The Southern Road: History And The Future Collide

If you mention Montgomery, Alabama, to anyone outside the South, you’ll probably get a response that includes Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King. People know Chattanooga, Tennessee, best for the Glenn Miller song about a choo-choo, and others because they are Civil War buffs.

These two Southern cities, rich in history, now have something crucial in common: they’ve become car towns. Along with their places in America’s past, Montgomery, and Chattanooga can now share industrial futures, one thanks to Korea‘s Hyundai, the other to Germany‘s Volkswagen.

And boy, are the movers and shakers happy to have their auto factories, probably no one more than Chattanooga’s mayor, Ron Littlefield. “It’s the Holy Grail,” says the mayor.

His office on the third floor of Chattanooga’s stately city hall is full of memorabilia related to the city’s efforts to land the VW plant that dominates the site of a former TNT plant, just south of town.On one wall, Littlefield shows off a framed copy of the lyrics to Chattanooga Choo-Choo, loosely translated into German. Another wall boasts the front page of the Chattanooga Times Free Press on the day the city landed the plant. Chattanooga has enthusiastically embraced Volkswagen’s German home base, Wolfsburg, and Littlefield hands out medallions to visitors bearing both cities’ seals.

For Chattanooga, the VW plant is icing on the cupcake for a city that’s been fighting to remake itself since the 1970s, when it was said to have the dirtiest air in the United States. Here, VW isn’t the lynchpin to revival; the revival was what clinched the factory.

I’d only driven through Chattanooga on the way to points farther south, and by doing so, I missed a lot. Even if you don’t arrange a tour of the VW plant, there is plenty here to see, starting with the Aquarium downtown, which is modeled after the one in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

Chattanooga has a stunning art museum, beautifully restored downtown buildings, one of the country’s first parking garages built specifically as a parking garage, new schools, and a thriving food scene. In two days, I dined at St. Johns, which could easily compete in New Orleans, visited one of the city’s daily farmers markets, and paid four (!) visits to Niedlow’s Bakery, where I sampled probably the best chocolate croissant I’ve ever eaten.

But those things wouldn’t necessarily lift Chattanooga above other similar sized Southern cities. VW, however, does. “Volkswagen is close to iconic for people my age,” says the mayor, who was born in 1953. The Beetle is “my generation’s vehicle.”

He admits his city “stole ideas and learned from mistakes” made by other places, as it moved along its reinvention path. Downtown came first, along with white-collar jobs at places like Krystal, the fast food chain whose headquarters is there, and Blue Cross Blue Shield, which has a huge office building. “What was lacking was industrial jobs,” Littlefield says.

Chattanooga watched as cities all over the South landed their car plants. It tried particularly hard to get the Toyota plant that went to Tupelo, Mississippi, but lost it because too much leaked out about the negotiations. Littlefield was at the Detroit Auto Show when he heard VW might be searching for a plant site.

The city quickly put together a proposal only to hear back that VW wasn’t impressed with the way the proposed location looked. “We like Chattanooga, but we can’t tell much about this site,” he recalled. The city, county and state jumped into action, clearing away trees and debris (there was even a webcam showing the progress) and a month later, the location was ready.

Littlefield knows he’s hit the “biggest industrial home run in the history of Chattanooga.” But he doesn’t just want to be on a list of the South’s car cities. “Wouldn’t it be great to be on the short list of progressive cities?” he says.

Progressive and Montgomery have probably never been used in any historian’s sentence.
Montgomery is a city with kind of a spooky history, to those of us from up North. Our view of it is formed in old newsreels and classes on African-American history, and the perception we get isn’t good.

I was reminded of that when I visited the Rosa Parks Museum, where her decision to keep her bus seat is depicted through a dramatic hologram reenactment. I took a drive by King’s Dexter Avenue church, which is directly across from the state capital, where George Wallace served when he vowed to fight school integration.

Nobody in Montgomery ducks this history – in fact, civil rights sites are well labeled for visitors. But for Randy George, the head of the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce, Hyundai gives him something else to talk about and most important, something to sell to prospective businesses.

“It redefines largely who we are,” George says of the Hyundai plant that sits just south of the city. “The dichotomy is really a remarkable thing. It proves that we have come a long way.”

Beyond the civil rights movement, George thinks the presence of Hyundai, and the other car companies and auto suppliers who’ve set up in the South are changing the perception of the South for the nation. “Our time’s come,” he says, simply.

Micheline Maynard is a writer and author based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She previously ran the public media project Changing Gears, and was Detroit bureau chief for the New York Times.

The Green Book: A Guidebook For The Age Of Segregation

Green Book, segregationIt’s hard to imagine nowadays when the only limitations to travel are money, time and health, but for much of America’s history a large segment of the population had trouble traveling just because of the color of their skin.

During the days of segregation, most hotels were off-limits to African-Americans, as were other facilities like restaurants, movie theaters and campgrounds. Those that did allow blacks to enter had strict rules of segregation. Stopping at the wrong restaurant could lead a black family to being insulted or worse.

Yet a rising black middle class had just as much hunger for travel as anyone else. The problem was: how does one travel safely? One answer was “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” a guidebook that listed hotels and restaurants open to black people. While it wasn’t the only such guidebook, it was one of the most popular and long lasting. It was started by Victor H. Green in 1936 as a guide just for New York City, but soon expanded to include the whole country and eventually Bermuda, Mexico and Canada.

I’d never heard of this book until I saw it mentioned on the excellent website I’m Black and I Travel. I downloaded a free PDF of the 1949 edition from the University of Michigan website and found it a fascinating read. The book introduces itself as a resource “to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trips more enjoyable.”

Then come the listings. I took special note of places I used to live. Tucson, Arizona, only had one listing for a restaurant and no lodging mentioned. Columbia, Missouri, had a hotel and a tourist home, which was a private home that rented out spare rooms to travelers. The hotel has since disappeared and the land on which it stood is now taken up by an adult store and theater. The guesthouse is now a private residence. New York City, of course, had plenty of listings. The Harlem Renaissance was in full swing and the Harlem listings are longer than the listings for many states.

%Gallery-153462%Another city that has a sizable listing is Tulsa, Oklahoma. Only 28 years before, the thriving black neighborhood of Greenwood had been burned to the ground and hundreds of black people killed by a white mob in the worst race riot in American history. By 1949, numerous black-owned businesses had literally sprung from the ashes and got into “The Green Book.”

The advertisements open up a different era too. How long has it been since hotels boasted they had hot water and radios in every room? Only two national companies advertised in this edition: Esso, which was a leader in selling franchises to African-Americans, and Ford Motor Company, which placed an ad for its very cool 1949 convertible. Green also advertised his own reservation bureau, noting that a shortage of beds for black travelers made it essential to plan ahead.

There are also a couple of articles, including one on what to see in Chicago, highlighting its large black neighborhood as well as more general interest sights. Another article talked about Robbins, Illinois, which was of interest to the black reader since it was a prosperous town owned almost entirely by black people. The guidebook notes that with “no prejudice and restrictions” the community was able to boom. The article finishes: “It is worth the trouble to go out and take a look at what an experiment of an exhibition of what Negroes working together can do. Indeed, it would not be a bad idea to pitch in and help.”

One thing that struck me most about this book was the absolute lack of rancor. The problem of segregation is noted, and in a couple of places Green hopes for it to end one day, but there are no angry tirades against the injustice that black people were suffering. If I had been black in 1949, I doubt I would have been so charitable.

“The Green Book” is a sobering reminder of a sad time in U.S. history, and also a reminder that things occasionally get better – not 100% better, but time has seen a major improvement. Green stopped publication after 1964 after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. It is now a rare item and it’s not even clear if a copy exists for every edition. If you think you or your grandparents may have a copy tucked away in the attic, go check. It should be preserved.

Do you have memories of travel in the age of segregation? Tell us about them in the comments section!

[Photo courtesy University of Michigan]

Excavating Central Park’s forgotten village

Central ParkCentral Park is sometimes called the “lungs of New York City”. Locals and visitors alike come here to enjoy a bit of fresh air and greenery. The park was approved in 1853 in order to leave a green patch in the rapidly expanding metropolis. The city government took the land between 59th and 106th Streets, between Fifth and Eighth Avenues, by eminent domain. About 1,600 residents were paid for their property and forced to move by the summer of 1856.

While a beautiful park was born, its birth was the death of Seneca Village, a prosperous community of almost 300 people. Two-thirds of the population was black and it may have been the first community of middle-class black landowners is New York. The rest were white, many of them Irish immigrants. Of the village’s three churches, at least one was integrated.

Seneca Village was founded in 1825, two years before New York freed most of its slaves, and expanded quickly in the following few years. Living conditions downtown were unhealthy and property prices high (some things never change) so blacks with enough money were eager to move up to this area. The map, Columbia University, shows Seneca Village. Eighth Avenue is at the top of the picture. Seventh Avenue is at the bottom, with 82nd St. on the left and 86th St. is on the right.

Today archaeologists from the Seneca Village Project have finished the first-ever excavation of this historic community. After painstaking research through city records, they were able to locate the precise spots where many of the houses stood. They decided to excavate the property of two black residents: the yard of Nancy Moore, and the home of William G. Wilson. They found a wealth of nineteenth-century artifacts, including some porcelain imported from China, showing that some residents were quite well off. They even found a shoe that may have belonged to one of Mr. Wilson’s children.

If you’re heading to Central Park, check the project’s interactive map to see the history under your feet.

Mammoth Cave: Weird stories of fish, TB, mummies and more

Mammoth Cave in Kentucky is the largest known cave system in the world and one of the United States’ oldest tourist attractions. Because of its unusual geological characteristics, the cave has been a backdrop for downright odd aspects of human endeavors. Even nature has tossed in some weirdness for good measure.

The first time I visited Mammoth Cave National Park was as a child. What I remember most are the odd tales told by the tour guide. Of course, the vastness of the various chambers and the narrow squeezes of passageways between them did add a mysterious awe to my experience but the guide’s stories are what have resonated.

When I revisited Mammoth Cave as an adult years later, the weird details I remembered were still part of the tour guide’s routine. If you visit the cave, depending upon the tour you take, perhaps these details will stay with you also. Tours range from 30 minutes to more than four hours.

For 10 weird things about Mammoth Cave, keep reading.

10 Weird (or unusual )Things about Mammoth Cave

Weirdness 1: This is more unusual than weird but it is information that you can pull out at a party. If you put the second and third longest caves together, Mammoth Cave would still be the world’s longest by 100 miles.

Weirdness 2: In 1830, a preacher would gather people together for church in the cave. He would take all their lanterns, set the lanterns at the edge of the rock ledge where he stood, and preach about good and evil and the fear of God. The people couldn’t leave because he had the lanterns.


Weirdness 3:
Stephen Bishop, a 17-year-old slave, gave tours of the cave to wealthy white people until he was sold (along with the cave) to a new owner. Under his new owner, Bishop became one of the cave’s greatest explorers and, even after he gained freedom, was unable to move away from the cave’s pull despite his plans to move to Liberia. He died from unknown causes a year after he became free.

Weirdness 4: Because large portions of Mammoth Cave are dry, items left there can remain intact for years and years and years. This includes dead bats and bodies of Native Americans who lived in the area thousands of years ago. (Keep this weirdness in mind; it is connected to Weirdness 5.

Weirdness 5: The mummified bodies of the Native Americans were taken outside of the cave to be used as traveling shows.

Weirdness 6: The traveling mummy shows helped grow interest in Mammoth Cave. When the cave started its reign as a tourist site, it was considered to be exotic.

Weirdness 7: In 1843, a doctor set up a tuberculosis ward in the Main Cave near the Star Chamber where he treated 16 patients. The idea was that because the cave was dry, it would help the patients’ lungs heal. It was a decent idea that didn’t work. Because of the cave’s cool temperatures, plus the fires from cooking and heating, the patients didn’t get better. After patients started to die, the doctor gave up the idea of a cave holding a cure. He died of TB a few years later.

Weirdness 8: In the early 20th century music concerts were held in certain chambers of the cave. This included bringing in food to set up a festive atmosphere.

Weirdness 9: Because of Mammoth’s Cave popularity in the 1920s, people who owned other caves in this part of Kentucky would stop travelers on the road to tell them lies about Mammouth Cave in order to get visitors to come to their caves instead.

Weirdness 10: There is a river that flows through part of the cave. Because of its darkness, the fish that live in it don’t have eyes. Depending upon the tour of the cave you take, you can travel by boat on this river.

Bonus weirdness: Up until 1976, the remains of a Native American named “Lost John” was on display in one part of the cave at the spot where he died. In 1976, it became illegal to have dead bodies on display in national parks so he was buried near where he was found.

The blind fish, Lost John and the TB hospital are the three things I remember the most. These recollections add to my thoughts about why it’s important to travel with children.

The details of the places children visit can instill a sense of mystery, curiosity and wonder that can last for a lifetime. Those feelings can keep you traveling.

First all female African American flight crew makes history

I love good news from the aviation world – it really does bring a smile to my face amongst all the doom and gloom stories out there.

A good example of something great comes from regional carrier Atlantic Southeast Airlines. For the first time in history, a domestic US flight was staffed by an all female African American flight crew.

The 4 – Captain Rachelle Jones, First Officer Stephanie Grant, and flight attendants Diana Galloway and Robin Rogers probably did not know that they were about to make history when they boarded their flight from Atlanta to Nashville.

When the crew realized the importance of their flight, they were naturally quite excited, and captain Jones said ” this could be a first, so let’s be on our P’s and Q’s”.

ASA President Brad Holt issued the following statement: “Not only are these women gifted in their professions, but they set examples for young people across the country that with hard work, passion and determination, the sky is the limit.”

Atlantic Southeast Airlines has a special contact page, where you can leave your own message of congratulations to the crew of flight 5202.

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