“Hey Stan, you’re in Ala-F***in-Bama.” Vinny Gambini
In Phenix City, AL, the tombstone of a bridge-builder and slave owner reads the following, “John Godwin Born Oct. 17, 1798. Died Feb 26, 1859. This stone was placed here by Horace King, in lasting remembrance of the love and gratitude he felt for his lost friend and former master.”
I first learned about Horace King at the Shorter Mansion museum in Eufaula, Alabama. While camped on Lake Eufaula, Vivian and I drove to town on a persistently rainy day and found refuge at this beautiful mansion and museum. Although the history of Eufaula and its surrounding area are deserving of attention, what I keep thinking about is the story of Horace King. I read it with interest from a placard that was within three steps of a display about Governor George Wallace. Most Americans have heard of Wallace, but few would recognize King, so the paradox of the two coming together in a historical museum would go entirely unnoticed by most.
Horace King was born a slave in 1807 and became the property of John Godwin in 1829. Godwin was a bridge builder who saw great opportunity in Alabama with all its waterways. Bridges and roads needed to be built. King’s relationship to Godwin was more partner than slave as King played a significant role in designing and building bridges. He supervised many of Godwin’s projects, which in the day were considered superior workmanship. King’s reputation as a builder and his fortunes grew over time and eventually, he became an elected Alabama state representative. In 1846, Horace King became a free man when Godwin’s family released him. In honor of his previous owner and friend, he purchased a Masonic monument and erected it on Godwin’s grave, where the inscription above can be read.
A few steps further, I read about Governor George Wallace. The museum’s display tells us about Wallace’s positive contributions to the state of Alabama, barely eluding to what made Wallace most famous in the United States. Wallace’s inaugural speech in 1963 (which was nowhere in the museum’s tribute to him) sums it up quite well – “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
I must admit, when I think of Alabama I think of segregation and intolerance. This may not be a fair assessment give how little I know about the state, but then there are so many accounts, from long past and more current that make it difficult to believe otherwise. Voting rights are still being suppressed in more predominantly black counties, it is the only state in the U.S. where the majority of residents oppose same-sex marriage, it passed the harshest anti-immigration law in 2011 (it was overturned federally), recently passed the most restrictive law affecting women’s access to healthcare, and holds a city (Gadsen) that was ranked the worst place to be a woman by 24/7 Wall Street.
Alabama, you are a complicated state of citizens ranging between the two extremes, anti-everything-that-is-not-white-male-or-straight policy makers and the people who overcome their policies in great ways. You were born from cotton where black slaves worked and died, but you are the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement. Someone once wrote that Alabama is proud of its divisive past, as well as its reputation for being at the forefront of equality.
I am a Caucasian and Vivian is a white-looking Latina, so clearly, we will never experience racism in Alabama. On the other hand, we are two women, married to each other. Ironically, I felt a sense of belonging when the Shorter Mansion museum host described the yearly Antebellum pilgrimage where visitors can tour several historical homes in Eufaula. One of those homes is a grand Victorian-style house owned by two men, a couple as she described them. She was proud to share with us the rich history of Eufaula and its historic mansions, and she let us know in a matter-of-fact way, that the couple being gay was simply an inconsequential part of that richness.
Despite the brouhaha of ‘us vs them’ politics, within a community people must get along. It doesn’t matter what the community is, an RV park, a state, a small southern antebellum town, a fishing village or a large metropolis, we are all in this together and quite often, we depend on each other. Vivian and I are members of several communities, one of which is Chokoloskee Islanders and another, fulltime RV’ers. We know from experience that when it comes to neighbors, who a person loves, their gender or their race matters not in comparison to how we treat each other. George Wallace the governor of Alabama did not understand that, perhaps John Godwin the slave owner did, and certainly, the Shorter Mansion Museum host does.