The spouse and I differ on the route we took on my first trip to Ashland, the tiny town in Alabama where the spouse’s grandmother, “Mom,” lived and where the spouse spent childhood summers. (See post by spouse on January 15, 2021.) I thought we had driven through the Midwest visiting friends in Columbus, Ohio, and Peoria, Illinois, and then headed south. The spouse remembers heading south first down the eastern seaboard and heading west after camping in Georgia, on what we refer to as the “demented locals” experience, but that is another story. Part of the reason our memories don’t coincide is that we went to Ashland several times and did not always take the same route.
Similarly, I can’t say on what trip certain impressions and experiences occurred, but on each and every trip to Ashland, I felt that I was in the South, capital S. Before going to Alabama, I had only been south of Washington, D.C., to Miami, and while that felt different from what I had experienced in Illinois and Wisconsin, it was not The South that had resonated in my mind. Ashland, however, was in that region I had read about in William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, and Eudora Welty. It was the South I had seen on television when watching scenes of Selma and Greensboro. It was the South of broadcast televangelists.
Ashland physically fit my image of a small southern town. Its population was about 2,000, and I gather that it remains about that size. There was a town square, and a courthouse was at the center of that square, and that courthouse itself was a square. When I first went there, after going up a few steps to an entrance, I had to step over a dog sleeping in the sun on the landing outside the door, and I had to walk past a Dr. Pepper machine to get in. I almost laughed. I thought maybe the southerners were laying on the clichés to play with this northern boy. I took a picture of the courthouse because it looked just like an old southern courthouse ought to look. I enlarged and framed the picture, and for a long time it hung at the top of the steps in my house, but somehow I have lost it.
I think of that building as the courthouse, but it was probably more than that. Ashland is the county seat, and no doubt the structure held county offices in addition to courtrooms and judicial chambers. The jurisdiction is Clay County, and I was struck driving into town by the red clay landscape. For a moment I wondered if that gave the county its name, but then I put Clay and Ashland together and realized that the county was named after Henry Clay and the town after his Kentucky home, Ashland. But if there is a memorial to that early American leader in Ashland, Alabama, I never saw it.
I never saw a memorial either to the town’s most famous native son, Hugo Black, the Supreme Court Justice. Born just outside of town, Black was raised in Ashland and had his first law office on the town square before moving to Birmingham. But at least during his lifetime, Ashland did not want to claim the justice. Hugo Black wrote Court decision after Court decision upholding civil liberties and equal rights and most important to many Alabamans is that Black was on the Supreme Court that ordered the desegregation of public schools and other public facilities. The spouse’s grandmother told us years after Brown v. Board of Education that Hugo Black on a visit to Alabama picked a flight that had a layover in Birmingham so that he could see his son who lived and practiced law there. The son got word to his father, “Don’t even get off the plane; it will be too dangerous for you.” (A famous KKK leader of the 1920s and 1930s was born in Ashland, but as far as I know, there is no memorial to him either.)
The spouse, however, noted some racial changes since her childhood days. We spotted a Black state trooper, Blacks at the public swimming pool, and a Black man in a spirited tennis game against a white opponent. The spouse said these sightings would not have occurred in the Clay County of her youth.
Signs of the old South, however, still lingered. Looking out the window early one morning, I saw a wagon being pulled by a mule as a Black man was going to tend fields. I felt as if I had seen this scene before in a picture from the South of the 1920s or 1930s. And then there was the time that we stopped to get gas at a one-pump station and waited for someone to come to fill the tank. I had only seen Stepin Fetchit’s shuffle in the movies, but now I saw it for myself as it seemed to take five minutes for an old Black man to make it from the building to our Dodge Dart twenty feet away. I understood the walk’s origins, but I wanted to shout, “You don’t have to do that. We are white, but we aren’t from here.” However, some remnants of the old South benefited us. The wife’s metal leg brace had cracked, and we asked the gas station attendant if he knew of a welder and explained the problem. He immediately said that the blacksmith could help and told us where the smithy was. We went there, and the man in an old, old shop did a creditable repair, not charging us much money.
Ashland was also different from other places I had known. This was hammered home when we were driving into the town with the spouse’s mother in the back seat (why we had the mother-in-law with us remains a mystery to me). She commanded, with an uncharacteristic urgency, that we pull over to a small store. It was the last place to get alcohol before arriving in Ashland. Clay County was dry.
(concluded Feb. 5)