We lived our little drama We kissed in a field of white And stars fell on Alabama last night As sung by Billie Holiday
Long ago in the Bronx, on a walk to get the morning newspapers at Jack Krasnoff’s candy store at Oneida Avenue and 233rd Street, just across from Woodlawn Cemetery, my grandfather told seven-year-old me a riddle. “Tell me, Jimmy,” he said, “what’s black and white and red all over?” I thought. I looked around. I shrugged. He said the answer. “But a newspaper isn’t red,” I argued. “Sure it is,” he said. “That’s what you do with it. And that’s why spelling is important.” I laughed at his joke. If he asked me now, I would have answered differently. I would have said, “Alabama.”
We Whites had even plundered their names! Alabama is one of twenty-six states named after disinherited, vastly dissipated Native American tribes. The Alibamuwere members of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation displaced west of the Mississippi River to Oklahoma, death-marching along its “Trail of Tears.”
An example of this birthright scrambling lies the Vietnam War-era Merle Haggard song, “Okie from Muskogee.” It extols the down-home patriotic, small-town American life, free from marijuana and other complexities, while remaining ignorant of the genocidal horror of its stolen birthright. “Muskogee” should not be a city in Oklahoma. The ravaged Muscogee (Creek) Nation should not have been forcibly extirpated from its Alibamuhomeland to Oklahoma. Incidentally, “Oklahoma” is a Choctaw word meaning Red (okla) People (houma). The stench of racial extermination pervades.
The Creek Nation, known for its comity toward the invading White race, was dubbed one of the five “civilized” Southeastern Indian nations. That would not save any of them. Credit this genocidal malfeasance to The Indian Removal Act of 1830. From then until the beginning of the Civil War, the number of Southern slaves doubled while cotton production rose five hundred percent. The architect of this inhumane efficiency? The notorious Indian hater, Andrew Jackson, then president of the United States.
Cotton trumped all. And clear-cutting forests would unearth the wondrous fertility of Black Belt soil. Since the free labor of ignominious slavery was key to economic progress, the tribes and their forest homelands were doomed. Goodbye, trees! Hello, black earth upheaval! The lands stolen from the Creeks were congruent with the areas of densest, darkest slave concentrations in Alabama. One crime begets another.
The Black Belt produced two stark crops—white cotton and Black slaves. Wilcox County, Alabama was an exemplar of the plantation system. Blessed with fertile soil and the Alabama River’s vast network of tributaries, high-cotton time had hundreds of riverboat landings to service the endless paddlewheel traffic downriver to Mobile. There, they offloaded to seagoing vessels heading overseas to Liverpool. Plantation owners flourished. By 1860, Alabama and Louisiana held first place among slave states—forty-five percent of their population was slaves.
Cotton was king. Call it economic harmony. Call it Southern comfort. Call it Dixie Land. With tribal homelands usurped, their birthrights stolen, all five “civilized” nations were banished west to terra incognita. And today, Andrew Jackson’s portrait hangs in the Oval Office of the president of the United States.
Bad angels, not stars, had fallen on Alabama.
Alabama Museum of Natural History,
University of Alabama
Forty-five million years ago give or take a few, a warm, shallow sea covered half of what would later be called Alabama. The enormous prehistoric ancestors of whales had succumbed to age and a cooling planet. These creatures, sixty feet long, named Basilosaurus cetoides or Zeuglodon, lay in quiet extinction covered by the fertile sea-bottom muck. This “muck” would become the Black Belt.
Now fast forward millions of years to 1842, where Judge John G. Creagh’s slaves were clearing fields on his huge plantation near a town called Catherine. A few feet down, their shovels rang out against some odd-looking rocks. Herman Melville described their discovery in Moby-Dick:
But by far the most wonderful of all cetacean relics was the almost complete vast skeleton of an extinct monster, found in the year 1842, on the plantation of Judge Creagh, in Alabama. The awe-stricken credulous slaves in the vicinity took it for the bones of one of the fallen angels.[i]
One lost paradise interred in what would soon become another.
Unearthed fossils were so common on the Creagh plantation that it was dubbed “The Rocks.” Slaves plowing new land stacked them to mark field divisions as New England farmers stacked upheaved boulders to make fences. Fossils seemed everywhere. Some Alabama houses even used whalebones to secure their foundations. Vertebrae served as andirons for fireplaces. Alabama declared the Basilosaurus cetoidesas its official state fossil in 1984. A replica hangs from the ceiling in the Grand Gallery of the Alabama Museum of Natural History in the city of Tuscaloosa, the name of a Muscogee chieftain.
Karl Marx famously noted that history repeats, first as tragedy, then as farce. Note this deadly, tragic farce.[i]Note the place: Fort Rucker, Alabama, home of Army aviation, both fixed-wing and helicopters. It was another Southern army base named for a Confederate Civil War general, this one, Edmund Rucker. In 1960, the base was the home of the Iroquois. Later would come the Apache, the Kiowa, the Chinook, the Lakota, the Huron, the Cayuse, the Chickasaw, the Cheyenne, and the Black Hawk. No, they were not the wandering, lost tribes of homeless Indian nations. They were helicopters. All helicopters, and all about war and destruction. All rising in Alabama. While military hospital ships are named Comfort,Hope, and Mercy, U.S. Army attack helicopters celebrate the victims of genocide in the so-called “Indian Wars.”
After annihilation comes macabre remembrance, like arsonists returning to view their blazing crime scenes. This Native American fixation was furthered in Vietnam, when the land beyond government control became known as “Indian country.” And the revolutionary enemy became “gooks” and “termites.”
As Melville’s whaling ship, The Pequod, was “a cannibal of a craft, tricking herself forth in the chased bones of her enemies,” so does the United States military trick itself forth in the cannibalizing aircraft with the murdered names of its slaughtered enemies.[ii] As noted linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky put it: “We might react differently if the Luftwaffe were to call its fighter planes ‘Jew’ and ‘Gypsy.’” [iii]
Today, the Creagh plantation has gone the way of slavery and the aboriginal Native Americans. Twenty-two members of the Creagh family remain interred in a moldering private cemetery in a town called Catherine. According to the 2010 census, there were also twenty-two living residents—none named Creagh—in Catherine, the least populated census-designated place in Alabama. Sic transit gloria mundi.
Melville described the uniqueness of the white whale, commenting that “blackness is the rule among almost all whales.”[i] Blackness, the harsh rule of slavery, the soil they slaved upon, the mark upon the soul left by that great American double obscenity—the genocide of the Red race, the enslavement of the Black.
As for Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” so for the plantation owners and their black leviathan called slavery:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.[ii]
Nothing beside the Creagh-Glover Cemetery remains except the much-diminished town called Catherine. Gone the plantations. Gone the slaves. Gone the primordial Red race. Yet…
“My soul has grown deep like the rivers,” wrote Langston Hughes, the great poetic voice of the Harlem Renaissance, adding, “I’ve known rivers: ancient, dusky rivers.”[i] It’s a universal voyage, a timeless poetic monologue for Hughes in his “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” As Melville ceded universal ownership of the seas to the Nantucket Indians, metaphorically all Indians, Hughes bestowed his Black race the great rivers. Bathing in the Euphrates at the beginning of time, listening to the singing Mississippi slaves with Abraham Lincoln, Hughes held ancient dreams for modern times. And why not? The touch of the poet prevails.
* * *
Claudette Colvin age fifteen
Mark these touches of Alabama Black-times…
On March 2, 1955, nine months before Rosa Parks would refuse to give up her seat on a Birmingham bus, a fifteen-year-old high school student, Claudette Colvin, had already done the rebellious deed. Arrested for her principles, four months later, Colvin joined four other arrested Black women as plaintiffs in the federal civil action lawsuit Browder v. Gayle. On November 13, 1956, the United States Supreme Court upheld the civil action and ordered the desegregation of all Alabama buses. Today, March 2 is known as “Claudette Colvin Day” in Birmingham, Alabama.
Bethel Baptist Church and Parsonage, December 1956
Christmas Eve, December 24, 1956, Fred Shuttlesworth is asleep upstairs in his parsonage next to the church. The Ku Klux Klan gifted him with sixteen sticks of dynamite in a white bucket. It blasted the parsonage into collapse. But Shuttlesworth emerged from the basement unhurt. Years later, he would describe the event as him being “blown into history.”[i]
Christmas Day dawned and Shuttlesworth, unperturbed, would lead one hundred demonstrators to the Birmingham Bus Terminal to test the rigor of the enforcement of the Browder v. Gayledesegregation ruling. There, they fully occupied the White sections of buses. Twenty-two arrests ensued, including his. And time wore violently on for Reverend Shuttlesworth. Multiple arrests, multiple beatings, multiple billy clubs, baseball bats, bicycle chains, firehoses, snarling dogs, tear gas at the Pettus Bridge at Selma, his eulogy at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church for the “four little girls.” Martin Luther King called him “the most courageous civil rights fighter in the South.”[ii]
Fred Shuttlesworth after another bombing of Bethel Baptist Church, June 29, 1958
The future held worse.
The “heat of the night” violence that erupted in 1961, began with the torching of the Freedom Rider’s bus in Anniston, Alabama. The welcoming mobs in Birmingham, the bus station beatings in Montgomery, the iron pipes. Alabama was boiling. Sit-ins and bus burnings all over the state. Bull Connor and his snarling dogs in Birmingham. Beatings. Killings. Violence. Hatred. The Mother’s Day bus firebombed in Anniston. Black tears and White fears and the Alabama streets ran crimson. And church burnings, four more little girls will die in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, George Wallace “stands in the schoolhouse door,” and more bombing in Birmingham. “Bloody Tuesday” in Tuscaloosa. “Bloody Sunday” in Selma. Martin Luther King jailed. Martin Luther King awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Martin Luther King murdered.
Fred Shuttlesworth died in Birmingham at eighty-nine. Unfailing courage defined him.
BLACK AND WHITE
As West Point cadets, The New York Times and The New York Herald Tribune came to our rooms every morning. They didn’t help us learn much about Alabama. Neither did study of the American Civil War, nor “Stonewall” Jackson’s bold campaign in the Shenandoah Valley, nor Grant’s campaign at Vicksburg on July 4, 1862 that finished the Confederate Army on the Mississippi River. Nor would deconstructing line-by-line Stephen Vincent Benét’s poem “John Brown’s Body.”
We did know that public transportation, particularly buses and trains, more specifically seats thereon, were sensitive items down South. As were drinking fountains, restrooms, and waiting areas. I had discovered that in a bus station in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The evening bus to Rocky Mount was ready to go. And so was I, urgently. I remember the expression on the Black man’s face next to me as I urgently used the urinal in the colored-only men’s room.
Now consider another Fred from Alabama, my West Point classmate. He was born in Anniston, about two hundred miles north of Fort Rucker. Fred left Alabama as a child and grew up in Battle Creek, Michigan.
Fred and I were similar. Like me, Fred was tall and slim. We were in the same cadet company. We were in the same gym class section that was organized by weight. To further assure fairness for boxing and wrestling class, we were further ranked by height. So there we stood, always beside each other, evenly matched. Such similarity granted us the equal right to pound each other with left hooks and right crosses. Freed us to grab and pull, push and grope each other, our sweaty faces contorted and often wedged in unseemly places. This was called wrestling. These programs of learning the manly arts lasted one year. They were all about making contact.
In the end, we came out where we started. Even. A fair match, both of us limited only by our innate deficiencies. Similar in physical ways, except one—I was not Black. My classmate, distinguished by nature and ever distinguishable, was the only Afro-American in the entire class of over six hundred cadets. Only one young Black man! An infinitely small, sad representation, 0.16% of our class of 610. The institution seemed mindless of the infinitude of the insult. That too was the kind of America we would all soon swear to serve.
And mark this too—the Jim Crow Ordinance 798-F then prevailing in Birmingham, Alabama entitled “Negroes and White Persons Not To Play Together.”
It deemed unlawful for a “Negro” and a White person to engage in cards, dice, dominoes, checkers, baseball, basketball, or any similar games in any public space or house or tavern or restaurant or ball field or stadium. Blacks and Whites must be “distinctly separated […] by well-defined physical barriers.”[i] If my boyhood hero from Fairfield, Alabama—Willie Howard Mays, now starring in centerfield for the San Francisco Giants—came to Birmingham, he could not play with or against a team that included me. Nor could I play checkers with Mr. Mays in the dugout or anywhere else in Birmingham. Nor could I play with my classmate Fred in a public library.
This was the America that we as new officers would soon swear to support and defend.
Our West Point class was on a summer orientation trip visiting military bases in the South. It was dripping-humid-hot that June evening at Fort Rucker, Alabama in 1960. We were dressed in starched dress whites for the occasion, a welcoming dinner-dance. Each cadet would be randomly assigned a dinner date from a pool of over six hundred young White ladies, except, of course, for Fred. A social dragnet must have swept southern Alabama. Local towns like Ozark, Enterprise, Dothan, and Daleville were scoured for candidates. In the best tradition of Gone With The Wind andSouthern hospitality, we cadets would dine and dance with Southern Belles. I imagined that notices like this might have been posted on lampposts:
WANTED Attention, Southern Belles! Meet, Dine, and Dance with a West Point Cadet. Fort Rucker Officers Club. Dress Nice. Get information at the nearest post office.
And so it came to pass that over six hundred begowned young ladies descended on the Fort Rucker officers club that steamy June evening. Each received a card, a table number, and a cadet’s name. To avoid chaos, cadets stood at their assigned tables, nametags affixed, awaiting their moments of truth. Six of us, including Fred, had been assigned to the same table, but Fred was not there.
Perfume and fancy frocks filled the air. Our dates had arrived. The girls seemed okay—quiet, a bit confused, wary, shy. The chitchatflowed at a languid pace. There was an edgy eating of dinner rolls. My date was blond, attractive, and friendly. She said she aspired to become a nurse. My treacherous nose quivered. It was the perfume, hers. In an instant, I knew our relationship was doomed. My penchant for al…al…allergies… I sneezed boldly into a round of God’s blessings. Still no Fred. I groped inside my tunic for a handkerchief. My nose, like a West Point cadet, never lies. No scented Southern Belles for me. We sat talking about where we were from, the heat, and who would sit in the two empty seats.
The dance floor was a flood of swelling pastels in a field of military whites. Soon we must wade in. Suddenly, like Moses parting the Red Sea, Fred and his date parted the white. We rose in greeting. Our dates remained seated, fidgeting and mumbling. Ladies don’t stand, but there was something else happening. They had noticed what we five cadets had never considered. And as we started introducing Fred and his date, our Southern Belles levitated in one wordless, ignorant whoosh. And off they flounced in a racist huff, and not to the powder room either. They fled the premises, trailing their perfumed biases behind. Something stunning had happened. We didn’t know what to do, in shock that such willful ignorance could be so publicly displayed. Well, goodbye, Scarlett O’Hara! And goodbye, Jim Crow too! Some other evening, they might learn about the inevitability of the multicolored world.
We sat transfixed, six cadets, one young Black woman, and five empty chairs. She was the daughter of a sergeant stationed at Fort Rucker. Call her Louise. Imagine being one of the two Black faces in a crowd of twelve hundred. Imagine her. Imagine Fred. Imagine America.
We examined our fingernails. We shook our heads. We fumbled withsilverware. We devoured more rolls. Five empty seats. Five empty plates. A long evening loomed. Fred had Louise. We had chairs.
Then someone had an idea. He rose. “Louise,” he said, “may I have this dance?” Louise smiled brilliantly. “Why, I’d be delighted,” she said. “Simply delighted.”
I like to think that I am remembering correctly. I like to think that we five dateless White cadets dressed in spotless white tunics sat around the table and alternately danced with the sergeant’s Black daughter. I like to think that we cracked jokes with our splendid Black classmate. I like to think that we talked about the weather then prevailing in the Dothan area. I like to think that we sought out the Officer in Charge and rendered an outraged complaint about a civil rights violation and about a hate crime committed on US government property. I like to think that we acted as we were trained to do, to behave as honorable gentlemen, to defend the abused, to protect the endangered. I like to think all that. What happened at Fort Rucker was happening all over the country. And it would worsen.
As James Baldwin had written in 1955: “This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.” This was the great truth for the coming ages.
And so it was for us, or perhaps something like this, on a long-ago, black-and-white evening in Alabama. An evening that we all might have danced with a Black woman, perhaps named Louise.
I cannot speak for those southern ladies who rose with such abandon and deserted us—and Fred—that hot Alabama evening so long ago. But I can speak of Fred. He graduated from West Point as he came, unhindered by being the lone African-American in his class. A career military officer, he rose steadily in rank through a variety of command positions including an artillery battery in Vietnam. He earned a master’s degree in Spanish and taught that language at West Point. Promoted to Brigadier General in 1984, he was appointed Commandant of Cadets at West Point in 1987. He was the first African-American to hold this prestigious position. While commandant, he was instrumental in appointing the first female cadet as Brigade Commander, also called “First Captain.” He retired from the military as a Major General. In every aspect of professional life he proved an inherent truth. He was the apotheosis of a modern major general.
[i] Herman Melville, Moby-Dick or The Whale(San Diego: Canterbury Classics, 2016), 445.
[i] Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” in The Portable Karl Marx(New York: Penguin Books, 1983), 287.
"Alabama Drama in Red, White and Black" is a chapter of a work-in-progress entitled: WHAT ABIDES: West Point Love Letters.
JAMES RYAN A graduate of West Point, he has published in Shenandoah, Eleven Eleven, Eureka, Inkwell, Op-Ed News, Monthly Review, Who.What.Why and numerous others. He was a columnist for Aydinliknewspaper in Istanbul, Turkey. With advanced degrees in economics and English literature, he holds a MFA degree from Columbia University.