visited more than 6500 Green Book sites and photographed nearly 300 of them. Welcome, Ms. Taylor.
Ms. Taylor: Well, thank you. I'm glad to be here.
Ranger Kat: Those numbers are amazing. Every time I look at them, I just can't even believe it. But I wanted to start actually with asking how your book tour is going or how it went now that it sounds like you've completed it.
Ms. Taylor: Yes, it's been interesting. It was really great. Clearly, we're still in a pandemic, so that's been an interesting experience. Depending on the part of the country I'm in, they just react to the virus differently. So there's all these different protocols. But it was great to see people come out in all kinds of weather. I ran into a few kind of severe snowstorms, and it was quite exciting. But for the most part, what made this book tour so interesting is that I was covering two books, both the young adult version of Overground Railroad that was just released for ages twelve and up. And then there's, of course, the adult version that came out in 2020. But having this material adapted for a young audience, I wasn't sure how it was going to be received. And I don't have kids, so it was fascinating to see middle school kids and high school kids reacting to this material and really understanding how much they don't know about, you know, they're not being taught about like the Great Migration and basic things. I thought that this book would supplement their knowledge about American history and there was just a lot of fundamental things that were new to them. So I thought, wow, this book is really necessary. And I felt very inspired by just the interest and the intimate stories and a lot of the Q and A I wished were recorded because you really do get a pulse of the country when you hear about people's experiences. So it was great.
Ranger Kat: I'm glad to hear that. And as someone who has a background working with young people, I completely agree with how inspiring it is to work with them and then also how critical it is that this information is shared with them in a way that's accessible to them. So I think it's just magnificent that you made this book for twelve and up. And I'll be honest, that's the book that I read and it was still incredibly in depth and really rich and of course all the primary source materials that you share and yeah, I thought it was still a very advanced book too. It was very rich.
Ms. Taylor: Yeah, we didn't want to dumb it down for them. We really wanted them to rise to the occasion because I think when you do that, people surprise you.
Ranger Kat: Yeah, absolutely. There's so many words that I learned from reading books that for many years I mispronounced because I just saw them in books. So I think that's absolutely such an important space for kids, for young people to be challenged. And I love that you said that because young people, that's how they learn through, like you said, rising to the challenge. So, very cool. Well, great. So as I mentioned, I'm a park ranger at Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument and the Park Service co-owns and co-manages a site that was a part of The Green Book and that's the AG Gaston Motel. And I'm wondering, since this is a site that you touch on in your books, could you take us back in time to the early sixties and paint us a picture of what staying at the Gaston Motel might have been like for African American travelers?
Ms. Taylor: Yeah, the AG Gaston was such a fascinating property for so many reasons. First, it was owned by this man, right? Mr. Gaston, who was the fascinating character and there's books about him. And he owned an insurance company. He had a chain of funeral homes, he had a bank and a farm, a business college and a string of motels, which was really incredible, obviously for anybody, let alone a black man. No. So of course he was part of the crem de la crème of upper crust society for that area of the country because he was such a knowledgeable and successful businessman. And, of course, his hotel was considered the best place for Black people to stay in that part of the country. It had 32 rooms and custom-made furnishings and it was designed to serve this high class clientele. People dressed in their best clothes. They attended parties. There was a dining room with…they had signature cocktails in the lounge and the top musicians of the day played there. And of course, it's most famous for Martin Luther King, Jr's. war room, quote, unquote, where he had incredible meetings, basically strategizing the next stages of the civil rights era. So for all these reasons, it was really a fascinating, important place. And it's one of the examples I use when people ask me about the movie Green Book that came out that really had nothing to do with the Green Book, unfortunately. But when they take Dr. Shirley to Birmingham in the 1960s, that's when the trip, this road trip with his driver happens. And they have The Green Book, which is the whole point of the movie, right. That they're traveling with The Green Book. But basically the place where they put Dr. Shirley is one of the most downtrodden places where, of course, he's used to nicer and finer things in life and he's very uncomfortable. And the whole point of The Green Book was so that you had options. And had they really been using The Green Book, they would have gone to the AG Gaston because that's where Dr. Shirley would have, you know, felt the most, where he would have gone. To me, it was such an iconic place. And people, as I'm sure you know better than I do the impact it left on the community and people who remember that from their childhoods. It was very special.
Ranger Kat: Yeah, incredibly special. One of the things that we're hoping to do this June is oral histories around AG and Minnie Gaston, his wife, whose role has really gone underreported, and to sort of shed some light on not just the movement activities, but the role that the Motel played in the community, exactly what you just shared. And that's another aspect of Black culture that has gone underreported in history. So we're looking forward to working with our partners on that.
Ms. Taylor: That sounds great. Yeah.
Ranger Kat: I'll let you know more about those details. I think that you might be interested in that, too.
Ms. Taylor: Please do.
Ranger Kat: I will. I want to pivot to national parks and the role of national parks in The Green Book. You wrote, quote, it was unusual to see national parks marketed to Black Americans. Although approximately 50 million vacationers visited national parks in the more than 90% of them were white. Can you explain to our listeners what prevented African Americans from visiting these places?
Ms. Taylor: First of all, when you think about what national parks are and where they're located, they're generally in rural areas because it's in places of nature. Right?
Ranger Kat: Right.
Ms. Taylor: And just as a generalization, many Black people who traveled would avoid rural areas especially areas they weren't familiar with, because then some of those areas if you got lost, or if you're in the wrong place, or, you know, there were sundown towns throughout the country, and sundown towns were all white communities, and they were all white on purpose. And there would be a sign at the county line saying, “N word, don't let the sun set on here.” And there were just fewer options if you ran into trouble, if you had car trouble, anything, if you were in a more remote area, there were could be severe consequences. So, as a rule, most Black folks gravitated towards a bigger cities, and when they went on vacation or went to see family, they would stay in the cities or places that were more populated, that had Black communities, where there were more Black people. And that's what The Green Book was so brilliant at, was getting you to those centers where there was a Black hairdresser, or tailor, or obviously a restaurant or hotel. So national parks were not really on the radar for most Black Americans. And even today, and even when I was doing the research for this book, there are still campaigns, and I'm sure you can speak to this more than I can, of really trying to get Black folks to come to the national parks. We're still, I believe the last statistic I read was less than 10%, and some, I think in 2009 it was 1% of the people who were coming to national parks were Black. So it has been an issue from the beginning. And even in 1922, there was a debate in the Yosemite National Park, basically determining whether national parks could exclude Black Americans altogether. And it was decided that, I think they said, while Black people couldn't be openly discriminated against, they should be told that the parks have no facilities for taking care of them. So the idea was you could maybe get into the park, but you couldn't use the facilities, or you'd have to find facilities that were just for you. And that was obviously something most people didn't want to deal with. So it was easier to just avoid national parks. Thankfully, in the 1952 edition of The Green Book, there were 27 national parks listed, but depending on where you were in the country, the Shenandoah National Park, Great Smoky Mountains would have colored, quote unquote campgrounds in separate swimming and picnic areas. And the last thing I'll say about maybe a reason why it was different for Black folks, I mean, even in my own family, the idea of the threat of being lynched, my stepfather's cousin was run out of town by the Ku Klux Klan, and oftentimes that image of running through the woods for your life was a real part of our history. And I've seen that image in films and television series for years. But it wasn't until I started writing this book that I realized that that even happened in my own family, and I hadn't known about it. So yeah, woods and rural spaces are complicated for Black people. Black Americans at least.
Ranger Kat: Yeah. It's an ongoing challenge in the Park Service and one that there was a Centennial Document that came out in 2016. It marked the hundred years of the existence of the Park Service. And one of the top priorities is diversifying staff and visitation to national parks. And so there is, like a stated intention to do so, but of course, the numbers are what sort of demonstrate how well we're doing. Of course, those are the metrics, and there's still a lot of room for improvement. Speaking of improvement, one of the things I really appreciated about your book is the fact that you really shine a light on the female entrepreneurs in The Green Book. And as I mentioned earlier, one of the things that we're really striving to improve upon in our storytelling is making sure that we're uncovering the history of female entrepreneurs as it relates to Birmingham and then making that a priority in the narrative that we share with the public. And that was something I really appreciated about your book as well. And so I wanted to ask if you could maybe share some of the stories or a story of a female entrepreneur that most resonated with you and why that most resonated with you.
Ms. Taylor: Yeah, this was a nice surprise as I was doing the research, because there's a whole chapter in my book dedicated to women in the Green Book for this reason, because it wasn't just that… My gosh, this was a time when women couldn't even have a bank account or credit card, and yet they ran businesses. Right? And these were largely, mostly Black women. I mean, there were about 900 beauty shops in The Green Brook that were largely run by women. And this was a place where you didn't just go and get your hair done. They were social centers where they were political, they were community-based centers. The NAACP was considered a radical organization at this time. And so if you wanted literature from the NAACP, you didn't have it sent to your house, you would have it sent to the beauty shop. And if you, you know, voting day, hairstylists would literally stop, shut down the shop and drive their customers to the voting booths. They were very important part of Black culture. So you had hair salons, you had over 1400 tourist homes, which were homes that were run largely by widowed Black women, and they would have an extra bedroom and a warm meal, and it was kind of among the first Airbnbs. And that was a big part of The Green Book. And for all those migrant families who were fleeing racial terror in the south and moving north because of the Great Migration, this was a real viable, really great option for those who were in rural areas where there weren't commercial businesses and/or didn't have as much money to stay in a hotel or a motel. So for that reason, women played a big role. But one of my favorite female entrepreneurs is Ma Haugabrooks. Well, her name was Geneva, but people called her Ma, and she was based out of Atlanta, and she ran Haugabrooks Funeral Home. And there were funeral homes in The Green Book. The Green Book was like a yellow pages of Black businesses. It was pretty amazing. What other travel guide is going to have funeral homes in it? It's bizarre and great at the same time. But she ran this really successful funeral home, and she was one of those women who her husband had died long before. I mean, she did this all on her own, and she was known as the woman who, quote, unquote, ran Atlanta. And she had so much wealth and so much power. She would, for instance, go to the Cadillac dealership. And one time she wasn't treated well by the person working the floor. He was a sales agent, and he was rude to her. And the manager saw this and fired him on the spot. And he said, you do not treat Ms. Haugabrooks like that. You know who she is. She buys three or four Cadillacs at a time. One of her employees at the funeral home,he was arrested, they wouldn't take him to jail. They would take him to Ma. The cops, the white police officers would take this person to Ma Haugabrooks and say, what do you want us to do with them?
Ranger Kat: Wow.
Ms. Taylor: It was just incredible. And she was so beloved, and celebrities loved her. There's photographs of her with celebrities. There's a photograph of her in my book. And I just loved listening, hearing stories about her. I did a project with Library of Congress where I interviewed a family member, the Haugabrooks family, and he tells stories about Ma Haugabrooks, and those are archived at the Library of Congress. If you Google my name and The Green Book, those interviews will come up. But yeah, if I had to pick one, there's also other incredible women. But she stands out in my mind today.
Ranger Kat: So my next question has to do with the financial burden of Blackness. In chapter three titled The Fight, you detail what the African American community was really up against in terms of institutional racism. You point out that tax-paying African Americans were barred from many basic public services, some, of course, we've already discussed, but additionally, libraries and schools. And you give the example of the $100 billion GI Bill, which was in effect from 1944 through 1971, and how during the height of racial discrimination, the federal government left distribution of these funds up to states. And as a result, quote, only two Black men were recipients of the 3229 Veterans Administration loans distributed in Mississippi in 1947, unquote. And of course, that's obviously data from one state in one year, but it certainly illustrates how white American families were able to gain access to federal dollars while African Americans were not able to. And how were those funds used? You give the example of how families, white families, went on to purchase homes that are often now worth ten times the original purchase price, generating wealth for the white middle class. There are many other examples, of course, of the financial burden of Blackness, but this one really stands out to me because homeownership especially is so critical in the generation of family wealth. I know this is a big question, and many people are discussing this question, but I'm wondering, do you think the federal government has a responsibility in addressing these wealth inequities? And if so, what do you suggest should be done?
Ms. Taylor: Right. I mean, yeah, it is a big question, and it's kind of above my pay grade to even give the answer about what should be done, because I don't know what the government is set up to do, but I know what they have done in the past, which is give incredibly large white entitlement programs to build a white middle class. And they've done it many times throughout our history. So the fact that we somehow never seem to have money for Black middle class folks or Black impoverished communities, that we've actually disinvested into these communities, we've taken money out of the Black communities and put it into white suburban communities, and we continue to do this. So it's a choice. I mean, I think, if anything, obviously people like Ta-Nehisi Coates, and there's so many great scholars out of Harvard that are really getting into the minutiae of where the money is, where it's been, what it's been spent on, and what it could be spent on. Robert Sampson, who's written many books about this, and obviously Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article on reparations, I think is the real push towards understanding how it's not that it was slavery. Right? I think this is an abstract concept that because we were enslaved as Black people we deserve reparations. There are injustices and injuries that have happened within our lifetime and within our parent’s lifetimes where we can see why the disparity exists. And I don't know, again, like, what the solution is, but there are so many examples now, I think there's a website, and I forget what's called, it’s something like where's your land? Where Black people can type into a register and see, like, if their land was literally taken from their ancestors or their grandparents and given to white people. And so there's obviously those situations where it was clearly taken from us. And there are some few minor court legislation that's been returned. This land has been returned to people where it was taken from or money has been given, but it's just minuscule. I mean, we're just at the very beginning of unearthing these realities. So I think we're moving in the right direction, but not enough is happening. And not quick enough. And the devastation that I saw on the road documenting these Green Book sites in these traditional Black communities, the level of poverty and violence is just unacceptable. And it's not that Black people are more violent or less able to make a living. It's the social structure and societal systems that have created this situation. So I think if the government can create these situations, they can solve the problem. If they created the problem, they can solve it. So how they do that, Lord knows how the government works, but I think it is on the government. I think it is their responsibility to do it because they've done it before. We've done it, like I said, for the white middle class. And I think that if the excuse of saying that we don't have the money to do it for black middle class is just an excuse and it's about whether or not you intend to or want to change to fix the problem, and we keep getting the same answers that it's not a priority
Ranger Kat: Well, hopefully there's positive change in that arena soon. My next question is about white allies, and in the book you mentioned a few businesses who were Black-friendly and have their services listed in the Green Book. Can you give a few examples and maybe explain the risks that these individuals and institutions faced and perhaps what enabled them to take the stand they did?
Ms. Taylor: Yeah, I think it's hard to know, obviously exactly what…because if I had to estimate, about 85% of the Green Book sites were Black-owned. But there were so many white businesses, Jewish-owned businesses, that did participate in The Green Book, especially in the later editions in the 1960s. And this, of course, is when I think people saw the writing on the wall after 1954. Sorry, there's a siren. I live in New York City, so it's probably going to get louder and I don't know if I can mute, but maybe it's not going to pass in front of my house. Okay, but yeah, these white allies, I think they saw the writing on the wall after 1954 in the Brown versus Board of Education. There was kind of an imminent reality that there was going to be integration once we started integrating the schools. It was just a matter of time before restaurants and other public spaces would be integrated. So you see more in the later editions, these Brooks Brothers, Disneyland, more of the businesses that maybe were downtown, because in nearly every major and even mid-sized city, 80%, 90% of all the Green Book sites were in Black neighborhoods. They were in these redlined communities, these communities that were cornered. They were literally divided up. And in the north, throughout the South, I mean, they were just very segregated communities. So you start seeing a sprinkling of white businesses participating in the Green Book, and I think they've faced the same threats that in any, even Black businesses face from, you know, there was a woman who was a major business owner of The Green Book who had a place in Columbia, South Carolina, and her place would get shot up by the Ku Klux Klan pretty regularly. They'd shoot up her sign, and she'd fight with them and threaten them, and they threatened her. There was a lot of clashing. There were a lot of people who were not okay with integration. So I do write I think it's in chapter four. You may remember it because you read the book probably more recently than I did, but where Victor green actually writes to Nebraska and south Dakota or North Dakota, sorry, and parts of Montana where he's writing to these white businesses saying, would you be a part? Almost every business in that state was white, and there were no Black neighborhoods that he could rely on to get businesses to list. And the letters that they write him back, the excuses of why they can't do it or why they don't want to alienate their white customers, and they just don't feel like it would be a place where black people would feel comfortable anyway. And I think that largely speaks to the attitude of the time. So that's why I think Balck travel guides like The Green Book were so incredibly important and such a unique opportunity for black people to be in other parts of the country, because without it, it was so dangerous and very difficult, nearly impossible, to know that you could feel safe and to know that you would have placed asleep or food to eat while you were traveling.
Ranger Kat: One of the things that I really enjoyed reading about in the green book had to do with the role of music. As a big fan of all sorts of music and dance myself, I was really interested in that section of the book. And there was a quote by Sugar Pie DeSanto, and I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly, her last name. She was a cousin of Etta James, and she said this quote about the Filmore district. The crowd was mixed, and for a while the police didn't like it. They hassled us for a while, but we told the cops to leave us alone. We didn't care about color. We cared about music. Unquote. And music in the book, the way you described it, it seemed like it was this opportunity to bring people together. And so I'm wondering if you could talk more about the role that music played in the green book and perhaps in changing attitudes around race.
Ms. Taylor: Well, music, I think music and food have always been the kind of leveling of humanity, right? That's why I think segregation never could have ultimately worked as much as they tried to keep the races separate. There are many instances of different business owners I interviewed who were black businesses, but because the food was so good, they would have to come to their restaurant and even if it was in a state where segregation was illegal. There's a great drop in New Orleans, the whole state of Louisiana. It was illegal for white, black people to be in the same room together. And they would shut it down or arrest people every so often because white people couldn't stay away from the Dew Drop. But the best music was there. And the person who owned the Dew Drop was so irritated after a while because it was right before, of course, in 64, everything changed because they changed the laws. But he was just tired of getting arrested himself or having to deal with it because he couldn't control whether white people wanted to come. Black people weren't allowed to go to the French Quarter, so they went to the Dew Drop because that's where the best music was. But I think that's always been the truth about America, is that what Black folks bring to the culture is so undeniably exceptional and unique, and something only we can do as Black people that white folks want to be a part of it. Right? And so I think that's always been the, like I said, the leveling of humanity. People do forget about a lot of the petty, ridiculous things that maybe make us different. When the music moves you in the same place in your body. And it's about being human. So music played a huge role, and there were over 1000 nightclubs in The Green Book throughout the life of the publication for over 30 years. There's another part of in that chapter on music, the Charlie's Place, that story too. I recommend your listeners read that because that's an incredible piece of history, where it gets shot up by the Ku Klux Klan. But it's a music venue that was so important. I mean, that could be a film in and of itself, just Charlie's Place, and they're trying to bring it back to life today. I think it's history, but it's still living with us, and I think it still speaks to whether we're talking today about sports, the NFL. It's always going to be an issue where Black talent has just risen above and beyond what anybody even imagined it could be. And the way that we incorporate that in our culture, in a fair way in society, we've never been able to really pull that off. So we see it in segregation during that time of the Jim Crow era, but we still see it today.
Ranger Kat: Speaking of Black excellence, I think certainly the Greens and Victor Green, who was the creator of The Green Book, are an incredible example of that. So Victor and Alma Green were a married couple, and Victor Green, obviously, is the person who is credited with starting The Green Book. But I'm curious, could you let us know what you think it's important for listeners to understand about the two of them?
Ms. Taylor: Oh, yeah, Victor and Alma were fabulous. They lived in Harlem. They lived in the Sugar Hill District of Harlem, which is even more…some of your listeners may know, but it was the place where…it was such a popular neighborhood. It was called, like, the Sweet life if you were in Sugar Hill District. Beautiful brownstones and luminaries. Langston Hughes and Zora Neal Hurston and Thurgood Marshall lived there. They lived across the street from Duke Ellington. And Victor and Alma weren't celebrities, necessarily, but they really fit in. And they didn't have a lot of money, but they had a lot of class and just dressed beautifully. There are reports that even interviewed Alma Green's nieces, her niece. And they remember going to their house in the 50s, and Alma would still have her fuzzy slippers on, and she was even dressed at home in her kind of beautiful fabrics. And they just had an air of class and just felt very, I think, entitled in ways that a lot of Black Americans at the time didn't feel. And for instance, Victor, before the first Green Book was published in Harlem, but very soon after, he went down to Midtown, which was unusual for a Black man to be in Midtown, to go to a public printer with a Jewish family, the Gibraltar Printing Company. And he walks in there. He's over 6ft tall. He's very tall, he's dashing. He's again dressed in a suit. And he walks in there with an opportunity for them saying, I have this travel guide, and I think you should print it. And the son at the time, Howard Glenner, who was probably seven years old, sees this very tall Black man, and he says he wouldn't have even been served at the Greek Diner down the street. So it was really shocking for him to just walk in there and say, hey, I have an opportunity for you. And they end up printing The Green Book for many, many years, and it is a great opportunity for them, and they make a lot of money on it. And then he leaves them because he goes to a better printer that has this new offset printing technology so he could have bigger pictures. So, again, this is a man with a 7th grade education.
Ranger Kat: Wow.
Ms. Taylor: And yet has the chutzpa to continue the Jewish story. I mean, he has that entitlement in himself that, yeah, no, I have this very exciting opportunity for us to benefit from. So I think…I always say…and Alma too. I mean, she was an incredible part of the story and the success of The Green Book. I'm happy to report that both Alma and Victor are being inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame this year, and I'll be accepting the award on their behalf, which is amazing. But when they approached me, they said, we want Alma and Victor to receive this award. I'm thrilled. And by the time, 1959, Alma is actually the editor and publisher of The Green Book. And then she runs the Green Book until like the early sixty’s and then it's taken over by Langley Waller. Victor Green dies in 1960, so he never lived to see the passage of Civil Rights Act. But it's an incredible, they were an incredible couple. They never had children. She married him when she was 27 years old, which was definitely older for that generation of women. And they were together for 43 years. So they're wonderful couple and I'm happy, like I said, to celebrate them. And they'll be in the Automotive Hall of Fame.
Ranger Kat: Well, on the theme of family, I have a question about your family. And of course this book represents an incredible amount of academic research, but it is at times deeply personal. And throughout the book you reference the experiences of your stepfather, Ron Burford. Am I pronouncing that last name correctly?
Ms. Taylor: Yeah.
Ranger Kat: And you also dedicate the book to your mother, Carol Burford, who fought incredibly hard for your education, even moving the family from Houston to Ohio so you could receive the highest quality education possible. And you write that it is because of her that you were able to become an author and an artist. I'm curious, what was their response to the book when it came out?
Ms. Taylor: Well, it's such an incredible…I guess things don't happen by accident, but it was never intended that this book would be so personal. But because while I was doing the research, my stepfather, Ron, I'd known him since I was twelve and he never told me…He grew up in the Jim Crow South and he was a dark skinned Black man. And he would talk all the time. He loved to tell stories and he's this man from the south and he would just talk our ear off sometimes. But he never shared really intimate stories or things that really happened, especially in regards to race and racism that he dealt with. But when I started writing this book, all of a sudden he was just telling me all of these stories that I never knew. And we developed a very close relationship that we had never had. I mean, we weren't estranged or anything, we just weren't really…he was a big marine, he had a lot of testosterone. He was really masculine and I just didn't get it. I just thought, I don't get you. But we loved each other and he was definitely on my side. He was a great stepdad, but we just weren't really… was closer to my mom. But when I guess I started writing this book, he became a huge part of my life. And I spend all of these just 16 hours, days on the road, just driving, and he would call me and we would talk for hours. You know, throughout these years I was writing the book. So he dies literally the week I start to sit down and write the book, after I've been on the road and doing all the scholarly research. I leave Harvard, I'm on the road for almost six months, and then I finally sit down to write, and I have like eight months to write the book. And he died. And it devastated me and I just couldn't function. I'd wake up every morning, I wasn’t busy at the time, just on a deck staring the Disney Mountains, and I was watching the sun come up. And I would just cry and write his stories because I didn't want to forget the things he had told me while I was on the road. And I remember telling my agent, saying, I know I'm supposed to be writing the book, but I'm just writing stories right now. And I know I'm going to open the book where he tells me the story about the chauffer's hat.
Ranger Kat: That piece just like gutted me.
Ms. Taylor: Oh my God. And that never would have been in there had he not died. I probably wouldn't have done it because he was kind of a private guy, but he loved being the center of attention. So I know he's looking down on this thinking, yeah, he's very thrilled because he is such a big part of anybody who interviews me about this book, they have to talk about Ron. Yeah, that story was so poignant for me. So I opened the book with that story, and then I realized that his stories were touchstones in almost every chapter of the book. And so he becomes a narrative thread. Like, again, he never would have had he not died. And then at the end of the book, writing the book, I wrote it chronologically, and I'm in the last part, and I know my mother gets sick and she's in the hospital and it doesn't look good. And I woke up that morning and I said, I'm not going to turn my phone on because I know…I was supposed to write the passage where at the beginning of the book, Ron is seven years old. He's in the backseat of the car. They get pulled over by sheriff, and the chauffer's hat is used as a ruse. His father lies and basically says, this isn't my car, it's my employer's car, because he had a nice car and this was usually antagonizing for white police officers. And so Ron realizes there's this chauffeur's hat hanging in the backseat of the car that has always been there, but it's never used and never knew what it was for. But his father basically said, you know, you've got to just not… on't say anything. I'm going to you know, when the cop pulled him over and he pretends he doesn't know his wife and he says, this is my employer's car. This is the maid. And I'm driving her and her son home, and they get to go without any incident. So I knew the beginning of the book was that story. The end of the book was going to be the story about me in the front seat of the car with my mom at seven years old, and we're driving past a chain gang in Texas, and I'm looking at all these men chained up in a field. And I say to my mom, I said, the first thing I said, I was like, Mum, I thought slavery was over. And she said, oh, it is, honey. Why are all these men chained up in the field? Like, it looked just like the images I'd seen in my book in school of slaves. I said, Why are they all chained up? I thought, you know, I was mad. What is going on here? And my mother says, oh, well, they're prisoners. Why are they in chains? She's like, oh, they're prisoners. And I thought, Why are they all Black? And she just couldn't explain institutional racism to a seven year old. I wanted to have that conversation, but I never forgot it. And I knew I was going to write that passage that morning. And then I turned my phone on after I write it, and I find out that she died. So it was so intense to lose both of them in the beginning and the end stages of writing this book. And then, like you said, I dedicated the young adult version to my mom, which came out a couple of months ago because she taught me how to read and write before I went to kindergarten. She spent so much time with me when I was so young, and she fought for me, like you said. She pulled me out of a school because in Texas, where I went to school, there were no Black kids in the A level reading classes. And my mother knew I belonged in the A level reading class. And this one teacher would just harass me, and she was so mean to me. And my mother goes to the school and makes her cry, basically, and threatens her. I know what you're doing. I know that this is about Candacy being Black. She taught me how to read and write. She's like, of course she's in the A level reading course. This was in third grade. And she pulled me out of that school. We moved to Ohio where her parents lived, and I test into the fifth grade, and she just knew in that environment I was going to be held back. So I was just so lucky and grateful to have had a mother like that. Of course, Ron didn't get to see the book because he had passed, and my mother didn't get to either. And it just the thing that just breaks my heart open every time. But again, the way that it happened was so cosmic or just…it was just so crazy that yes, I just feel like there's bigger forces at work here and that I will never understand. But I'm thankful that they get to be a part of this legacy with the book. I just wish they could share it with me.
Ranger Kat: You brought up something that I also was hoping to touch upon in the Epilogue. The whole discussion on incarceration and that story of you as a little girl observing the chain gang in a very savvy way, asking your mother about is slavery actually over? When you're seeing this group of entirely Black men laboring. And that personal anecdote, you use that to kind of lead us into…lead the readers into a number of very disturbing statistics. Such as in Chicago's Black community, where there's an imprisonment rate for drug convictions that's over 40 times higher than the surrounding white communities. Even though these white communities had drug use rates that matched the Black communities. And I'm just going to repeat that: 40 times higher. And the money that is poured into maintaining the prison system is absolutely astronomical. You write, quote, when asked why these Black neighborhoods are fraught with problems, the typical answer is that there isn't enough money for education, housing, after school programs, libraries, parks, and grocery stores. But this argument is clearly unreasonable because somehow the government spends approximately $80 billion, $80 billion locking up Americans for nonviolent offenses and petty crimes such as unpaid traffic tickets, shoplifting, and minor parole violations. In some states, it costs $60,000 a year to incarcerate one person. Imagine how that money could be redirected to support communities instead of tearing them down. Unquote. Who or what organizations or people do you see that are trying to change this, and how might people get involved?
Ms. Taylor: I think it's such a huge problem, really. It's the thing that keeps me up at night, and it has for probably the last ten years. One of my biggest fears when I was writing this book was like, how am I going to basically, I just didn't want people to say, this book about The Green Book. How do you write about mass incarceration in the same book? And like you said, to me, it's more of the same. And the threat is very clear in terms of what we do today. But I think people like Brian Stevenson, obviously, and his work is…it's really important. I think obviously there have been feeble and minor attempts to change because even the Republicans now realize that the money we spend on incarceration, it's just we can't… we can't afford it anymore, and we can't maintain all of these prisons. And I live in New York. Rikers is about to be shut down because it's so deeply dangerous. The violations that are happening, health code violations, things that are just really basic, we can't maintain the system anymore. It's the biggest incarcerate…we incarcerate more people in the world than anybody else. Again, follow Brian Stevenson's statistics on this. It's really unbelievable. When I was in the front seat of my mom's car, there were about maybe 250,000 people in jail, or no, I'm sorry, there were about 750,000. And now there's no there were 250,000. Now there's 2.2 million people in jail just from and this was after The Green Book, you know, so I follow…there are things you can do. I mean, in my book, I have a short list. What can you do? Most people who have 401Ks don't realize that they are funding the prison industrial complex that you'd have to call your fiduciaries or financial accountants and see. But most definitely between 60 and 80% of people who have no idea that they are against this mass incarceration, but they are funding it. So first of all, don't fund the prison industrial complex. That's one thing you can do. There's other minor things. I mean, even just the Sentencing Project is a really good organization that's doing important work. There's a lot of people sitting in jail who shouldn't be there and have been in there for decades, and they are helping to reverse to right some of those wrongs. Even from my Amazon account, everything I shop on with Amazon, I think it's called the Smile Program, but when I log in under Smile, I've set it so that a percentage of all the things, all the money I spend on Amazon goes to The Sentencing Project. So that's one thing you can do. The Prison Policy Initiative is a really interesting organization that's I'm sorry. The Prison Policy Initiative is an organization that's really doing interesting work. One of the ways this has grown to be such an astronomical problem is because it's been so under the radar. Before we knew it, there were millions of people in jail, and people were like, how did that happen? How did this…the Million Dollar Blocks program was another one that I was studying when I was writing the book, where they would show in places like Chicago, where 80% of the community have been rounded up and put in jail. Like, how does this happen? And because it's happening in places where it's largely Black and Brown, mostly Black communities where they have no institutional power, they're not part of society in a real way, where people care about what's happening to them. And it has been going on for generations now. And this is where we're at. So I feel like it's a very…the numbers matter. And who's tracking this behavior and these consequences? It matters. And so, the Prison Policy Initiative is one of those organizations that seems to start getting real numbers. And the last thing I'll say about this is I've been working on a project. I did a digital interactive map with National Geographic, and I started touching on these things I'm finding with these sundown towns. There were thousands of them. And for people who want to learn more about them, James Loewen is a leading researcher on sundown towns. He wrote a book called Sundown Towns. But looking at his research and creating my own map based on his research of sundown towns, I started seeing where there are some parallels or overlaps where you can see this kind of prison gerrymandering that's starting to happen or it probably has been happening. But again, we don't have the numbers on this, but where we see places that were formerly sundown towns, which were all white, had been 99% white for decades, all of a sudden we'll start having maybe five or 8% Black and Brown people, sometimes even 10%. And then you look closer and you realize all the Black and Brown people are in their private prisons. They're not actually citizens.
Ranger Kat: Oh my goodness.
Ms. Taylor: And so, of course, when you increase your numbers like that, you get more legislative power in Washington. There's benefits to this, right? So I'd like to know how often that's happening. I started doing some of the research there, but we are just on the cusp of even understanding the magnitude of the problem. And of course, I can't not mention Michelle Alexander's work, The New Jim Crow and her book and obviously Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th, for people who don't want to read a whole book, just watch 13th and you'll get a snapshot of what's happening. And that's on Netflix. But yeah, we have a lot of work to do. And if we want to continue to basically believe that we live in a free and fair society, we've got to fix this problem. And I don't think it will be fixed in our lifetime. But we have to reverse, we have to stop the bleeding. It is just inhumane. So, yeah, it's a huge issue and I hope people care about it enough to do something.
Ranger Kat: Well, thank you for lifting up all those names and organizations. I was not aware of the 401K issue and that's something I'll look into myself personally. So, again, thank you for sharing that. And in the vein of, like, thinking down the road, the mission of the National Parks is near and dear to my heart and it's to set aside spaces for the recreation, education and inspiration of this generation and the next. And I’m paraphrasing that. The Green Book helped African Americans to recreate and National Parks more safely. Green Book sites are also becoming national parks, as is the case here in Birmingham with the AG Gaston Motel. What are some things that our site and others can do to commemorate The Green Book?
Ms. Taylor: Well, I think definitely having some kind of…I love what you're doing, clearly. I mean, even just having this podcast and announcing to people that this is happening, but I think having some kind of visual…I do have an exhibition with the Smithsonian. I'm a curator and content specialist for an exhibition on The Green Book. But having a small version of that to show people what The Green Book was, why it was significant, and making sure that people…putting maybe QR codes that lead to other content about this history, whether it's even with the Library of Congress has archived of interviews, but featuring how we cannot just look to our past, I think that's the part that is really a blessing and a curse about history, right? Because there are those of us who love history and will eat this stuff up no matter where we see it. We find it, we seek it out and we love it. But then there are other people who think, well, it was in the past and they just dismiss it. But I think using modern technology and ways to engage people by understanding that a lot of our present, not as only informed by our past, but it's still kind of happening, these layers still happen. So I think, like I said, putting QR codes or different ways of people engaging in this history and retelling their own stories in relationship to these histories that may resonate with them, asking them to contribute their own, you know, maybe parent’s photographs or ways to get people excited about being a part of reimagining this history, right? So I think that's how you get people really invested emotionally. And I hope that again, of course, you and I can talk about this, different ways to do this. And my exhibition with the Smithsonian is about 3500 square feet. So it's very large. But if we have a smaller version of that, maybe it can go to different sites like this because it's very unusual and exciting for the AG Gaston to actually, as a Green Book site, to be celebrated in line with the National Park. That's a first. And so I think more organizations that find those opportunities we had. The first venue for our exhibition was in Memphis at the National Civil Rights Museum because that was the old hotel where King was assassinated. That was in The Green Book. So that was another example where an institution and a museum was actually a Green Book site. And we have a couple of other examples of that in the country. Again, your part is…part of being the National Parks and wanting to really embrace and embolden Black culture and have it be a part of the National Park System. That's progress for all of us.
Ranger Kat: I love the QR code idea. We'll look into that. Is there any question you wish I had asked or any last message you'd like to share with listeners?
Ms. Taylor: I think we covered a lot. For the most part. I'm just excited that this material continues to affect, you know, people…like organizations like the National Park Service. I would love to talk a little more about preservation and how important that is in getting the National Park System and the National Registrar to really embrace these Green Book sites. I did get a grant from National Park System…National Park Service to rewrite the context on how these Green Book sites should be considered because most of them were located in traditional Black neighborhoods which were marginalized from basic municipalities. Whether they were put in flood zones or different areas that was harder to keep up those properties in a pristine form that sometimes the National Register requires be considered valuable. So we're really trying to change that thinking, that something can be culturally significant and not architecturally perfect. So really getting the…changing that dynamic and that attitude has been the work I've been doing more recently this year. And I don't know if your speakers are local or national, but I'll be speaking at the Washington State Museum in Tacoma, Washington on May 19 because the Smithsonian exhibition is currently there. So for folks in that area of the country that want to see the exhibit or possibly see me, I'll be doing a book signing on May 19.
Ranger Kat: Great. That's good to know. Yeah. To be honest, I'm not sure how many listeners we have yet. It's a new podcast, and my technological savvy leaves much to be desired, but thank you for sharing that.
Ms. Taylor: Oh, you're going to archive this, so. It will grow and live in the archives.
Ranger Kat: Yes. And that's 100% true. And then everything that we produce is in the public domain. So, yeah, that's the hope, is that it will live on forever. So, thank you again so much, Ms. Taylor, for speaking with me today. It truly has been a pleasure and an honor. And I will definitely be reaching back out so we can discuss more concretely, some ways where we can incorporate your work with the Smithsonian and your book and beyond into what we're doing at the AG Gaston Motel. And exciting news on our end. The proposed budget for the next fiscal year has come out, and there's been a significant amount of money slated for the interior renovations of the AG Gaston Motel on the Park Service side. Yes. So we're thrilled about that. And so in the next couple of years, there will be concerted effort to do design and installation of the exhibits within the motel. So I'm sure we'll be reaching out in regards to that. And, yeah, we look forward to hopefully also in the future, hosting you in Birmingham and having the opportunity for you to share more of this research, hopefully in person with people as well.
Ms. Taylor: Yeah, let me know when you have more of the events coming up or things happening. Let me know. It sounds like nothing will be happening this year, but I think I'll be in the south. Well, I know I'm doing two talks in Oklahoma and one in Mississippi because the exhibition is moving to the Mississippi Museums in August. So I'll be probably traveling to the south this summer.
Ranger Kat: Okay, well, there may be a potential opportunity there as well. I'll reach back out and we can connect on that, too.
Ms. Taylor: Okay, that sounds great.
Ranger Kat: Great. Well, thank you so much. I hope you have a good rest of your day, and I hope you are able to have some downtime now that the book tour is complete, to just rest.
Ms. Taylor: No, it doesn't work that way for me. I'm on the road. It's like all the stuff that I didn't get to because I was on the road is now piled up me. I get, like, 80 emails a day and all this stuff, so it's like and then I leave again in a month, so I've already got to start booking that travel today. So, yeah, it's kind of a whirlwind, but it's better than not having stuff going on.
Ranger Kat: That's true. It's better than the alternative, but it's true. Right.
Ms. Taylor: But thanks for wishing. I appreciate the sentiment.
Ranger Kat: Yeah. Well, again, thank you so much and just really so honored to be connected with you and excited for the work you've done and truly look forward to everything that you'll continue to bring to the conversation around this history going forward.
Ms. Taylor: I appreciate it too. Thanks for the work you're doing as well, and I look forward to hearing from you soon. Okay, sounds great. All right, take care. Bye bye.
This is We Will Rise. National Parks and Civil Rights. Thanks to the Psalters for use at their song Turn Me Round. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to our series. Until next time [music continues].
Episode 7: Gina Mallisham, Marketing Manager at BCRI, on her LGBTQ+ Advocacy Work
Listen in as Gina Mallisham, Marketing Manager at Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI) describes her advocacy work on behalf of the LGBTQ+ community in Birmingham.
Welcome to We Will Rise: National Parks in Civil Rights. Close your eyes and imagine a national park. Are you picturing waterfalls and mountains? Or do you think of Dr. King's childhood home? Japanese internment camps at a school that became a battleground for racial integration? National parks aren't just wilderness. They are spaces of remembrance, founded to preserve the stories of who we are and how we came to be. National parks inspire us to do better, be better, to climb mountains both physical and figurative. Join park rangers, researchers, authors, and activists as we discuss with liberty and justice for all means on our public land. And we are recording.
Ranger: Hello, everybody. My name is Kat, and I'm a park ranger at Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument. And today I am so excited to be with Gina Mallisham. She is a Tuscaloosa native who works as the marketing manager at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, and she also serves as secretary of the Central Alabama Pride Board of Directors and one of the founding members of Mayor Randall Woodfin's LGBTQ+ Advisory Board. She is also part of the year round staff at Sidewalk and Film Center, where she works as the Shout LGBTQ+ Outreach Coordinator. So I don't know what you don't do, Ms. Gina, but it's always a joy to work with you, and I really appreciate you taking some time out of your schedule to be here to have this conversation with me.
Gina Mallisham: Thank you for having me. I'm excited to do this.
Ranger: Yeah. So I'll start with my first question. So, Birmingham, Alabama, isn't often one of the first places that come to people's minds when they think of queer-friendly spaces. Yet, when we were first emailing about this interview, you shared a number of things about the Magic City that sounded quite remarkable in terms of how this place shows up for LGBTQ+ folks. So I'd love you to talk about what you feel is commendable, about how Birmingham serves and welcomes its LGBTQ+ population, and then also what advances still need to be made.
Mallisham: Yeah, definitely. Birmingham is a very, very welcoming community for all different kinds of people, and that includes transgender individuals and gender diverse youth. And the Magic City has seen so many seasons of progress and perseverance. Our queer community has shown, even in difficult times, that we're capable of becoming better and emerging stronger every single time. And our city has proudly achieved its highest ever total raw score of 108 on the Human Rights Campaign Municipal Equality Index, which we call the MEI. And we also earned an All Star for the MEI, and that's a status for our perfect score, despite Alabama status as a state without any nondiscrimination statutes that expressly protect LGBTQ people. And this 10th edition of the MEI actually examines how inclusive municipal laws and policies and services are of LGBTQ people who live and work there. And so that's just one of many, I can go on and on and on about how affirming the city of Birmingham is.
Ranger: Wow. I'm not familiar with the MEI. Could you repeat that one more time? What does that stand for?
Mallisham: Yeah. That is the Human Rights Campaign's Municipal Equality Index, or the MEI.
Ranger: Oh, that's so amazing. So, Birmingham’s score you said was 108.
Mallisham: That's right. Out of it, we got up to 108. Having come from a score so low, I won't even mention it ahead of our current mayor.
Ranger: Oh, wow. Is there like a maximum score or is it just like the more points you get, the better? Like in a basketball game. Okay.
Mallisham: Right. The more points you get, the better. And then we also have got world class medical care here and human rights activism that's driven by some of the most ambitious social justice leaders. All of them are leading not just for the City of Birmingham, but setting an example for other states, particularly Southern states. We're home to one of the nation's oldest pride organizations, Central Alabama Pride is the state's largest pride organization and we're a nonprofit group of unpaid board members. And we're committed to spreading the message of equality every year with the production of our queer Pride events. And we bring together people from all over Alabama, really the Southeast. Most recently, we clocked over 25,000 attendees at our twelve days of Pride in 2022.
Mallisham: We are just showing continued growth every year. And another thing I'm proud of is the New South Softball League. It's based right here in Birmingham and it started in 1982. It's even older than me. And it's a member of NAGAAA, which is the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance. And NAGAAA is a nonprofit international organization and it's made up of folks that are dedicated to promoting amateur athletics for the queer community. And our new south teams compete in tournaments all over the country and they do really well. And I'm not sure if it's the longest, but it's one of the longest running queer sports organizations in the nation.
Ranger: I love that. And Hannah and I have been talking about this. Hannah is one of the interns that's been working with us this summer and just the role and importance of play and sports as a means of building relationships and bridging differences between people. And I had never heard of the Athletic League that you mentioned in your email and just now before, but I just love that that's a part of the movement here in Birmingham as opportunities for joy and levity and play.
Mallisham: That's right. Yeah. On top of the things that are really important for us, the things that we wake up and forget our actual privileges for us. Our LGBTQ Advisory Board here in the city is constantly working to develop healthy, thriving, queer, inclusive community for the residents so that we can live openly and freely across all segments of our society, free of forms of discrimination and oppression. And we're really focused on continually improving the climate, the civic climate for queer residents and their allies through education and advocacy for inclusive policies. Most recently, we championed gender neutral restrooms and all of the city-owned facilities with single-occupancy stalls. And we're working on reducing the queer homeless youth population in Birmingham. It's a problem not just in our city, but in cities all across the world. And so we've got a really strategic focus on queer and trans people of color. And we're doing this by advocating for organizations like AIDS Alabama's Way Station, which is a project that exists to serve queer and trans people of color, specifically. And we're always looking for collaborations and ways to elevate the needs of the community on the advisory board. The Civil Rights Institute and the Invisible Histories Project are currently working to elevate the stories and issues facing marginalized groups within the queer community with an upcoming gallery project that we just can't wait to present to the world next year. Yes, I want to tell you more about it, but it's a surprise.
Ranger: Okay. I'll have to wait.
Mallisham: Stay tuned.
Ranger: I’ll have to be patient.
Mallisham: Follow @BhamCivilRights to learn more about that.
Ranger: Okay, cool.
Mallisham: Yeah. And then, of course, there's a carefully cultivated network of affirming healthcare professionals and prevention specialists, and we're working to reduce health disparities among Birmingham's queer residents. We organize our efforts to combat rising rates of...new rates of COVID, STIs, STDs, HIV infections in Birmingham. And we are home to a lot of organizations that offer affirming addiction and rehab care, hormone replacement therapy, mental health services that can better quantify and respond to the health needs of our community, which are really specific. And folks from all over the Southeast travel to Birmingham to get their affirming healthcare.
Ranger: Wow. I did not know that. And why do you think that Birmingham has become that kind of a space in the south?
Mallisham: Right. Well, of course, we can look to our municipal support, for sure. We can look to the fact that we have a high population here, and any place with a high population is going to have a high queer population. But, we're home to Alabama's first LGBTQ primary care facility. We're home to the University of Alabama at Birmingham, which is just world class health care. And the research centers that we have here in Birmingham lead to an awareness of the need and an answering of the need, which is something that the Magic City has always done, is seeing a need and filled it.
Ranger: Wow, so beautiful.
Mallisham: I'm very proud.
Ranger: Yeah, I can see it. You've got this big smile on your face and, like, what a cool...I mean, you already do so much in your work at the Institute, but I imagine that in addition to the very fulfilling work that you do here, that is also something that is incredibly fulfilling and as you mentioned, a huge need. Yeah. Thank you for doing that work.
Mallisham: I love doing it.
Ranger: So, taking a pivot to civil rights education. We of course know each other through collaborating on civil rights history education, specifically the story of the 1950s and the movement led by the African American community here in Birmingham and the rest of the south. What to you are the similarities and differences between the pursuit of civil rights for African Americans and the pursuit of civil rights for the queer community?
Mallisham: Well, I tell you, that is a very good question. It is also a very controversial question. So first we have to recognize that a lot of folks reject the notion that the queer struggle and Black American struggle can't even be compared. The concept really angers some Black Americans who view it as an attempt by a privileged white community to claim a type of victimhood that is distinct from the Black experience in America, even while others view such brave dialogue very favorably. And I would say that I'm of the latter. And so for the sake of courageous conversation, we can note that Black Americans and gays have been targeted because of who they are. And both African Americans and gays have been denied equal access to rights, responsibilities and protections that the Constitution provides. And I think immediately to civil rights icon Julian Bond who was asked about this same connection between the Black civil rights movement and its gay counterpart a couple of years ago. And he told PBS that it was the, quote, immutable characteristics of the individuals that mattered. He said that it's not that these movements are taking from us because the Black movement took from other movements before it. We took from the labor movement and he never heard of anybody from the labor movement complaining about it. And we ought to be proud of this and say, look what we did. We created a model that other people have followed. And that's very much what we do here at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is examine these blueprints for transformation in societies so that we can apply them in a contemporary way to make life better for us as we move forward.
Ranger: I love that and I think that really gets at the strategy behind the movement. I think something that I've observed that's often lacking, especially in elementary education in regards to the movement is things are framed in sort of this spontaneous way. Rosa Parks got tired one day and didn't want to give up her seat. No, she was part of the movement. She was part of the NAACP. She and her husband were organizers. There was a lot of strategy. And same thing with even just looking at selective buying campaigns in Birmingham. The language that was used, instead of saying boycott, which was illegal in the state of Alabama at the time, calling it a selective buying campaign, demonstrating all the strategy, all the planning that went into it. And by studying the planning, we do get a blueprint for how social justice reform can occur in other sectors of society. And that is one of the wonderful legacies and gifts of the civil rights movement is there is this incredible blueprint of success of this amazing nonviolent movement.
Mallisham: Yeah, that's right. And one other thing I'll note in comparison of both movements is that the messaging is the most important. And I don't just say that as a comms professional, but when you organize your party, be it a political party or a social justice group, if you can organize and really narrow in on what that narrative should be, that is the most crucial part. And you can be so strategic that people don't really recognize that strategy. It gets so nuanced that all we remember is the change that came. But we really do have to focus on what made that change come.
Ranger: Amazing. So question about intersectionality. What does intersectionality mean in the context of civil rights? And how can an understanding of intersectionality help us to empathize more deeply with the most marginalized among us?
Mallisham: Well, first I have to say that I feel like you picked my brain when you picked this question because intersectionality, you can ask anyone who's ever had a conversation like this with me is very important to me because I live in several intersections as a Black woman, as a woman, a woman in the south, a religious woman, a queer-identified woman. There's a lot of intersections just within Gina. And so this is definitely a topic that moves me on a regular basis. I think immediately to Bayard Rustin's humanitarian contributions that are just so much far deep and queer equality, or even equality for Black Americans. He was the chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. And so few people know about his accomplishments because in the sixties he was considered to be a liability. He was considered to be a gay ex-communist, but he was so much more. And most of us, even those of us within the queer community, live with some type of privilege, whether it's racial, class, education, being cisgendered or able-bodied or straight. And I think that the interconnected nature of these social categorizations are always going to overlap and therefore they're always going to create interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage. And we're all just existing in a human experience and maintaining a compassionate perception of privilege and intersectionality could really benefit everybody, not just marginalized people. And I think that empathy comes easily when we reject myths and stereotypes and fight to remove marginalization and social exclusions like homophobia, racism, sexism, anti Semitism and ableism. I think that's really where the buck stops when it comes to understanding intersectionality and making every single one of ourselves better.
Ranger: So well said. Thank you. Yeah. Empathy is just the core of so many advances in our society and yet it's something that is so lacking, it seems, in our public discourse today and the way that folks interact.
Mallisham: That's right. And it's essential for allyship. And without allyship, no movement can survive without allyship.
Ranger: Great. So now we'll get to talk about a topic that I love, and that is the arts. So much of your work outside of the Institute seems to focus around the arts and giving voice to queer communities. What is your personal background in the arts? We'll start there. I've got a couple of questions.
Mallisham: Okay. Well, I have always aimed for a nonprofit career, much to the chagrin of my mom, but there's really no denying that my love really involves the arts. My first job was actually on AM radio in my hometown.
Ranger: Really? AM radio?
Mallisham: Yeah. I played a couple of instruments in a band, and I really loved photography. So yearbook and newspaper were really my favorite outlets through my early twenty’s. And I worked at the Cannonball House and the Hay House in the Harriet Tubman Historical Museums while I was studying Comms at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. And I was lucky enough to earn an internship at Disney World before I moved to Birmingham to start my nonprofit career.
Ranger: Okay, press pause for a second. What instruments did you play in the band?
Mallisham: Well, actually, I started with bassoon.
Ranger: The sexiest of all the instruments.
Mallisham: Right. That double read was really expensive and I broke them often, so I switched to clarinet. Okay. And then I got in high school and saw really almost immediately that a lot of the kids graduating with scholarships not just to HBCUs from marching band, but just everywhere, they played brass. So I switched to baritone. And sharing a mouthpiece, also trombone. And that's what I played into college.
Ranger: Wow, that's so cool.
Mallisham: I love music.
Ranger: Do you still play?
Mallisham: I should, but I don't.
Ranger: Do you have an instrument?
Mallisham: I do. I still have a baritone. I can't remember the last time I made time to play it. I also can't imagine, you know, where I would enjoy it in this very compact city without everyone around being like, whoa, you got to stop.
Ranger: I've been amazed by how many music jams there are in the city.
Ranger: So we should talk after about this because my husband is a musician and he's found a number -
Mallisham: We have a thriving music scene in Birmingham.
Ranger: Yeah. And you said you were doing an internship at Disney World. What was that about?
Mallisham: Well, I worked in Fantasyland, which is the space behind the castle in Magic Kingdom, on attractions, which was really fun. And so I really got more into the science of arts than anything while I was at Disney because I was lucky enough to work in spaces with the 4D experiences and seeing what happens to an audience when they not only see a film, but when they can smell it and feel it, too. It was emotional for me to watch those people enjoying that all summer. So that was beautiful. I really loved working at Disney.
Ranger: How did you like...the smells? Can you tell me about how that happened?
Mallisham: Yeah. So, for instance, Mickey’s PhilharMagic takes you into a 4D theater where you're not just listening to Be Our Guest, but you're watching on an IMAX screen, Be Our Guest, and you can smell the pies flying at you, and you can feel a spray from the champagne bottles as they pop open. And as you're listening to “A Whole New World,” from Aladdin, it feels like you're flying around in the Middle East. So it really does transport you to another place. And immersive experiences are my favorite. So I loved every bit of working at Disney World.
Ranger: That's amazing. And there's also an accessibility component to that, too. I had the great fortune to work in Argentina for a year, and I attended a play at a theater for the blind, and everything was dark, and it was all about auditory, olfactory and touch sensation, and it was just amazing. And it was so mind opening for me that I could have this experience of a play without even needing to use my eyes at all. And that just kind of....
Mallisham: That’s going on my bucket list.
Ranger: Yeah, I’ll tell you more about that later. It was really cool. I hope it's still there. Okay, so I cut you off. You were talking about Disney World and your internship.
Mallisham: Yeah, I mean, it was really cool. And I think that cultural heritage of every person is really what makes us human and most complete as people. It's the arts. And I've tried to champion free access to education in the arts because I think that it's a fundamental part of development and an integral part of a successful society, to be completely honest. Back in 2017, I worked with Sidewalk Film Festival to start a program where we made educational opportunities involving films and filmmaking more accessible to local queer youth. It's called shout about youth and it's really just fine arts like film deliver some nonacademic benefits, like promoting self-esteem, motivation, aesthetic awareness, cultural exposure, creativity, improved emotional expression, which is one of my favorites, and social harmony and appreciation of diversity that we really don't get anywhere else like we do in the arts. And filmmakers and film writers, they tell stories that take us to different places and show us different cultures. And great art even lets us see ourselves and our own community through a different lens than we're used to seeing ourselves. And it's one that's not really often granted to queer adolescents, and particularly in the south. So we're really proud of that. And I think that we got, like I mentioned, a really great, thriving music life here in Birmingham, and we have some amazing historical sites. Theater is amazing here. We have so many theaters. So I think we need more programs like that that invite young people in at no cost and make our cultural richness more accessible to them.
Ranger: And earlier, before we started recording, you shared a little bit about how the arts were, like, supported and emphasized as you grew up. Do you mind sharing a little bit about that?
Mallisham: Most definitely. My mom is, of all the many things that she is, she is a nurturer. And one of the things that she is, one of her gifts is being able to see what really drives you and what makes you excited to live and then nurturing that. And so for my sister, it was very much sports, and they saw so eye to eye on that that I almost felt excluded until she saw how much I love the arts. And she poured into me. She put me in band and gave me opportunities to express myself through art. I sang in a girl's choir for a few years, and if there was a camp or any other opportunity for me to visit a place that I might not otherwise, places that aren't included in the curriculum at my school, then she was there, she was signing me up for it and I was taking part. And I definitely learned an appreciation for cultural arts because of my mom.
Ranger: That's such a beautiful story.
Mallisham: Thank you, Mama Mallisham.
Ranger: We'll have to cut that segment out and send it to her. Yeah. I'm curious. I know that I'm sure you've worked with so many young people on various projects. Was there like, an individual that particularly touched you or that produced, like, a piece of art that particularly touched you?
Mallisham: Yeah, I think it was probably that, actually the first year of Shout About Youth. And we of course, as I mentioned before, we got a really strong network here in Birmingham. We realized that having really great queer services in one place only helps once in a person's life. But if we work together, then we can benefit the most number of people. So I was working closely with the Magic City Acceptance Center, and of course, they told all the kids that participate there about Shout About Youth. One of them was a student at UAB at the time, and they came to the festival through that program. And so we would every single day sit them down for a free lunch with filmmakers that were visiting because of sidewalk. And so one of the participants actually met a filmmaker and worked with them to complete a film project that they had in a class at UAB. And they came to me long after the festival was over and was like, Ms. Gina, I just wanted to let you know that I met somebody from California that worked for Logo and they really helped me, and I got an A, and I'm positive this is what I want to do now. And of course, I just started shedding tears. I was so excited that we gave them a networking opportunity. They took advantage of it, and now they have a thriving career in the arts that they might not have had otherwise. So that's probably the thing that touched me most. That and then seeing the parents reactions, because they're really hesitant at first to sign that waiver that says your child is going to be seeing unrated...many of them never-before-seen independent films that focus on queer identity and they're like, oh my gosh, what is my child going to come home having seen? But at the end of it, they're always so thankful and so yeah, that would have to be a close second in my favorite memories of sharing the arts.
Ranger: Oh, that's a really cool story.
Ranger: Well, this is my last question, and actually, after I ask the last question, I will maybe even open it up to see if Hannah has some questions to ask you. As I mentioned, Hannah Smith is the intern that's been working with us from Miles College this summer and she is an amazing artist. And we joke in the office that we're like getting to work with her before she becomes famous. Yeah, and she did a lot of art for the District, and one of the things that she did that I thought was amazing was a portrait of Bayard Rustin for Pride Month.
Mallisham: I did too. Congratulations on that.
Ranger: Yeah, it was really amazing. So my last question for you, Gina, is about national parks, and I'm curious what your favorite national park is, besides ours, of course, and if you have a memorable experience in the park and what made it significant to you.
Mallisham: Yeah, well, that's a hard question. There are so many, and I would encourage every single one of your listeners to visit the National Park Service website and check them out. If you're going anywhere in America, you might as well go visit whatever national park is nearest because there's always something new to learn and experience. And while I absolutely love our Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in DC, I would have to say Independence National Park in Pennsylvania is my favorite. The staff here at the Civil Rights Institute traveled there for our staff retreat last September to reflect on heritage in the city of Brotherly Love. And I really enjoyed learning how the city of Philadelphia played such a central role in the story of the movement for civil rights. Because there's a whole ‘nother 20th century history of civil rights that proceeds and coincides and exists beyond the events that took place in the south of the late fifty’s and sixty’s. And for Black immigrants, Philadelphia wasn't just a place of employment opportunities that you couldn't get here in the south. It was also freedom from the daily humiliations of Jim Crow segregation. So examining that story of the Northern civil rights movement, really it made us see the problem of race in American society as a national one rather than just a Southern issue. And the park is just so full of history and stories of tragedy and triumph that inspired and renewed our team. And we came back here to Birmingham so ready for the work ahead. And as far as memorable experience, I think that my favorite memory of the space was when our team, we went on a tour and we visited some other historic sites within the city. And US Representative Jordan Harris, shout out to Jordan Harris because we were literally immersed in a history lesson on his tour, and he took us to sites like the home of Paul Robinson and Malcolm X Park and the Edwin Stanton School. And I really enjoyed every bit of it. I think my favorite was Mother Bethel Amy Church, which is the mother church of the nation's Black denomination. It was like, I will not forget about that experience, probably ever. And so, yeah, that's why Independence Park in Pennsylvania is my favorite.
Ranger: Wow, so cool. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview. It was pure joy to get a chance to chat with you more. And in a second, I'll pause and ask Hannah if she has any questions to ask of you as well.
Mallisham: Okay. Real pleasure.
Ranger: Yeah, thank you. Do you have any questions you want to ask?
Hannah Smith: Yeah. Okay. Hmm....
Mallisham: Don't forget to tell her listeners who you are.
Smith: Okay. I’m Hannah Smith, an intern at the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument. I feel as though I've had a good experience with not only just learning new things and learning more about the possibilities for my career, but just being African American and hearing about African American history. I feel like I learned an internship because it kind of hits close to home, where, you know, where your ancestors came from and what they've been through. So I'll say is just how you identify your race and a lot of things that make you you, is that a big part of your job? And, like, what keeps you going for the youth?
Mallisham: Very much. Very much a part of my job. I used to wake up every single morning and watch the news. And when I say used to, I mean up until around 2020, I woke up every morning and I watched the news, not just so that I could step into an awareness of what's happening to others all around the world, and not just because I'm obsessed with the weather, but because it helped me find my place. And since I started working here at the Civil Rights Institute, I feel like I find that here at work, and I don't need to find it on the news every morning. As a matter of fact, watching the news first thing in the morning is kind of depressing now, but yeah, definitely who I am as an individual and being proud of who I am as an individual, even as I'm sitting within the space at the Civil Rights Institute, among my coworkers, among our great visitors and our friends from the National Park Service. When I wake up every morning, a Black woman and come to work, a queer woman, get in my car and drive home, a Christian woman or a voting woman, I feel like I find myself a little bit more every day that we do this work. Of course, it's a benefit to be able to find yourself when you're constantly working in a place that champions brave conversations. And sometimes, I won't lie, it can be very exhausting because you never know what is going to come down in the news. But, yeah, to answer your question, I find my identity more, I think, because of where I work.
Smith: Thank you. I'm glad I got to make that connection with you because I feel like it's a big part of just, I feel like starting off in college, I feel like you kind of don't know who you are anymore, or I feel like a lot has changed since high school. So I do think with the internship and just working with all of the organizations down here in Birmingham, I don't know, I feel the spirit, the happy energy where it's like people that truly appreciate history and try to change it for the better for the kids coming up in the future.
Mallisham: I am too. I'm very glad that we got to relate on that because it's so often overdramatized as an existential crisis, but really it's just a self-awareness and an appreciation and a reverence for who we are. I definitely used to feel like things like white fragility didn't bother me as much, and I was even able to feel empathy towards homophobia. And so now the longer that I work in the space and the more that I speak to other academics within this space, the less empathetic I feel but more aware. Which is why we call it cultural humility and not cultural competency. Because I will never be competent in what it's like to be anybody other than me. But I definitely feel more competent in what it's like to be me as I'm in this space. I'm glad that you chose this field.
Hannah Smith: Thank you. I'm happy to be here. Thank you, Kat.
Mallisham: Thank you to Miles College.
Smith: Well, I can say a big part of the national park's goals and even the program I'm in with Greening Youth Foundation is just to bring more diversity to the National Park Service. I can say, with your experiences, with working with the National Park Service, what would you tell people would benefit them or just being around the people that you've met, what do you think they could gain from the experience and being able to work with organizations like BCRI and knowing you could help them?
Mallisham: Man, that list is so long. I will say on the top, though, as I visit different national parks all around the country, one of my favorite things to do is to step over to my friends in the brown hats. You tell me your story because I've read the plaques and I've read the programs and the brochures and what's online, but nothing sounds like and feels like what comes from the rangers, right. And same for the locals, the people that live in these spaces and really know their culture. And so with regard to becoming a park ranger or involving yourself with the National Park Service historic sites or other national parks, it's that you get a chance to develop the narrative that goes on from one generation to the next. What we know about these awesome spaces is almost entirely because of what someone else wrote down or shared. And so if you step into that space and you get to be a part of that history and it's so valuable, I don't know in other countries what's comparable to it. So I would say that about anybody interested in joining the Park Service or historic site.
Smith: Well, thank you. I definitely felt that one because I can say signing up for the internship, I didn't expect it to be this energetic.
Mallisham: And immersive.
Smith: Yeah, different people, different personalities and things I would learn. So I can say it definitely helped me out as far as not feeling like I just threw away a summer for a regular job or it's something that actually shows me what I love to do. And I can say, in a way, professionally and just me personally, it gave me a sense of more maturity, I can say on what I'm just focused on.
Mallisham: That's awesome.
Smith: Thank you all. I think that's all for my questions.
Mallisham: The only thing I can think of, of course, I have to include for your listeners a quick ask, and that's if they come to the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument or add it to their list of places to visit, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute sits right in the heart of this ground that peaceful protesters marched on to demand their civil rights. And when President Barack Obama created the monument in 2017, it was because he recognized that this is a sacred must-see destination for people who are on a pilgrimage to retrace the history of the civil rights movement. For three decades now, we've been here and visitors have been coming from all over the world to walk in the footsteps of the people who sacrificed their lives for social justice. Right here at the Institute and through our programming, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute provides a forum for dialogue and community engagement for all people. And in this current national climate that's intensely grappling with issues on race and justice, I think that the presence of BCRI is needed now more than ever to provide our leadership, training and engagement on racial justice, diversity, equity and inclusion, and, of course, education. And you can find out more about us at bcri.org.
Ranger: Thank you. I appreciate that plug. I have to say, as a park ranger, rarely do you get an opportunity to step into a space that's already so robust in terms of what's available, especially when the park is brand new, as is our park. And it's been one of the great honors and joys of this experience for me is that I have so many people who can help me learn and grow, not only as a ranger who is sharing the story, but as an ally. And the Institute is just so amazing for that. So I really appreciate all the work you guys do.
Mallisham: Thank you. It's an honor just working with these historians. As a comms person, I'm very used to learning about the programs when it's time to promote them and grow awareness, but they very much allow me to be a part of the program-building process here, which is really rewarding. But it's also extremely intimidating sometimes because these historians know their stuff and they're not afraid to speak it and share it, and it's become very empowering.
Ranger: Awesome. Well, thank you so much, Gina. I really enjoyed this interview and look forward to other opportunities to have future conversations as well.
Mallisham: Thank you. I'm thankful for you both and for the National Park Service. I'm so glad that you all are here in Birmingham.
Ranger: We're glad to be here, too. This is We Will Rise: National parks and Civil rights. Thanks to the Psalters for use of their song Turn Me Round. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to our series. Until next time.
I'm keep on talking marching up to freedom, yeah.
Episode 8: Brian Forist and Welcoming LGBTQ+ Folks into National Parks
Join us for a conversation with Dr. Brian Forist, who is a researcher, author and park ranger. He currently works as a lecturer at Indiana University in Bloomington, and he is focused on visitor centered, two-way interpretation through dialogue on diversity, equity and inclusion, specifically related to the outdoors and environmental professions. He is serves as a guest editor of the May 2023 Special Issue of the Parks Stewardship Forum focusing on LGBTQIA+ experience and expertise in the outdoors.
Ranger: So my name is Kathryn Gardiner and I'm a park ranger at Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument. And today I'm joined by Dr. Brian Forist, who is a researcher, author and park ranger. He currently works as a lecturer in parks, recreation and the outdoors at Indiana University in Bloomington, and he is focused on visitor centered, two-way interpretation through dialogue on diversity, equity and inclusion, specifically related to the outdoors and environmental professions. Currently, he is serving as one of the three guest editors of a May 2023 Special Issue of the Parks Stewardship Forum focusing on LGBTQIA plus, experience and expertise in the outdoors and conservation. They're call for submissions closes November 1st, 2022, and we'll be talking more about that as well. So thank you so much, Dr. Forist, for joining me today.
Dr. Forist: It's a real pleasure to be here. Thanks for inviting me.
Ranger: Great. So I was reading a little about the LGBTQ plus outdoor summit you participated in this past April and it was the first I had heard of it. It sounds awesome. Can you tell me why it's important to have conversations around making outdoor spaces safe for queer and trans people, and even beyond that, especially for folks that fit into those categories that are also BIPOC?
Dr. Forist: Sure, sure. Uh, let me give you, I'll just offer a little bit of context. The LGBTQ outdoor summit in April of this year, 2022 was actually the 4th LGBTQ Outdoor Summit. The first was in Seattle, maybe six or eight years ago, a followed by one in the San Francisco Bay area, actually at Golden Gate National Recreation area. And then I've been fortunate enough to participate in the 3rd and in the 4th. The third was in Estes Park, Colorado, just outside Rocky Mountain National Park in 2019. And then of course, COVID. And so there was a fourth summit, then this past year. Indeed, the summits focus on. How can we...promote the out of doors as a safe, as a healthy, as a healing, as a community building place for LGBTQ plus plus plus folks. And what do we as professionals in the outdoor professions, what do we need to know to serve our own community or communities and why that's important is that the outdoors has not always been a safe space. You know, certainly we know many marginalized groups of people have had a conflicted or troubling relationship with the out of doors. Not to say that the relationship has always been negative, but there are negative connotations and it may not be safe, particularly in groups or for people who are for queer folks who don't pass, and so. Part of it is simply gaining professional skills but also gaining perspective. Maybe I'll share a little bit about the two summits I've been to because they were dramatically different. In 2019, the focus was really on understanding the intersections, intersectionality between queer identity and all the varying queer identities that exist, and trans and BIPOC identities, and what are the intersections and what are the privileges that we all walk into any situation with? The first part of that summit was what were called identity caucuses. Of course, we all identified somewhere on the LGBTQIA plus spectrum. But we are more than that and in order to uplift BIPOC folks and QT-POC folks, queer and trans people of color, it was really necessary and I maintained it continues to be necessary to examine all of our situations, all of our privileges. So we began with identity caucuses based on race. So those who were white were in one identity caucus, and those who were not were in another and we thought and talked and struggled with things like privilege. And how does that manifest itself? That's an uncomfortable thing. Uncomfortable stuff. However, what I found was that struggling with that and realizing what being a cis white man and a large person at that at that provides me. What what cover it gives me, if you will, in the world and I am certain that it was examining those privileges that I am granted by the world, whether I choose to accept them or not is sometimes a moot point, but understanding those privileges helps me understand I can never understand another person or another groups struggle, but what I can do is have some empathy and some level of of of comparison and understand how I might wield my own power to uplift others rather than simply to assume that power and and and barrel through. So that summit was really focused on those intersections and I facilitated a discussion on queer professionals or the next generation of queer professionals? What is it that my students need to know, my queer students need to know as they move into the profession? And what do my non-queer identifying students need to know to serve queer folks in the out of doors and the advice that I got from my compatriots was so valuable. It was proposed as a presentation and it became a conversation which is wonderful. And that's what interpretation should be, I think too. But I got a lot of really valuable advice for you know what do my students, my queer students, need to know as they move into the outdoor professions? And what do my non-queer students need to know in order to serve queer folks in the out of doors? And it was as simple as understanding and using pronouns. You know, I use he/him/his pronouns. That was one. Folks felt that we needed to know queer history in order to serve queer people in the out of doors. We needed to know, and understand sort of the range of identities it was. It was just really valuable and I think a lot of that came out of this intersectional lens that was very much in play at the 2019 summit, the summit this year was more inward. It was more about and for us because the period from the last summit until 2022 had been a tough time where community was challenged in so many ways through COVID, and so the theme of the 2022 LGBTQ outdoor summit was queer joy. And how do we experience joy in the outdoors? And so rather than having these, you know, deep diving internal examination exercises, we went for a wildflower walks and we learned how to do fly casting and how if you're doing fly fishing, you're also examining the woods and the environment around the stream or river and you're heavily focused on what's blooming and who’s pollinating what's blooming? Because the relationship between fly fishing folk and fish is all about insects. What was really cool also was that it was led by two folks who are, uh, a gay man and a lesbian who are very engaged in outdoor sports, fishing and hunting, which are not necessarily thought of stereotypically as things that queer folks engage in. And their work is twofold. On one hand, it is empowering, uplifting, queer folks who may have grown up with these traditions but have abandoned them for various reasons, but also to, and this is the only time I'll use the word normalize. I'm not sure what's a better word, but to make it clear that queer folks fly fish. And they're trying to change that sport because it is very cis white, male and privileged. But it is such a great way to be in touch with the world around you and so just everything that went into learning how to cast and learning how to read the woods and the the water was about joy and we as queer people, we never, at least I never stop being gay. You know, it's not something you turn on or turn off. And so looking and looking at and learning about the woods and about fly fishing, we were also learning about uplifting others and empowering ourselves and those around us to engage in an activity that is such a source of joy. Other things that happened that were very much about joy were, watching movies together and salsa dancing. And here is what I think is one of those great things about Outdoor Afro, Latino Outdoors, Unlikely Hikers, the LGBTQ outdoor summit. You know women outdoors. Those of us on the margins are always, almost always functioning in a world that in various ways invalidates us or ignores us or makes us invisible. Or outright discriminates, or devalues or legislates against. And that's hard to be in that world all the time. And an affinity group, it recharges you. And gives one the strength as well as skills and knowledge and understanding to then go back into the other world and do good work, but then you've got to recharge. And there are certainly people in our world who would say, oh, you know, there's only queer people in that group. That's discrimination. There's only women there. There's only Black people there, that's discrimination. And I would argue that anyone who says that doesn't understand discrimination and doesn't understand what privilege affords them and how, when one doesn't have privilege, they need to recharge so they can deal with the rest of the world. That's a roundabout route to address your question.
Ranger: I don't think it was roundabout. I think that was great. I did read that there was salsa dancing during the the summit and I found that particularly interesting because that's actually how I met my my husband. We're both salsa dancers, so I love that. That was part of it. And we've seen in the salsa dancing community a really cool development of you no longer call the leads the man's part or the follow the woman's part. And people really kind of do whatever. And there are even now salsa congresses which are like weekend gatherings where people teach and learn and exchange and have open dances that are queer focused just to really have a space that's very intentional about being inclusive in that regard. And they're really amazing and beautiful. And it's such a great way to collaborate and connect with another person.
Forist: I can imagine. I would argue that there are many contexts which break down our cultural barriers while also uplifting cultural identity that create that special something that you experience in salsa dancing and that I experience with a bunch of queer folks outdoors and it's those contexts that we, I think, need to very deliberately build, and sometimes, you know, I'm always thinking about things from the perspective of park managers as I'm teaching future park managers. Sometimes we facilitate things, or we welcome activities in our parks that we personally are not part of. And so how do you know my students need to know how to open the door and then step back if it's not for them.
Ranger: Well, thank you for sharing more about that summit is sounds really healing. And I love the premise of focusing on joy during this past summit. That's one of the things that we've heard from our partners that they would like us to focus on in regards to exhibits that will be forthcoming at the AG Gaston Motel, which is a building we partially own, because so many of the stories about the civil rights movement are about suffering. And those stories have to be told, that's a critical part of the history. But there's another component that ties back to the resilience of the African American community. And a big piece of that is how folks were able to carve out joy amidst incredible, incredibly challenging circumstances, and that's a really important piece to recall.
Forist: I couldn't agree with you more. It's so critical. I'm only speculating simply because in the class that I'm teaching right now where we're...it’s called Health and Happiness by Design. And I did an activity that I graded yesterday called eating culture where I asked each student to share a story about some food related experience that embodies their cultural background and one of the students who identified in the online discussions of asynchronous online course, we never see each other, identified himself as African American, wrote about cookouts and all of the food at cookouts. And I can only imagine that in the midst of the black civil rights movement, there were some really great things to eat and and and and there's a source of joy. And as interpreters of history or of the past, particularly the messy past. We, as you said, we need to recognize the trauma, the pain, but we also need to see beyond that. I take my interpretation students every year to the Indiana Historical Society, and we meet with one of their top managers who is just a really insightful person. They actually at at their site they have been doing an LGBTQ History collections project, where they're collecting stories and artifacts and such that that can help tell the LGBTQ story in Indiana. And early in his tenure at the site, the museum said they were gonna do a a queer history, a gay history exhibition and it focused on HIV/AIDS. And OK yes, that is that is a critical story to tell when telling gay history, gay present. But there's a lot more than that.
Ranger: Yeah, absolutely. I think that's a really valuable point. On the theme of parks and the welcoming of LGBTQ plus folks you brought this up, that there is, there's both a history of queer people escaping into nature to be themselves and also fearing nature because of the dangers that nature may present. But our park, Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument is an urban one. And so I'm curious with your background as a researcher, as an educator and as a park ranger, how can urban parks such as our own ensure that queer people feel welcomed to be themselves.
Forist: Yeah, boy. I think that's a hard question, but it's also a really simple question in some ways. The the simplicity of it is, put the welcome mat out. Sometimes it can be as simple as saying: We welcome LGBTQ visitors. And it's always good to feel welcome in 11 months of the year that are not June as well as June, just like you're gonna welcome...African Americans may inherently feel welcomed at your park because it tells their story, and that's the key, I think, is that representation. It really matters. And so one way to put that welcome mat out is tell the queer stories. And they are there. I guarantee you they are there. It may take a different lens to see them, it may take an adjustment of a lens to see them. It may take some partnerships to see them and it may take some discomfort to see them, but the LGBTQ stories exist and you know I cannot speak for my people, but I can tell you that when I go to a museum, a historic site, a natural area and see a queer story overtly told, I feel welcome. That representation matters. Couple years ago, actually may have been Megan Springate, who was the editor of the LGBTQ Theme Study for the national parks that shared this with me. It might have been somebody else in a forum I was involved in during the pandemic, but there's an article that came out of the museum world a couple of years ago that has really influenced me, and one I now share with my students called queer possibility. And what the article says is that in historical interpretation, when we don't know specifically about whatever the historical actor is, their sexuality or gender identity, the default is they are cisgender and straight. And that's an assumption that we make, and it's an assumption that our society makes. And then they in this article, they encourage creative thinking that allows for queer possibility and then provide guidelines or sort of steps in how can you see queer possibility. And so I share that - Middleton is the author - I offer that because a really important part of making people feel welcome anywhere is that sense of representation and it really goes along way. I met a young queer woman working in the Cook County Forest preserves outside of Chicago last weekend and in our conversation, where she was providing a service for a group called Out in Nature, a queer identifying bunch of nature heads in the Chicago area. She said, you know, I'm always leery of groups, but I feel seen here and just hearing someone say that reminds me how important representation is and that welcome is and seeing somebody not as a visitor, but as a queer visitor or as a female visitor, or as a trans visitor, or as a Black visitor, seeing the person for who they are is important, and one of the ways that you can open the door for them to share their full selves is through that representation in the stories you tell and the exhibits you make. You know your your site is of course, a historic site. We're seeing that in natural areas as well. Folks out at Muir Woods National Monument a year or more ago did a whole program on Queer Ecology where they're really looking hard at the assumed binary in biology and realizing that nature just ain't that. And so anything from interpreting banana slugs to trees that are clones really breaks apart that binary and and looks at ecology through a new lens, and I would argue that new, more nuanced lenses are always important, and not only do they advance knowledge, but they help us become more fully human. And they can change the world. They can be political tools as well. And so. It's simple. Put the welcome mat out. But it's very nuanced and there's lots of elements to it as well. You know and in parks it can be a challenge. When I was at Mesa Verde National Park in 2015 and 16 and I, I think it was 2015, that a bunch of us, we had a very enchanted interpretive crew that summer and a number of us said, hey, let's just put out a Facebook post that says, during Pride Month, we welcome our LGBTQ visitors. And that was the year that NPS Central Office was promoting the #I'moutdoors for Pride Month and we got some pushback. And at first, the pushback felt like being dismissed. And what it was, was it was the person in charge of the social media really wanting to know, where does this welcome fall within our interpretive themes? I argue that the welcome is a welcome and does not need any explanation, but as soon as one of my brilliant co-rangers found a story of a 2-spirit or transgender person from Hopi, one of the descendant tribes who at the turn of the last century to actually lobbied on behalf of Hopi as an openly two-spirit person, there was that interpretive theme link and that that person who at first felt like kind of standoffish and putting a barrier in place, fully embraced it. And that was really great, really great. And so that welcome, takes many forms, can be misunderstood and can be worked through in such a way as to move everybody forward.
Ranger: Hmm. Yeah, I think that's great. I wrote an article for Pride Month about Bayard Rustin, who was, you know, Black man, civil rights activist. He helped to...he was like, one of the main architects of the March on Washington and was at times an openly gay man, but had to kind of closet himself in order to be a part of the movement, for various reasons, you know one because it was a faith-based movement and so there was a lot of, you know, discrimination internally, but two because his identity was used as like a political tool by those who opposed the civil rights movement. And you know, I love what you said about there being all of this queer possibility in our history and the fact that we know that Bayard Rustin is gay is is unusual. But the fact that there were queer people, a part of this movement is of course absolutely true there. It wasn't just one gay man. There were so many people involved whose identities were known or not known. And and I think just opening the door for those stories to be shared is something that I envision us doing in the future. In fact, as you were talking, I was thinking about the Gaston Motel, which was built by AG and Minnie Gaston in the city of Birmingham as like a luxury hotel for African Americans and was part of the Negro Motorist Green Book. That is an amazing example of Black excellence and Thursday through Sunday they had this incredible house band that played. They had a restaurant. You know, wall to wall carpeting, they had air conditioning, which was a really big deal back then and you know, really famous people stayed there. Aretha Franklin, Jackie Robinson, Colin and Alma Powell honeymoons there. So there are so many stories of, like, you know very well-known people staying there, but also stories of love and romance. And I wonder if that might be an avenue for us to, you know, open the door to some of those stories of queer love and joy that maybe transpired on the premises that we just aren't aware of because they haven't been encouraged to be told and embraced as part of the narrative. And you know, maybe that's an avenue for us to shed some light on those stories.
Forist: Ohh, that just seems so exciting and and you know some of these stories are really hard to find. And then then you certainly know this, but cast your partnership net wide, you know. Because somewhere the stories exist. I'm I'm working on a project right now researching Women in the Works Progress Administration and and employed by the WPA and I'm finding, you know, few records, like actual records that are gonna be helpful and even in oral histories, in the place where I'm doing the work, there's a lot of really great oral histories, but we've only found one where a woman talks about working in the WPA, and one of the historians who conducted some of those oral histories was really wondering if being on relief may not be one of the top things you share in an oral history. And what we find with queer history particularly, recorded history, letters, diaries, et cetera, queer people themselves destroyed things so they weren’t found out and certainly families destroyed things. I've I've heard stories. Can't remember which one who this was but it was an older lesbian woman who when she died, her family was coming in one door while her friends were throwing all of her things out the other so they would get saved rather than destroyed by family. So there's all those dynamics, and it also brings up the, what do you call people? What terms do you use to describe that queer possibility? I'm a real advocate, and I learned this from my friend Susan Ferrantinos, who also in the LGBTQ theme study, the National Park Service, wrote about interpreting queer history and as author of a book on interpreting LGBTQ history, she's a real advocate of using the terms people used for themselves at their time, and so we can get at the queerness with without saying whatever word we might need to say. In my town here in Michigan City, IN where I live, we've got a lighthouse on Lake Michigan and the longest standing light keeper in the United States was here for 43 years, from 1861 to 1904, a woman named Harriet Colfax, and for that full 43 years she lived there with another woman. I've recently learned that according to an article from the Chicago Tribune of 1902 that each of them had been, quote unquote, disappointed in love early in life and bonded together, exchanging engagement rings that they wore for their entire lives together. But I would never say they were lesbians because we do not know. We don't have anything in the record that speaks to their identity. There's plenty in the record, certainly from when they were alive. It changed after they died, which is a very interesting thing. But while they were alive that they were involved in a loving, deeply committed relationship. And what I've always said to my fellow historians or whatever we are around here is that we don't know that they were lesbians. We also don't know they were not. That said, in reference to them, I would, I would simply say, you know, two women in a deeply committed and loving relationship. And I maybe it's just this desire to honor rather than than place my own values on things, but I feel like that honors them without making them a political tool, which I also will certainly do because we need to see that possibility. It's a tough paradox. But I feel like it's really critical to describe people and describe relationships on their own terms rather than projecting on to people.
Ranger: Yeah, I think that makes a lot of sense. You know, you're describing the relationship rather than labeling the relationship. And so that and demonstrating that there are many ways that this relationship could have actually transpired, but that we don't know and leaving the door open for the possibility of it being a gay relationship. But again, we don't know and but we certainly do know the context in which the relationship transpired, which was one that was far more marginalizing and oppressive to people and I'm glad you mentioned the heritage theme study because I didn't realize that the National Park Service had put together an LGBTQ+ heritage theme study. This study came out in 2016 and I was wondering if you could share a little about what you know of the intention of the study and something about the study in terms of what it found that you see as predominantly significant?
Forist: Yeah. So again, in in 2016, the National Park Service culminated a process that they had begun a few years earlier and and the Park Service will do these theme studies from time to time to look at different topics. And the purpose is to examine the topic with the thought of what places on the American landscape exist where these stories could be told? And so the purpose of the LGBTQ theme study was to identify the themes within LGBTQ history in the United States and present in the United States and what places on the landscape can tell different parts of this story. So I I just recently reviewed the section on Sport and Leisure because sport and leisure has been integral to LGBTQ identity and culture in the United States. There's a whole section on women's music, which was a movement of the 70s, 80s, of women, primarily lesbians, creating an entire music industry because they had been so marginalized by the male dominated music industry, and there were a whole host of artists that emerged as significant icons in the movement. And there were women's music festivals. I just think you know the the land on which a women's music festival took place could be a great historic site to tell that story of self-determination, of culture building, of artistic expression and of identity through that expression. So it was really interesting to revisit that. One of the things that that theme study produced was the impetus for then President Obama to declare Stonewall National Monument in June of 2016 as the first unit of our National Park system to specifically tell the story of LGBTQ civil rights and so Stonewall National Monument now exists. And they are telling that civil rights story, and they're doing it really, really well. They just got clearance to establish a visitor center. And there's a whole partnership that's involved in in putting that together. So the theme study was really, and this is the language of of, of the director of the Park Service at the time, who referred to the Park Service as America's storyteller and any theme study, whether it be the LGBTQ theme study, an Asian American theme study, civil war, civil rights. I believe there had been a theme study on segregation, integration and education, which culminated with the establishment of Brown versus Board of Education National Historic Site and Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site. Latin-X American theme study culminating and culminating is not the right word, but one of the results of it was the establishment of the Cesar Chavez National Monument. Sites of representation. So not just the welcome mat at your site in Birmingham, but an entire National Park site is overtly welcoming of the queer community of the Japanese American community at sites of incarceration like Manzanar and Amache, which is a new one in Colorado, where Japanese American citizens were imprisoned during the Second World War because of their heritage, while being citizens. So Stonewall was established as a product of that theme study, and now I'm I would love to see more, more sites that tell the stories of queer Americans on the landscape.
Ranger: Do you feel based on the study that there are other sites that will be forthcoming as new National Park sites and you know, of course, Stonewall being established in 2016 was a huge milestone, but I'm sure there are others that that site that the study identified that may be kind of like waiting in the hopper. What are those sites?
Forist: Yeah, I'm not gonna have a good answer for that. I know that there are a number of sites that have been moving through the designation process. So listed on the National Register of Historic Places. I could see National Historic Landmark status or even historic district status. Again, in reviewing the section of the theme study on sport and leisure. Places like Provincetown, MA, Saugatuck and Douglas in Michigan, Key West in Florida. Palm Springs, which have become LGBTQ resort places, those would be great historic landmark districts or heritage areas that that tell a queer story. And certainly like a place I I lived in on Cape Cod for a number of years and a place like Provincetown. You know, it's it's certainly a story of queer people and culture and their connection to the arts, but it's also connection to nature and connection to the land. Out on the outer Cape, where so many queer artists found their muse. You know, on up to poets like Mary Oliver who recently passed a few years ago. They write they paint, they photographed the light. And the the beautiful nature of of that dune environment and such and so. We cannot disconnect that connection to nature to the culture in the identity. Of course, any site that's going to get added it's all about political will and local boosterism. So I'm not sure what that next site will be. We have seen some really cool things get added to the National Park landscape, really in the last the 30 years where we've expanded the stories. Women's Rights National Historical Park and Brown versus Board and Little Rock Central. All the Japanese American imprisonment sites to your site and now the Medgar and Myrlie Evers site that a retired Superintendent friend of mine just visited yesterday, I think the day before and posted pictures on her social media feed. So we're now telling stories that are not as clear cut. I don't think any story was clear cut, though. We used to tell them as clear cut. But we're telling much more nuanced stories, and we're seeing that there are places on the landscape where those are best told. And I think we are understanding the complexity and we're understanding that it's not all about American exceptionalism, that there are sites where we really mucked it up where where we engaged in shameful acts. And in the face of those shameful acts people’s identities were emboldened, were supported and persevered and and that is such an important thing. You know, the Stonewall story is absolutely that. When the President declared the National Monument, he referred to it as the site of a riot that bred a movement. And we can never forget that it was trans women of color who really started that riot, that became a movement. You know, in 2018, I accidentally ended up in New York City the day of New York Pride and I got connected with folks from Stonewall National Monument. So I was able to march in the the, the, the, the Pride March with my colleagues from the National Park Service, which was really a great experience. And that day, one of the greatest moments for me was meeting and photographing a young trans woman along the the march route, and she was holding up a beautiful sign that simply said God bless Marsha and Sylvia, and she was referring there to Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, two of those trans women of color who were at the forefront of the Stonewall uprising, that riot that became a movement. And so meeting that young person with that sense of history was one of those really lovely moments.
Ranger: Ohh thank you for sharing that memory. And speaking of historic memory before we started recording the podcast you had shared with me that in 2009 you were in Birmingham when President Barack Obama was elected. If am I getting that correct? You're nodding. OK. The day of the inauguration, yeah. The day of the inauguration. OK, thank you. Can you tell me a little bit about that experience?
Forist: Sure. Can I go all out in?
Forist: Yeah. So I'm Alabama was state #49 for me. And and I'm still waiting for Mississippi to give me a good reason to visit. And it may be them early in Medgar Evers site. But, I was there at a conference, in northern Alabama, and I remember driving into the state and seeing the billboard that advertised the Helen Keller birth home as a historic site. And when I read the Billboard it said, come visit what she or come see what she couldn't. I did not have a good impression. And I know that was not Alabama's fault. But it's hard to to see something like that and not jump to conclusions. I was able to be in Birmingham on the day of President Obama's inauguration and visit the Civil Rights Center. And it was after the inauguration. So they were breaking down from the celebration that was there. But I've gotta say, it was one of those moments that I won't forget, because of the joy. And indeed you know, walking in that park just adjacent to Civil Rights Center and seeing the statue of the children being, you know, attacked by the police dogs and learning about the fire hoses, you know. It's hard to feel joy. But I saw those sculptures as liberating. In that moment of joy, and I felt like as a gay person...I cannot know the African American experience, or as a white person I can't know it. But as a a gay person, this source of joy in my life helped me to see joy as an act of overcoming pain and that's what I felt that day in Birmingham. Standing at the corner and looking up at the neon sign at the 16th St. Baptist Church. Was a real grounding moment. I felt like I was at a place where, again, a horrible, horrible, unspeakable thing happened. And it's there so that we can never forget what happened that Sunday and the loss of those girls. But I feel like I could see through the tragedy and to the power of that sign still standing. I felt the same thing in 2018 when I was in the Pride March in New York with people from Stonewall National Monument and we passed the Stonewall Inn. And you know, there's something really special about feeling the presence of greatness, and in this case, the greatness was five girls who were tragically lost in Birmingham. Or a bunch of Queens that were pissed off and we're going to take it anymore from the New York City police. It's really ordinary greatness and it's the people that then follow in their footsteps and continue their work that gives such hope.
Ranger: Thank you for sharing that. So this is kind of a pivot to the work that you do now and the land upon which you do that work. Umm, I read that you work primarily on the traditional contemporary lands of the Potawatomi, the Miami, the Shawnee, and the Kickapoo people. And I I'm curious, how was your work in regards to opening up spaces for queer folks impacted by doing the work on this land, and and the fact that you recognize that this land is not necessarily, the land of of the United States, but these these sovereign nations.
Forist: Right, right. To me it's again about that intersectionality about understanding a whole history that calls into question so many many things, but also a land acknowledgement to me is more than simply an acknowledgement of a really awful past, an acknowledgement of the colonial project that you know, we are all part of to some degree and benefit and and devastated by all at once. But I guess I'm enough of a realist to accept that while in the perfect world, you know land would be ceded back to its rightful owners or rightful populations, and then we would behave, those of us who are not indigenous might behave as better guests. But what it really does to me is invoke partnership and in in, in in invoke a bigger tent. To me, a land acknowledgement doesn't stop at acknowledging the people whose land I work on and act as a steward for but to engage in partnership with those people and learn when appropriate and when, given that gift of how to better steward those lands, and again in partnership. So, I work more closely with folks from the Potawatomi nation than any others. And it's constantly trying to remain open and understand what stories her mind to tell and what stories are not mine to tell. That may mean the partnership brings in a person who is more appropriate to tell the story, or accepting that some stories just aren't to be told. I hope it didn't weasel out of that one. It's complex. But it is again sort of at that intersection of...to me it's not just identity. And the idea intersectionality is about these layered identities we wear. But to me, it's about action. That wearing one identity, to me, helps open up the door for empathy and understanding. Again, we can never know someone else's experience, but we can honor that experience. Honor the pain, honor the joy, and and be realistic about it. And so indigenous stories become part of every place that we work in teach and there are queer indigenous stories as well. And that helps us to understand that we've been here for a long, long time and knowing that brings us strength.
Ranger: Thank you.
I think it's a good time to wrap up with our closing question, which is all about the work that you're doing with this May 2023 special issue of the Parks Stewardship Forum and the focus for this special issue is LGBTQIA+ experience and expertise in the outdoors and conservation. What are you most excited about with this opportunity and what do you want listeners to know about it?
Forist: Yeah. So this is a special issue of the Park Stewardship Forum, which is jointly published by the George Wright Society, which is named for the National Park Service first chief scientist from the 1930s, George Melendez Wright. Unfortunately, he passed away very early in his life. But the George Wright Society is focused on evidence-based management of parks, protected areas and heritage sites. The co-sponsor of that journal is The University of California at Berkeley Institute for Parks, People and Biodiversity, and that's an institute with a one of the principles there is John Jarvis, the 18th Director of the National Park Service. So the recent past director during the Obama administration. And this emerged out of a forum that was done a year ago by George Wright Society, their board of directors and the organization itself is really moving into the justice equity, diversity, accessibility, and inclusion arena. And what is the knowledge that's most needed to to to do that and their most recent past issue was on indigenous perspectives and marine conservation. And so they have really stepped up if you will and said let's use this bully pulpit we have, if you will, this academic journal to empower various communities that have really important things to say about conservation. And so after the forum where we were just talking about supporting LGBTQ folks in the outdoors, we were invited, the three panelists on the forum were invited to be co-editors, and so simply being invited as a voice for our communities was an honor and we've thought pretty hard, the three of us that are co-editors myself, Sandy Heath from Northern Arizona University and Forest Cortez from The Nature Conservancy in Chicago, are thinking about how can we make this journal, how can we embed the values of diversity, equity, inclusion and justice in every step of the process? So it's an open call. And when we talk about experience and expertise, it's not about credential, it's about expertise and so we are particularly interested in hearing youth voices, other marginalized voices. We're currently raising money so that every contributor receives a stipend, and so that people are compensated for their work. As, you know, an old white guy, I'm often asking my more, more marginalized colleagues to help me and I'm done with the just expecting them to do it and so one of those things we're doing is we're raising the funds so that everyone will be compensated. If we don't have enough for everyone to be compensated, we will give priority to young people, people of color, people who were unhoused. So that we're leveraging what we have more appropriately. But what I'm really excited about is that this will become a multimedia voice, or sounding board, that will advance our profession, protected areas and conservation and outdoor professions, by expanding the conversation. I don't know what we're gonna get. We've got one proposal so far, and it's very exciting. And I'm really excited about the person who submitted it, who is a straight ally and Forest and Sandy, my co-editors, their immediate response was, well, we've got to get that guy to have some partners because we want to uplift queer voices and the voices are really important one but I love that my colleagues are immediately how can we make it better? We don't know what we're going to get, so that's exciting in a way. It's like putting it out there. We will do some invitations. I really want to get some folks to write about their understanding, experience of queer ecology. We're really interested in places on the land where queer stories are told. And what's really cool about the Park Stewardship Forum, it's fully online and truly multimedia. So there can be art installations, there can be music. I'm gonna communicate with my fly fishing friends that I mentioned earlier. And two wonderful lesbian musician friends who write music about fly fishing to collaborate. And I'd love to see something where my fly fishing instructor friends collaborate with my songwriters and and and do something together. So the the really the, the the doors wide open. Also so many academic journals are a little stuffy and a little full of themselves, and this journal accepts non peer reviewed articles but will also do the peer review. So we have different layers of legitimacy if you will. And one of the things I've always loved, I know that George Wright society better than the Institute at Berkeley, but George Wright has always been really accessible to the broad range of managers in parks and protected areas and going to their conferences, I always relish that you might be at a session on interpretation that is attended by students, indigenous partners and park maintenance people. And so you get that whole range of people really benefiting from the knowledge, expertise and experience shared. So the call is out through the 1st of November and then we will enter into the editing phase. Our job as guest editors is really to sort of facilitate the process, but then become the glue between the pieces and I'm looking forward to co-writing the editorial piece that kind of weaves one contribution into a fabric with the others. And it will come out in May of next year.
Ranger: Well, thank you so much for sharing all of that with me. I'm real excited to share this with our listeners and hopefully get the word out about the November 1st deadline to submit their work. Is there any question that I didn't ask that you'd like to speak on?
Forist: You know, not that I can think of. What I will offer, and maybe this is totally trivial but a site like yours in Birmingham is such an important site and makes me really proud that it's part of my National Park system. And when I particularly think about the traditions of nonviolence and the thread from Thoreau resisting he war on Mexico and writing his essay on civil disobedience to Gandhi to Martin Luther King, and to Act Up, the AIDS coalition to unleash power uh from the 1980s and 90s and and that that string of nonviolence, a site like years in Birmingham, is the inspiration for change and it's the inspiration for activists who are fully themselves. And embracing an identity that has been devalued by our society, and there's a lot we can all learn from that. And so as a gay person in America, I take great inspiration from the work you do and the work that your site does.
Ranger: Thank you so much for sharing that I am. I really appreciate those closing remarks and look forward to future conversations with you as well.
Forist: Absolutely. Absolutely. Thank you so much. It's a a real honor to be invited. I I've I've listened a couple of the podcast episodes and I’m not of the caliber of your other folks, but I'm very proud to be here.
Ranger: Well, thank you. I appreciate you listening in and hopefully one of these days I'll figure out how to upload them to Apple Podcasts so they're easier for others to listen to as well. That's on my list.
Forist: Yeah, it seems like you're doing really well.
Last updated: November 22, 2022
Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument
1914 4th Ave North