She walked in to my office, like she was walking onto a stage, which made sense given that she was a performer, a concert pianist, at her young age. She wore splints on both forearms, from the wrists to three-quarters up the elbow.
“Carpel tunnel syndrome,” she said, before I could ask.
She sat down across from me, ready to interview for an academic scholarship at Presbyterian College. We had twenty minutes together, and though we spent the allotted time, I remember only these things: she played well enough to work with orchestras and give city recitals; she had high cheekbones, feathered brown hair, was tall and could have been a beauty queen.
And she was born and raised in Forsyth County, Georgia.
This was winter, 1989, and Oprah and Hosea Williams, and hundreds of peaceful demonstrators had been and gone from Forsyth for a year. Oprah had filmed her TV show from the county seat, Cumming, where among other testifiers, she heard this from a longtime county resident:
‘I lived down in Atlanta... it’s nothing but a rat-infested slum... They don’t care. They just don’t care.’ Asked if he meant ‘the entire black race,’ the man said no, ‘just the niggers.’ When Winfrey raised an eyebrow and asked, ‘What is the difference to you?’ the man offered to help her understand the distinction. ‘You have blacks and you have niggers,’ he said. ‘Black people? They don’t want to come up here. They don’t wanna cause any trouble. That’s a black person. A nigger wants to come up here and cause trouble all the time. That’s the difference.’ Many in the audience applauded as Winfrey lowered the mike to her side and simply stared into the camera (Phillips, Blood at the Root 229-30).
I knew that the Klan had marched recently in Forsyth, and I knew that it had brought national attention on this county, which was only two hours south of my home in upstate South Carolina. I knew things there were bad, but I didn’t know how bad. So when I asked the young woman sitting before me, who was hoping that I would give her high enough marks to increase her chances of getting a full scholarship (worth about $140,000), what it was like to live amidst the tensions and troubles of Forsyth, she looked at me quite placidly and said, “Well, it’s the media that have blown everything out of proportion and caused all this trouble. Yes, the Klan marched, but it was no big deal. It’s really a good place to live.”
Okay, what did I know about her home county? I’m originally from Bessemer, Alabama, itself once home to one of the most violent Klan chapters in the South. I grew up in the George Wallace era, and I wouldn’t want anyone judging me or my intellectual capabilities based on Bessemer or Alabama in general. I wouldn’t want any outsider believing that Wallace and the Klan’s vitriol against the Black race defined me or my family and friends. So we moved on to other topics. In the end, I gave her a decent recommendation, but not the highest. I don’t know if she was offered any sort of scholarship or what else happened to her that day or any other day. However, she never enrolled in our college.
Though I didn’t believe her when she tried to minimize the effects of her home county’s racial intolerance, I didn’t know until I read Patrick Phillips’ account of Forsyth, Blood at the Root, that the county went further than merely lynching black men back in the early part of the 20th Century.
It cleansed itself of all black people, a cleansing that held from 1913 to the early 1990’s.
Reading Phillips’ study, I learned about a world I thought I understood, being, as I said, a native southerner who has lived in the shadow of race my entire life. For eighty years, no black person set foot in Forsyth County without being run off, shot at, stoned, and I don’t know, nor does anyone else, how many were actually killed.
Over the decades since our brief time together, I have often remembered that young woman. I especially think of her each winter when scholarship day rolls around. And last fall, when I read Blood at the Root for the first time, I thought of her again, especially when I got to a passage quoting Forsyth County Commissioner David Gilbert in 1987. The first peace march to protest the county’s segregated life had just ended with the marchers being jeered at, threatened with bricks and guns, and then urged by the local police to re-board their busses because their lives could no longer be protected from the gathered white mob that was ready to do anything, it appeared, to keep Forsyth County racially pure:
Gilbert claimed that the men who’d attacked African American peace marchers were all from outside the county—despite the fact that seven of the eight men arrested [that day] had Forsyth addresses. ‘The real thing that upsets me,’ Gilbert told reporters, ‘is that this whole thing was sprung by outsiders. It’s just a bunch of outsiders trying to start trouble in Forsyth County’ (Phillips 70).
Forsyth had claimed for eighty years that it was outsiders, people living in other, nearby counties, who had caused all the trouble; who had forced black landowners out of their homes and out of the county. The law of Forsyth County thought, when it lynched two black men—one of them, a boy of fifteen—back in 1912 for attacking and killing a young white woman, that it had solved the crime, though another attack with a similar MO occurred after these two were already in custody. The true culprit was never brought to justice, but what did occur in the years just after the lynching was that a concerted band of night riders terrorized and ran off the black people of the county and some of the whites who sympathized with their fellow human beings. This band would eventually organize itself into the second wave Ku Klux Klan, and its descendants were dwelling in all-white Forsyth six decades later. And according to news sources, proud of it.
As I keep thinking about these issues, I wonder what that young woman saw and heard in her Forsyth years. Did she truly believe that her home was a healthy one, a peaceful one—one that practiced the standards of freedom and justice and Christian goodwill to all? That the races must be separated according to scripture or some other distorted idea? When we spoke, was she protecting others’ views—the views of people she loved, those of the family she was born into? Was she succumbing to neighborhood peer pressure? Her story, her defensiveness, her reaction still haunt me. I understand her conflict, her defensiveness. I know the shame and rationalizing that come from seeing your hometown’s name in cold brutal print.
As I write this, two days ago a white man named James Harris Jackson, from Baltimore, murdered a black man, Timothy Caughman, in New York City, using a military-type sword. The murderer told the police that he “has hated black men since he was a kid” and is “particularly offended” by black men sleeping with white women. The attorney for the murderer stated that if the charges and statements by his client are true, then he has “obvious psychological issues.” Jackson told police that if he hadn’t been caught, he would have kept on killing. The New York prosecutor is considering whether, along with murder, to charge Jackson with an act of terrorism (Kleinfeld, “A Man Who Hated Black Men Found a Victim Who Cared for Others,” New York Times, March 23, 2017).
Along with my horror and sadness upon reading this story, I’m transfixed by the defense attorney’s simple statement about his client’s “obvious psychological problems.” I don’t disagree. Blind hatred of black men, a lifelong hatred, is a sign of sickness, of someone who has been damaged either intentionally or perhaps unintentionally. We know that such hatred is learned behavior. White men are not born with a natural, organic hatred of black men. White men are not born with an instinct to hate black men who especially want to be “with” white women. Such thinking seems a vestige of the past, something we shouldn’t expect in our “post-racial society.”
My problem, though, is that I was born in 1956, raised in Bessemer, Alabama, a suburb of Birmingham, during the Civil Rights years. Thinking about the case in New York today, my question is: where were the attorneys in my home state, my hometown, to publicly proclaim that the city fathers who directed our lives—the neighborhood fathers who pumped our footballs, who handled our bank accounts, who stewarded our church, or who sold us our furniture—be arrested or institutionalized because, given their views and teachings about the Black race, they themselves were “obviously psychologically problem[ed]?”
This semester I’m leading a seminar focusing on Southern Political Literature. My students have read All the King’s Men, which we discussed in relation to the rise of our current political leadership. Then we turned to Lawrence Leamer’s The Lynching, which recounts the Alabama KKK’s hanging of a young black male, Michael Donald, in the early 1980’s. Leamer provides a historical context for the brutal murder, showing Klan activity back in the 1960’s, and particularly focusing on the Klan reaction to the March on Selma, the second, successful march. Reading this harrowing story, I reach the passage where Leamer describes Imperial Klan Wizard Bobby Shelton’s appearance at Birmingham’s Eastview Klavern #13, one of the most violent Klan chapters in the country. Present on this evening was “The next most important person at the meeting... Exalted Cyclops of the Bessemer Klavern and the Grand Dragon [or] top UKA officer in the state,” Robert Creel (Leamer, The Lynching, 173).
For much of my life I have known that there was a Klan presence in Bessemer. My mother has told me often of the sign on Bessemer’s “Super Highway,” US Highway 11, leading from Bessemer to Birmingham, at the city limits next to Civitans and Lions and Rotarian signs: the one that welcomed everyone to Bessemer on behalf of the United Klans of America.
“It was just a small sign,” she says, “maybe even hand-painted. It was right next to one of those train trestles out there. I don’t know how long it stood or when it was taken down, but it was sure there a while.”
While to my knowledge I never saw that sign, I have seen photographs of a Klan march right through the main artery of downtown Bessemer, 19th Street. The photo is somewhere in Bessemer’s Hall of History today.
Also on the 19th Street of my boyhood, next to a Pure Gasoline station owned by Mr. Bradley who used to pump my mother’s gas and who often gave her a “dollar’s worth” when she could only afford fifty cents, was a barbecue joint run by an old, trembling white man whom everyone called Pop Green. I went into this place only once in my life, when I was a junior high kid, with friends who wanted a sandwich. I had no money and maybe one of my friends bought me a Coke. It doesn’t matter, though, and maybe this fact doesn’t either. But on the slightly faded neon sign out front, the place was not called Pop Green’s or even just Green’s.
It was Creel’s BBQ.
There could have been many Bessemer Creels, though. I have asked a few people if they remember this sign, but so far, it seems it’s only my memory.
I reported all of this to my students, asking if they understood how strange it feels to know certain facts that no one else remembers; to know secrets through hearsay and gossip but to finally see them being revealed in print—secrets connected to your hometown and to the Klan. And how strange it is to wonder not if you knew any Klansmen, but rather, how many you might have known.
“I know what you mean,” one of my students responded. “I’ve lived in Forsyth County my entire life. I knew there was racial strife in the county’s past, but it looks like any other town, now. There’s even a Starbuck’s.”
Another sort of branding.
We all looked at each other then, wondering.
And then it got stranger.
On pages 141-2 of The Lynching, Leamer refers to a KKK rally in Bessemer on Saturday night, May 11, 1963. Imperial Wizard Bobby Shelton spoke at this rally, and later that night, some of these same Bessemer Klansmen participated in the planning and bombing of the AG Gaston Motel in Birmingham, hoping to kill one of the tenants, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, who fortunately wasn’t in his room at the time.
1963 was such a year. Just a month after the KKK rally, Governor Wallace stood in the University of Alabama schoolhouse door attempting to keep the campus segregated. Four months after this bombing, another, larger bomb would go off in the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church in downtown Birmingham, killing four black children. Two months after that, President Kennedy would be assassinated in Dallas. I was only seven then, but I was very aware of the President’s assassination and funeral; however, I have no distinct memory of the day those four little girls were killed at all.
Nor do I remember that in my hometown of Bessemer on an almost summer night, 2500 people gathered for a Klan rally.
But maybe 2500 people didn’t attend the rally, as Leamer said. For according to a reporter at the scene writing for the New York Herald Tribune, there were about “200 hooded and gowned men on hand, and about 900 to 1000 spectators in street dress” (Portis, KLAN MEETING DULL, IN SPITE OF CROSSES, The Birmingham News, May 13, 1963, 25). The reporter would go on to write other articles about the Civil Rights actions in Birmingham and throughout the South. He would later write a few novels, the most famous of them, True Grit. However, Charles Portis’s story on the Bessemer Klan rally was a curious one.
The headline, proclaiming the rally “DULL,” was funny enough. Portis elaborated in the opening paragraph:
A Ku Klux Klan meeting, for all its cross-burning and hooded panoply, is a much duller affair than one might expect. The hooded Klan rally here Saturday night—just before the bombings in Birmingham—limped along for three hours of nothing but Kennedy jokes and invocations of divine guidance (25).
The rest of the story drips with sarcasm and Portis’s brand of semi-sarcastic, down-home Southern yarn-telling charm. He speaks of the “honored guests... the grand dragons of Georgia and Mississippi,” and ends the account with this almost whimsical detail:
By 10:30 p.m. one of the crosses had collapsed and the other was just smoldering. Everyone drifted away and the grand dragon of Mississippi disappeared grandly into the Southern night, his car engine hitting on about three cylinders (25).
Reading Portis’s story caused me to want to see who else had accounted for this rally. So I hauled down Diane McWhorter’s Carry Me Home from my top study shelf. In research taken from FBI and secret informant files, she goes into greater detail, including the barbecue and beer at this, “the first Klan rally in North Alabama in some eight months,” as well as the speeches from Shelton and others. And then she suggests that the menacing words of “bluegum niggers,” and blessings on Wallace and Birmingham Police Commissioner Bull Connor, reached several thousand pairs of ears that night (McWhorter, Carry Me Home 425-6).
Of course, nothing much was whimsical, but everything was pretty vile on this night in my hometown, whether the crowd was 4000, 2500 or just over 1200. Perhaps worse, on the same Monday that Portis’s story was published, The New York Times folded the Bessemer KKK rally into the larger story of the Gaston Motel bombing and its aftermath. The Times headline, though, is curious: “50 Hurt in Negro Rioting After Birmingham Blasts” (Sitton, May 13, 1963).
Curious because back then it was the rioting, not the bombing, that the powers-that-be considered more pernicious.
I don’t want to debate journalistic bias, however. What truly intrigues me about these stories is their stated location of the KKK rally in Bessemer. Portis claims that it was held “... in a well-kept little roadside park, a gift to the city of Bessemer from the Loyal Order of Moose. Moose Park, they call it” (25). The Times’ writer, Claude Sitton, however, reports that the rally occurred “... in Moose Lodge, on the city’s outskirts near suburban Bessemer [sic]” (Sitton). I’ve checked other documented sources, and “Moose Park” seems to be the consistent, designated site. McWhorter calls it Moose Park, too (McWhorter, Carry Me Home 425).
This is fine, except as a native of Bessemer, I have never heard of Moose Park, nor can I determine if Bessemer’s Moose Lodge existed or where it was.
I have asked not only local Bessemerites including my mother, but I have also checked with the Bessemer Public Library, the Birmingham Public Library, and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
No one knows where Moose Park is, or if it ever existed.
But if it didn’t exist, where were Charles Portis, Bobby Shelton, and the grand dragons of Mississippi and Georgia and Texas standing on that May night, fifty-four years ago? Were they in Bessemer, or on the outskirts? And if they were within the city limits, how close or far away were they from my family home?
Wherever it was, what in that park’s atmosphere carried through town? What did we all breathe in? What metastasized in our systems causing us to either hate or ignore our fellow men?
So far, no one that I know of except me seems bothered by this missing park.
I ask on the “Fond Memories of Bessemer” Facebook page if anyone remembers Moose Park, or Bessemer’s Moose Lodge. People keep telling me that I must mean the Elks, and I assure them that I know the difference:
“Everyone knows where the BPOE (Benevolent Protective Order of the Elks) club was located,” I say. “It shared a building with a children’s ballet studio where my first girlfriend Mary Jane and her sister Margaret Lou used to practice on Mondays and Thursdays. Right on 4th Avenue on the other side of Highway 150. But that wasn’t the Moose club.”
Another funny detail: McWhorter describes Bobby Shelton’s speech at the Klan rally as having “the tone of a Lions Club meeting” (426). Why didn’t she use the Moose for her reference?
People are quick to try to help. My childhood friend Freddy, whose father was a Shriner, but no Moose, sends me an article, but it’s only a truncated version of the Sitton article above.
An old girlfriend, Vicky Vincent, someone I didn’t treat as well as I should have back in high school, contacts the Bessemer Hall of History and another history source at Tannehill State Park. No luck.
“But I’m gonna keep trying, Buddy,” she tells me. “This is fun.”
If it ever did, Bessemer, I discover, no longer has a Moose Lodge, the closest order now being in nearby Midfield, chartered in 2010. I think of contacting that lodge, but the lead seems tenuous. I know that I need to go back to Bessemer, perhaps to look in old city directories in the library.
My friend Joe, Mary Jane’s older brother, thinks Moose Park might be situated in the MacNeil area of Bessemer, and he offers to drive me there the next time I visit:
“We can find it,” he says, and I feel reassured, though he doesn’t remember anything about such a place, so perhaps this is just another reason for us to drive somewhere, an activity we engaged in frequently back in the old summers when we needed to escape evening TV.
Now, I’m even doubting my sources. Was someone feeding McWhorter, Portis, Leamer, and Sitton a line about the loyal Moose? But then, in Gary May’s account of the Klan killing of Viola Liuzzo, The Informant, there it is again: the Bessemer KKK rally in Moose Park (May 339). What do all of these outsiders know that the rest of us who lived there don’t?
Perhaps they know more than just the same Bessemer Klan members’ names: Robert Creel, Eugene Thomas, and E. O. Eaton. May, at least, knows about events like Klansmen using chains and blackjacks wrapped in fishing line to beat black people at the 1962 carnival in downtown Bessemer celebrating Bessemer’s 75th anniversary, the Diamond Jubilee. Reportedly when a Bessemer policeman discovered the beating, he called one of the Klansman (who happened to be FBI informant Gary Thomas Rowe), a “dumb shit,” and told him to wait a minute. The officer then called another cop to take the Klansman to an area where six popcorn crates were being kept, each containing a multitude of “clubs, bats, guns,” where the officer encouraged the Klansmen to store their weapons until needed:
“When the signal comes down,” the officer advised, “you can take [the weapon] out of the popcorn box and do whatever you want to do,” (May 61-2).
No one I talk to remembers this act of violence. They do remember that for the jubilee itself, our fathers grew beards and wore tasseled bow ties as throwbacks to Bessemer’s founding age. I think I remember this carnival. The intersections of 2nd and 3rd Avenues at 19th Street were closed off. There were rides, maybe even a Ferris wheel. Joe remembers sawdust strewn on the streets, and I believe I saw this spectacle. But did I? Did my family take a chance during these troubled times of letting us have fun on our still segregated but increasingly dangerous city streets? I was only six then, and so whatever violence they learned of, I’m sure my parents kept it from me.
Also mentioned in May’s book are Klan hangouts in our town: Lorene’s Café and the Barn. I’m troubled by all these scenes, locations, stories, because until now, I have known little-to-nothing about them.
Until now, I have allowed my past to be sanitized by those who loved and protected me, and for too long I have participated in the sanitizing.
Now I want to know: where are these places, and where did the Klansmen live? How close were they to my family and to other people I knew? To what degree did they infiltrate my life? Will discovering these sites bring my world into focus? Will it allow me to quit apologizing, quit denying, and own my past?
Two men, former Bessemerites who are now prominent lawyers, read my first book, a collection of essays on growing up in Bessemer, and then contact me as I am researching this story. The first, Al Pearson, tells me a few of his Klan memories:
“One night I was heading to Birmingham with my girlfriend to go to a movie. Cars were stopped and a huge cross was being burned. KKK members were looking into cars. They let us pass but the scene was intimidating. It was on the Super Highway, just about where the old Wigwam hotel was.”
Pearson also remembers that after the Liuzzo murder, the Klansmen who killed her returned to Bessemer, and on the street the next week, people were stopping the “Thomas guy” (Eugene Thomas) and “congratulating him on a job well done.”
Al tells me he’ll look into the Moose Park business and get back to me.
I also hear from Joel Dillard, a Birmingham attorney who practices in the same firm as former Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley, the first prosecutor in Alabama to successfully obtain a guilty verdict on a Klansman—one of the vicious men who bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing those four little girls back in 1963. Though also a Bessemer native, he’s never heard of Moose Park. I hope to meet Joel soon to find out more of what he does remember about our town.
When I report all of this to my mother, who is still my main fountain of Bessemer lore, she tells me that, according to a good friend, the Klan used to meet regularly on the second floor of the EL Huey furniture store on 3rd Avenue. That building is still there, and as I relay this information to others, they think it’s likely true, given Mrs. Huey’s racist attitudes. I never knew the Hueys, nor did we patronize their store. When I see the old Huey building on 3rd Avenue today, I notice it’s for sale. I wonder if the seller knows about the rumors of its history, and if so, if he’ll keep that information under wraps until and even after a deal goes through.
There are other wonders on Bessemer’s 2nd Avenue. From the 1920’s through the 60’s, Jewish businesses thrived. In fact, near where Klansman/FBI informant Gary Thomas Rowe beat a black man at the Diamond Jubilee carnival sits the shell of I. Rosen’s, once a prominent men’s store. My mother remembers how the iconic “Red Goose” for Red Goose shoes stood in the front window. Still today, but given Bessemer’s rotting downtown core who knows for how long, you can see the marble-embedded I. Rosen letters on the front entranceway. What must Mr. Rosen, his family, and the other Jews of Bessemer have thought living in such violent Klan territory? Also on this block were Sokol’s, Pizitz, Picard’s, and Loveman’s, all Jewish-owned businesses.
It was in Pizitz, in fact, that I first encountered the truth and fear of segregation.
I was downtown that day with my friend Carl and his family. I couldn’t have been older than three or four, because, it seems to me now, I must not have been able to read yet. We were on the second floor near the elevator, and on either side of this elevator were water fountains, the kind attached to the walls, with silver levers that you turned to drink. I was at least big enough to tiptoe to the fountain, sure of my ability to reach the spigot. So sure, that while Carl drank from the fountain on the right, I never thought for a moment of waiting on him to finish. There was, after all, a perfectly fine and free fountain to the left. I can’t remember now whether I got any amount of water through my lips, but let’s say I did before this happened:
A yank on my shoulder. Carl’s mother’s face glaring at me in fear, horror, or maybe it was plain, unadulterated adult disgust.
“That’s not your fountain, Buddy. Can’t you see? That word right above you? It says ‘colored.’”
And sure enough, Carl’s fountain proclaimed, “white.”
I know I wasn’t the only one to run afoul of these codes. I know that my crime and shame were very minimal compared to what so may others endured.
I am no victim.
I also know that across the street from Pizitz was McClellan’s, a five and dime store, which actually had two entrances. The main one on the 2nd Avenue side introduced shoppers to candies and sundries, and to a long soda/lunch counter where multi-colored balloons hung overhead. If you wanted a banana split, you could ask your server to pop a balloon, and then you’d pay what the little slip of paper that floated down from on high said. Maybe full price—35 cents—or maybe only a penny.
McClellan’s was L-shaped, and so as you made the elbow-bend, you’d see more goods and another lunch counter which you could also access from the 19th Street entrance. I don’t remember if this lunch counter had colored balloons above it, but of course I remember that sitting on its stools it had only colored patrons. This would have been true, of course, during the days of Bessemer’s 75th celebration of itself.
Those carnival days.
Two years ago, my mother, my wife, and I walked into the former Pizitz building, which is now United Textiles. We wanted material for curtains as we had remodeled our living room, and my mother suggested this place as it had quality goods for less. We did find some very nice fabric, and I know I helped the search. But before I could join the shopping, I had to stand at the elevator again. It still functions, but gone are the water fountains on the sides. It’s odd to stand there seeing my past, and if I didn’t trust my memory so completely, I might wonder at the reality of modern times when we accepted a world in which hatred and fear dominated us all as we tried to go about our business in the downtowns of our lives.
Last week, in the course of a casual conversation about Alabama’s latest disgraced governor, Robert Bentley, my friend Joe and I were remembering the segregation of our boyhoods:
“Here’s something I never told you,” he says, and I grow so alert that I think my wife in our bedroom can hear my adrenaline. “My grandmother and I were in Birmingham one day shopping. We were driving in her black Cadillac—you know she could barely see over the steering wheel—and up ahead, we were detoured from our street. ‘What’s going on,’ I asked. ‘Nothing,’ she said. ‘I’ll talk to you about it later.’” He pauses a moment.
“What I saw was Bull Connor’s police turning fire hoses on those children.”
“Shit,” I say, for what else is there?
I didn’t see that kind of trouble; my parents quit taking me to Birmingham for a while during those months, and we also stopped going to “Kiddie Land,” where black citizens picketed the park’s segregated policies.
Another site comes back to me, though. Like most southerners, my family craved good barbecue, and back then, it seemed that that were real pit barbecue joints on every street corner of Birmingham and Bessemer. Among our frequent go-to places was Ollie’s on Birmingham’s south side. They sliced their pork and used a vinegar sauce unlike any other barbecue spot in town. What I remember most about Ollie’s, however, was the sign outside: a globe of our world, North and South America featured, with the neon legend “World’s Best Barbecue” emblazoned on it. Like the Ferris wheel at “Kiddie Land,” I see Ollie’s globe in my adult dreams.
Of course when I first remember Ollie’s, it was segregated. Black people could come to the counter and order, but they couldn’t eat-in. Most of the cooks and servers were black; many had been working at Ollie’s for thirty or forty years. In 1964, the US Congress banned segregation in public restaurants, and Ollie’s sued. Ollie’s last name was McClung, and the case became a landmark in the Civil Rights era and in American constitutional law (McClung and Heart of Atlanta Motel vs. the United States). After the McClungs lost their case, on the very next day, civil rights workers entered the restaurant, and McClung told his staff to “serve them like everybody else.” McClung had argued his right as a local business to serve whom he wanted and how he wanted. But when he lost, he complied peacefully, if not a bit begrudgingly (https://news.wbhm.org/feature/2014/ollies-barbecue-the-case-that-integrated-restaurants).
I ate at Ollie’s often, and even after it moved to another south side location, I continued eating there, the last time somewhere in the 1990’s. I spoke to Ollie McClung Jr. that day and asked him about the events that made Ollie’s nationally famous. He spoke quietly, politely, but since it was a busy lunchtime, he seemed more harried than anything else. I didn’t ask him how he felt about black people now, about the state of civil and equal rights in the South. He explained again why he and his father brought the suit, that they felt they were right. Ollie’s still employed a mainly black staff, and as I looked around the jam-packed seating area, all of us, black and white, were enjoying our hickory-smoked pork.
Ollie’s closed in 2001, and McClung sold his sauce recipe. You can still buy it by the bottle in area groceries, but I can tell you that aside from the globe-legend on the label, it isn’t the same.
Of course most things change, but as Human Rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson reports in his memoir of practicing in Alabama, Just Mercy, there is a constant in this racial drama: the fear of racial intermarriage—Baltimore killer James Harris Jackson’s motivating fear—which is the real reason for the legacy and persistence of segregation, white animosity toward blacks, lynching, and all that goes with these torturous acts and beliefs.
What didn’t change, however, until the 21st Century, was an Alabama statute banning interracial marriage:
In 2000, reformers finally had enough votes to get the issue on the
statewide ballot, where a majority of voters chose to eliminate the ban,
although 41 percent voted to keep it. [Moreover, a] 2011 poll of Mississippi
Republicans found that 46 percent support a legal ban on interracial marriage, 40 oppose such a ban, and 14 percent are undecided’ (Stevenson 29).
Knowing such facts, I keep wondering what the support for reinstituting separate water fountains would be? If I feel so scarred by being pulled away from legitimately pure water, what must someone who lived an entire life under such hateful policies feel when he or she remembers Bessemer, our hometown? Just as we have no choice in our parents and the home where we are raised, we have no choice in the town of our birth either.
A few hours after I write these words, I listen to the last episode of This American Life and Serial’s new podcast, S Town. Writer Brian Reed travels to Bibb County, Alabama, the town of Woodstock specifically, just a half-hour or so from Bessemer. There he interviews and gets to know John B. McLemore who called TAL originally, suggesting that they might be interested in this place he calls “Shit Town.” John has lived in Woodstock all his life, and I won’t go into the details here (I’ve already spoiled an episode or two for friends by doing so), but Reed’s commentary toward the end of this last episode haunts me.
Reed tells us about John’s struggle with racism, a by-product of his living in this area. In the 1950’s the KKK posted a sign at the county line claiming that “The Klan people of Bibb County Welcome You.” Reed learns that Bibb County was the last county in Alabama to comply with the court order to desegregate its schools. That was in 1967, a year after Bessemer did so, and thirteen years after Brown vs. Board of Education. During the heyday of Governor George Wallace, citizens of Bibb County regularly voted four-to-one to keep the former Battlin’ Judge in Montgomery. And the town of Woodstock itself is still 95% white, a product Reed attributes to decades of “laws, violence, and day-to-day racism.”
I can attest that Bibb County is... quite rural. It sits between Bessemer (Jefferson County) and Tuscaloosa (Tuscaloosa County), which is home to the University of Alabama, the seat of winning football teams and the school where Wallace stood in the admissions door back on June 11, 1963. Perhaps Bibb County welcomed the exodus of white people who fled Bessemer back in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. In any event, I wonder, as I listen to Reed’s near final words about John B. McLemore, how true they might be of me:
“So much of the stuff John said he hated about Shit Town—Harley’s,
tattoos, misogyny, homophobia, and racism—he said he despised it, but that
stuff was part of him, too.”
I know that if I don’t look closely and fully at the scenes of my own Shit Town, I won’t be doing justice to anyone, including myself. I won’t be able to see, finally, that this history of my home is real. To make it so, I must see where the seemingly forgotten moments of Bessemer’s shaded history occurred. I must go back and search.
So I do, and this is what I find.
Joe and I are crawling along the backstreets of north Bessemer, looking for “Short 14th Street.” I enlisted Joe’s aid because he knows every street in town, in the next few towns over, in our county—Jefferson—and the surrounding counties of Shelby, Tuscaloosa, and Bibb.
We’re cruising in his relatively new black Mercedes, not exactly the unobtrusive conveyance one might want to use when stalking the houses of former Klansmen. But it’s what we have.
We pass “Long 14th Street,” and I can’t believe I never knew that Bessemer’s city officials were so OCD as to name streets in this manner and to be utterly correct in their reasoning. I can’t see the end of Long 14th, but as we come to the next street over, Short 14th, I see that it is maybe six blocks long. The two streets are entirely separate. We make a left, looking for the street number I found that morning in a 1960 City Directory housed in Bessemer’s Hall of History.
“I think we have a problem,” Joe says.
I see what he means. The numbers are running against us, or rather, against I-59 just ahead of us.
“Yep,” Joe adds, “the house you’re looking for has been eaten up by the interstate.”
“What are the odds,” I ask. And then I think, “What the hell, I’ll just take a picture of the street and the spot where Robert Creel, former Grand Dragon of the Alabama KKK, used to live. There’s a strange justice in this.”
Joe, though, doesn’t give up.
“Never leave an uncertainty,” he says as he swings the Mercedes back around. We make three turns going around and under the interstate, and sure enough, Short 14th appears again, the final block of its street life. The second house from the corner on the right is Creel’s house, 1511 N. Short 14th. Joe pulls close and I take several shots with my I-phone. I see no one around. The house looks occupied, and I know if it is, the residents—not so strangely, given Bessemer’s recent geography and history—are black.
‘Thanks man,” I say, unsurprised at my friend’s persistence.
“You gotta always try,” he smiles.
Yes, I think, especially when you’re searching for men who ordered or at least set into motion the brutal slayings, fire-bombings, and overall acts of terror against an entire race of US citizens. Wouldn’t you want to see where such evil dwelled? Wouldn’t you want concrete realities as opposed to second-hand abstractions?
This discovery is one of several on this day, all revealed by my hour at the Hall of History earlier that morning.
When I walk in the Hall’s front door, the able curator, Chris, asks if he can help me.
“Well, yes. I’m looking for information on Moose Park.”
“You’re about the seventh person to ask in the last two weeks,” he says, shaking his head.
“Yeah, I know. I’m the one who got everybody started.”
He smiles, “We’ve looked and looked but haven’t really found anything yet.”
The “really” in that sentence is more than a qualifier. It leads us to a backroom where Chris introduces me to one of the Hall’s executive staffers, William Eiland. I went to junior high with William’s brother Don, so we establish our connection.
“Yep, it’s all set us to wondering, and we’ve looked through all our records and old directories, but we can’t find any evidence or mention of a Moose Park or a Moose Lodge for that matter.”
I think, “At least they have the directories here so I can look up other addresses: Creel, Eugene Thomas, Lorene’s Café.” William isn’t finished, though.
“But I had an uncle who I know was a Moose. I remember that he and the lodge sponsored his daughter, my cousin Beth, in Bessemer’s Christmas pageant back in the late 60’s. The competition to crown the Christmas Queen. So I know there was a Moose Lodge.”
He’s right about that. Later I will discover in a copy of From the Rough: The Bessemer Story—the historical program published for Bessemer’s 1962 Diamond Jubilee—under a list of “Our Fraternal Organizations,” the “Loyal Order of Moose #509.” It’s strange, however, that I don’t find an address for the lodge anywhere in the city directories, and I search from the early 1950’s to the mid 1960’s. Nor does Moose Park appear in these directories. Did the Moose not have a lodge, a clubhouse, or a hall? Did they roam the Bessemer hills? Or were they in disguise?
Other friends had vaguely remembered the Moose existing in Bessemer, but they hadn’t offered any proof. Actually, William hadn’t either, but he wasn’t finished.
“Yep, I’ve checked into it, and I believe I know where Moose Park was. Out there on the Bessemer Super Highway, across from the old Holiday Drugs, there was a big open field, and in back of that field was a lake. I hear people used to go on picnics there. Later, next to the field, they built a car lot that changed owners a few times. But the field was big enough to be a park, and with that lake... ”
He trails off here, but—and the best way I can describe this is to say what I’m about to say—my “Spidey-Sense” begins tingling. This is near, or maybe is, the area Al Pearson described when he remembered the KKK filling the highway and stopping traffic: the area near the WigWam motel where off to the side, maybe in exactly the spot of that open field, the Klan burned that enormous cross.
“There was a building back there,” William continues, and Chris, who has rejoined us, confirms this piece: “It was like a silver metal barn,” he adds. “And up there, too, was a café called the Blue Creek Restaurant.”
“I really think this was the place that was Moose Park,” William says. “I really do.”
If so, then it was also the place of that Klan rally in 1963, the place that no one remembers but which hosted the rally Charles Portis described as “dull.” We check the city directories again. The street listings run out at 33rd, well before the stretch of highway Eiland has mentioned.
One more bit of unconfirmed information. In The Informant, May refers to a nightclub called “The Barn,” a place Bessemer Klansmen targeted because black musicians there were supposedly dancing with the white waitresses” (58-9). A new study of race in Bessemer, He Calls Me By Lightning, also mentions The Barn, which, in the 1940’s, Bessemer police “ignored,” allowing whatever vice taking place there to continue “unabated” (Bass 55). I did find The Barn listed in the City Directory, but the only address for it was “Bessemer Super Highway.” The Klan didn’t bomb The Barn, though they planned to, but did they later take it over? Was The Barn that “silver metal” structure? Could it have become Moose Lodge? Maybe that’s unlikely, yet no one at the Hall of History or anywhere else remembers The Barn either. I feel like I’m in an episode of The X-Files.
For at some point, don’t all invisible place references converge as one?
Weeks later, my son-in-law Taylor, a lawyer who, like me, relishes the chance for historical research, finds this tantalizing story about a late 1950’s-60’s Bessemer area proto-garage band:
In the late 50’s, Dale Karrah gave Fairfield High School friend Howard Tennyson a bass guitar and said’ “Here! Learn to play this!” Bringing in another friend, Bo Reynolds, this led to the start of a band called the Satellites – named so for the current news-headlined launch of the Russian spaceship called Sputnik. The band consisted of Dale, Howard, Bo, and a drummer Skeet. Skeet bought a new set of drums made by Premier Drums, and since the name Premier showed on the side of the drum visible to the audience, they thought it would be neat to change the band’s name to “The Premiers”. Their first gig was on stage at Fairfield High School. They also played the Hickory Pit and the Madison Night Spot on the Bessemer Super Highway... The Premiers were truly a ‘garage’ band – practicing in Pat’s garage on 41st Street in Fairfield. Bo would bring his records, and they would listen to a song over and over and practice learning it until they got just the sound they wanted. Pat bought an old piano and cut it down so he could carry it to jobs where there was no piano. They used it only a few times as it still weighed over 300 pounds. Pat remembers the gig at the Bessemer Moose Lodge located UPSTAIRS in an old barn on the Bessemer Super Highway. It took all of them to get that piano up the stairs that night, but it ended up being a great night as they played for over 4 hours and earned $5.00 each. They had so much fun while getting paid for it. (The Birmingham Record)
Word places like “Barn” and “Super Highway” start popping up more often now. Was the Moose Lodge exactly where William thinks it is? Were it and Moose Park next to each other?
Back at the Hall of History, I ask William about another KKK hangout, Lorene’s Café, 2200 8th Avenue.
“But that’s in a black section of town,” he says.
Yes and no. For in the Bessemer of those days, while segregation in public spaces was strictly enforced, the invisible lines drawn to designate streets of residence and even streets of business were never so indelibly or permanently etched. Lorene’s, for instance, was near the Rolling Mill plant and Bessemer Foundry and Machine Company, and only three-to-four blocks from Mulkin Auto Parts, an establishment owned by the father and grandfather of one of my oldest childhood friends.
“Yes, but I’ve read that the Klan hung out at Lorene’s,” I tell William. “Can you imagine anyone in those days challenging where they went?”
Café owner Lorene J. Frederick is mentioned prominently in The Informant as one of the witnesses the prosecution called, attempting to link the time when Thomas and the others who killed Viola Liuzzo showed up in her café on their way back from Selma to Bessemer that fateful evening. Frederick couldn’t pinpoint the time they arrived at or left her café, however. Or so she claimed under oath (213).
Joe and I drive over to 2200 8th Avenue. People still live around there, and the street abuts the former mill. I hop out of the car to photograph what had been Lorene’s, and Joe chastises me for leaving the door open while the air conditioner is running. We truly experience first-world troubles.
Where Lorene’s was—and God knows the planning, the debriefing, and the drinking that went on there—is now only a vacant lot, overgrown by the ubiquitous Johnson grass that is found in every Bessemer neighborhood. I wonder when and under what circumstances this infamous hangout closed and was torn down.
Enough wondering. It’s time to find Moose Park, or at least time to believe it can be found. Joe and I pull up on the right shoulder of the Bessemer Super Highway, near the spot Eiland described. The former Holiday Drugs landmark across the highway is now Holiday Food Store, a disheveled convenience store, but I remember it from those old days, just as I remember that further up on the left were Kelly’s Hamburgers, Paul’s Park N Eat, and the Bama Drive-In. The site where we stop is vacant, the land extending back as far as I can see. Maybe there is still a lake back there beyond the weeds and grassy bluffs. I can’t tell where a silver barn or any other structure used to be, but there is plenty of room for buildings and crosses.
I’m not sure what I feel, but I’m as sure as I can be, given what I know, that I’m standing in Moose and Klan territory. I look around, 360 degrees. It’s a late April Saturday afternoon. Grayish clouds are forming, and later on this night a cold front will bring both rain and a twenty-degree drop in temperature. I look northeast, toward Birmingham, and think back to that night in May, some fifty-four years ago.
On many Saturday evenings during the year, my parents would take the Super Highway, going out to eat at Joy Young’s Chinese Restaurant or Morrison’s Cafeteria in downtown Birmingham. Then they might head to the picture show, the Alabama, Ritz, Melba, or Empire, to see John Wayne, Audrey Hepburn, or Jimmy Stewart in whatever imaginary fare was being offered. On other Saturday nights, we might drive this same road as a family to the Super Sandwich Shoppe, two miles past where I’m standing now, which, according to both of my parents, had the best barbecue in the area.
There were enough of these Saturday night excursions for me to realize that like Al Pearson, at least some of my family, perhaps with me in the car, might have driven past the forming of a rally, the dousing of a cross with gasoline, later to be burned. My father, a Jewish man, could have been stopped, threatened. So much could have happened. To my memory anyway, nothing like this occurred. I never saw men dressed in white sheets, nor did I ever see a burning cross. My mother doesn’t remember seeing such either, and my father is dead.
Sometimes, though, he’d drive by himself to the Super Sandwich Shoppe for takeout. If he had seen these sights, would he have told my mother, and, if so, wouldn’t she remember now? Or would she want to?
On the other side of the highway, right there in front of the railroad trestle, were formerly the signs welcoming travelers to Bessemer—signs sponsored by the Lions, Kiwanis, Rotarians, the Knights of Pythias, and Elks. And, reportedly, by the United Klans of America, and perhaps even by the Loyal Order of Moose. Though I take pictures, I don’t need them to remember.
“Did you get what you need,” Joe hollers from the car. “Did you take a shot across the highway?”
Yes and yes.
“What do you think,” I ask him.
“I think there was something here,” he says, though he explains neither the “was” nor the “something.”
Another something gets confirmed a few weeks later when I read Jonathan Bass’s He Calls Me By Lightning. At the beginning of chapter three, there is a photograph of the Bessemer Klan’s welcome sign. It’s clearly manufactured with a Klansman atop a white horse carrying a rebel flag. Below it, a handmade sign: “Welcome Bess. No. 20.” The caption and the acknowledgment for the photograph say the sign was erected in 1959 (Bass 28). So far, I haven’t confirmed when in 1959 the sign was actually erected, under whose initiation or authority it was built and placed. Nor have I discovered the date it was removed.
We have one more stop to make: the home of Gene Thomas, who replaced Creel as the “Exalted Cyclops” of the Bessemer Klavern (May 119), the man Bessemerites welcomed with open arms after he participated in the murder of Viola Liuzzo.
When I find Thomas’s address in the city directory, something that I dreamed/feared would happen actually did: his address was Fairfax Avenue, the street on which I grew up, where my mother’s family had lived since the 1910’s. The street number fools me at first; I think the Thomas house is to the west of ours in the “Jonesboro” section, still a white section. “Got it,” I think and feel pleased with my discovery.
A few minutes later, I deflate: “No, that street number is to the east, in the black section of Fairfax.” My family lived between 18th and 19th Streets, and beyond 19th, there was only one more block of Fairfax that, to my memory, housed white families during my youth. The directory, though, had noted that Gene Thomas worked at TCI—a division of US Steel—and this conformed to what I had read about him in The Informant. I tell my mother about my confusion, and she quickly affirms that, yes, white families actually did live that far down Fairfax. Joe agrees:
“Yeah, there were plenty of white families living down here back in the 60’s.”
I’m not sure how he knows, but his father was a realtor, and passed on to Joe knowledge of neighborhood divisions, of random facts about how Bessemer was laid out and zoned.
I feel better, and yes, I know that feeling better about confirming that a Klansman lived near my family is odd. Perhaps my joy is merely a by-product of successful historical research. I know, though, that this feeling—excitement, even joy—isn’t strong because I want Bessemer to have been a violent place, not because I want the town and neighborhood I grew up in to be known as a Klan den. Rather, it’s this strong because finding the evidence of where Klansmen lived, seeing how close I, my family, and many others I loved were to an active vehicle of race hatred and violence allows me to record in this moment that those other moments existed. Seeing what might have been Moose Park and, now these houses, allows me to write about them so that I and other Bessemer residents, other readers of this history, can see where we were in context and thus have the chance to face who we all were and weren’t, what we did and didn’t do, back in this time.
My research not only confirms all that I’ve read, it now enables me to see the living strains of history before my eyes; it allows me to enter the scene and see myself as a boy amidst friends and neighbors, not all of them racists and Klan sympathizers, but many who might have considered Thomas and his family good neighbors, good people.
Good because, perhaps only because, they were white people.
As a boy, I was told many things, some by my parents, some by others: to speak to a black kid only if I was spoken to first. That black neighborhoods weren’t safe. That only white people, and not black, could be trusted. That only black people and not white could be violent, would hurt me. That segregation was the proper course. So many times when I went outdoors, I was told to be careful. I didn’t know why exactly, and I never knew precisely that the fears put on me were largely based on race. But I did feel fear; I did feel white people’s hate. I did know that there were “race riots” in places not too far away from me.
I didn’t know, though, how close all of this was to me.
I know that anyone can be violent, can hate, and I know that some black people then committed violent crimes just like some white people were tolerant of integration.
What I’m saying is that my reality back then was distorted. I grew up being taught to trust one race and not the other when all around me there was evidence entirely to the contrary. There was no organized black violence against white people in the era of my boyhood, while white violence against black people, just like segregation, was entirely organized. I didn’t see this reality back then; I learned this lesson only years later. But I’m seeing differently now, and now, back in Bessemer, I’m seeing clearly. Concretely.
And everything I’m seeing helps me understand that when my family told me to be good and that all was well, the feeling that I had—that all really wasn’t well—wasn’t unfounded or wrong.
The Thomas home is on the south side of the street at the end of the block, 2625 Fairfax Avenue. When we get to the right house, it is now—and probably has been for decades—occupied by a black family. One of the occupants, a black woman of roughly thirty, is sitting on the front porch. Joe drives on by before I can decide to photograph the house.
“But I didn’t get a shot.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll circle back around.”
“I feel weird. I don’t want to stop and call so much attention to what we’re doing.”
“Well, you could get out and ask her if she minds you taking a picture of her house,” Joe says.
“Yeah, right, I can hear it now: ‘Hey, I’m riding around Bessemer taking pictures of old Klansmen’s houses, and guess what? You happen to be living in the grand prize of them all! Not only did a Klansman live here, but he was the Exalted Cyclops of the Bessemer Klavern and participated in the killing of Viola Liuzzo!’”
So Joe slows down to a crawl, and I stick my arm out of the window, snapping away without focusing and hoping that one shot will be what I need.
It’s hard to make an outsider understand what I feel when I see this house. It is within walking distance from my old house at 1816 Fairfax. I walked further than this distance many times growing up on my street. Because I thought this was a wholly black neighborhood, though, I never walked down here. I knew, I was instructed, that walking east on Fairfax was off limits to me, though I also saw black people walking past my house every day, past my section of this street. Sometimes they ran, too, especially when one of us sicced his dog after them. But if I had walked eight blocks east back then, I likely wouldn’t have seen anything stranger, or more threatening, than a white family living so near, even amidst, black families. Most likely, however, even if I had seen the house, I would have never known or considered this:
According to The Informant, when Thomas lived there, he had quite the gun collection: “... two pistols (a .38 and a .45), an automatic shotgun, three 303 Enfield rifles, a 30-30 Winchester rifle, two M-1 rifles, a Browning automatic rifle, a German automatic machine pistol, and hand grenades and blasting caps” (119). If that doesn’t attest to the truth of Thomas’s nature, this personal history casts an even darker light:
...Thomas had first been arrested in 1945 for public drunkenness. Two years later he was charged with assault and battery, but the case never went to trial, probably because it was a domestic dispute—Thomas liked to beat his wife. He was again charged with the same crime in 1949, 1950, 1956, and 1963, with the added charge of carrying a concealed weapon (164).
He apparently threw the guns used to kill Liuzzo into the blast furnaces of the TCI plant that employed him (164). His ex-wife testified against him in 1983, saying that not only was he responsible for the Liuzzo killing but that he scared her and beat her regularly, though by this point Thomas claimed to have found Jesus (352-3).
Two blocks away from the old Thomas home, our family maid, Dissie, and her family lived. We drove Dissie home every day, and as Joe and I leave this section of town, I think about Dissie and whether or not she was aware of what lived so near her. But back then, I guess, violence was all around, and only my innocence and white privilege kept me from it.
A Klansman living in a sea of black neighbors. I couldn’t have dreamed or invented such a scene.
Nor can I invent this one: as we drive away, we see a 30-ish black man walking toward us. His t-shirt is purple and gold, and as we pass I see that it says “Straight Out of Old Jonesboro.”
“Hey,” I say to Joe, “let’s go back and ask that guy where he got his shirt. I think it’s cool.”
“Okay,” Joe says, “but when we do, be ready in case I have to take off fast.”
The sun has temporarily broken out on this early Saturday afternoon. The Alabama Crimson Tide is staging its spring game forty-five miles to our southwest, and I can’t see a reason in this world why two grown white men in a black Mercedes can’t talk to a black man on the roadside for a minute about his t-shirt without something so bad occurring that we’ll need to peel away. But I don’t say anything and let Joe pull alongside the guy.
“Hey man,” I say, “I love your shirt. Where did you get it?”
He looks at us like this can’t be all we want, can’t be the reason we’ve stopped him.
He points kind of behind him:
“Aw man, it was just a party back over there somewhere, and they were givin’ out these shirts. You know, just a neighborhood barbecue thing.”
“You don’t know where I can get one,” I say.
“Naw, naw I don’t.”
We thank him and drive on. It’s only later that I consider what he must have seen when we appeared.
“Old Jonesboro is the first part of Bessemer that was settled,” Joe says. “I’ll show you where.”
He drives us to a section of town near the old West Lake Mall, an empty shell now on a site that used to be a gorgeous lake where dances, whites only, were held at its pavilion and where my grandmother taught me to fish.
Almost from its beginning, Old Jonesboro was a black section of town. I never knew its history or that it existed at all. I knew only of white Jonesboro—originally known as Fort Jonesboro and according to From the Rough: The Bessemer Story, the original “center of the new town” founder Henry Debardeleben envisioned—but that is just another case of my color-coded ignorance.
Old Jonesboro is now a few rundown houses, maybe two city blocks from that mall/lake, and roughly eight blocks from where Robert Creel, the Grand Dragon of the Alabama Klan, lived.
Even in the week since I’ve returned from Bessemer, when I bring up Moose Park people still ask if I can prove where it was, if it really existed at all. If you Google Moose Park, Bessemer, what pops up first is Debardeleben Park, Bessemer, which is a park in the inner city that is exactly one square block in size and named for Bessemer’s founder. This threw me off for a while because I thought that Moose Park might be just another name for DeBardeleben, but no one ever knew it as such, and given the august proper name, why would they? Bessemer’s other famous park, Roosevelt, doesn’t come up on this Google search except at the bottom in “searches related to Moose Park.” To fit the numbers of the Klan rally into Debardeleben Park would be nearly impossible, though such a crowd would have fitted Roosevelt, which is three-four times as large as Debardeleben. But Roosevelt was so central to Bessemer and so centrally located between white and black neighborhoods—it was the site of little league and Babe Ruth league baseball games as well as having the city’s white junior high located at its western end—that if it were also the site of a Klan rally, enough people would have remembered. And given all the activity there (though officially Roosevelt Park was still segregated in 1963), some memorable friction or racial trouble likely would have occurred on that hot May night.
Something not likely to happen at a semi-unknown park somewhere on the edge of town.
Furthermore, the names of both of these more famous parks have been consistent all my life; no one ever mentioned an alternative name, much less one as noticeable as Moose. So I don’t know what Google is up to.
Then I wonder: if what I found is Moose Park—scene of Klan activities and other, simpler pleasures—what happened to it? Why was it discarded, abandoned, almost literally thrown away and left to ruin or to revert to its natural state? Could it be because after the Bessemer Klansmen were finally brought to justice—not for murder but for violating Viola Liuzzo’s civil rights—their infamous park lost its cache?
Sometimes in conducting amateur research, you forget the obvious. Almost at the end of my search, I think to call the Bessemer City Hall—the Clerk’s office. I tell the clerk, Ann Benson, what I’m looking for—though not why—and she calls me back later with this information:
“The location of the Moose Lodge is 19th Street. That’s all I could find, and I hope it helps you.”
“There’s no specific address?”
“No, just 19th Street.”
This contradicts the article Taylor found on the garage band playing on the upper floor of a barn called Moose Lodge on the Super Highway, a road also referred to as US Highway 11. The day after I get this information from Ms. Benson, Taylor sends me the transcript of a radio program on Birmingham’s Civil Rights era, produced by Pacifica Radio. The program, entitled “Freedom Now,” features the voices of prominent figures of this era—figures on either side of the Civil Rights battle like James Bevel, Charles Morgan, Fred Shuttlesworth, former Birmingham mayor Art Hanes, and infamous former police commissioner, Bull Conner. In this section of the broadcast, Bevel, an ally of Dr. King, reads from a Klan broadside:
ANNOUNCER: Saturday afternoon at a youth rally held in the 16th Street Baptist Church, to begin the next item on the movement's agenda, the voter registration drive, the Rev. James Bevel read aloud a circular, widely publicized, that morning, and broadcast once over a local radio station. BEVEL (Reading.): The United Klans of America, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the Knights incorporated presents a public speaking, "White Citizens, Know Your Rights." The city of Birmingham, and the entire United States of America, which was created by your ancestors for your personal benefit is under attack. It is under attack by Jews and Negro Communist citizens! Two low races of mankind, the Jew and Negro, are trying and succeeding in their efforts to take over the country that your ancestors fought and died for. The Jew leaders have said, "We shall destroy . . . whether Americans like it or not." The Knights of the Ku Klux Klan rally will assemble on the grounds of the Moose Lodge at seven-thirty, Saturday evening. The Moose Lodge is located on the Bessemer Highway, Route 11. The date is May 11, 1963. There will be parking for automobiles. Mongrelizers, beware! The Klan is riding again. (http://www.crmvet.org/info/bham63.htm
Perhaps the other historians I’ve read—Portis, Sitton, McWhorter—had a copy of this Klan circular, too. Perhaps this is the way into Moose Park, the most direct entrance I’ll find.
I hear from other sources that I’m onto something. A friend of a friend says that Moose Park was on the Super Highway, just across the street from Holiday Beverage/convenience store. Another text, Townsend Davis’s Weary Feet, Rested Soul, mentions the May 11 Klan rally and “two twenty-five foot burning crosses” overlooking the proceedings held in “Moose Park in nearby Bessemer” (65). Is this corroboration or merely hearsay, a park or tract of land near a lake next to a Moose Lodgehall that for want of any other name gets called Moose Park and so becomes an unknown legend?
On some level, maybe it doesn’t matter whether I have found the real Moose Park or not so long as no one disputes what happened there on that night in 1963 and on the other nights in the Civil Rights era. Of course, there are some who have always disputed this era, its reasons for being, its events and results, and the changes in our institutions and social fabric that it wrought. No proof can shake, much less change, the minds of those who believe that the races must be kept separate, that we can’t live next to each other, with each other, and get along.
Or that one race is inferior to another—less than human. Indeed, segregation and Jim Crow laws were a way of ensuring that the Black race felt and was kept inferior.
As I consider where we lived then and what that might have meant, I think again of Dissie. What did she think when Klansmen beat black men at Bessemer’s Diamond Jubilee carnival downtown, in open, plain sight, without anyone being stopped or arrested? Or when they drove so close to her house on their way home after an evening of drinking and plotting at Lorene’s Café?
Of course, I could ask the same questions about my own parents. When those KKK members drove Eugene Thomas home on the night they murdered Viola Liuzzo and then hung out at Lorene’s trying to establish a viable alibi, their most likely route would be up 19th Street, the main artery through downtown. They’d pass the church and elementary school I attended, and as they drove south, they’d also pass the mom and pop stores where I’d buy baseball cards and lemon ice cream. Then at Fairfax Avenue, they’d turn left toward the Thomas house. But if they had turned right, just three houses down on the right, they would have found me, sleeping in my own bed, dreaming or never dreaming about that other world so far away and yet so close.
Dreaming, though, gets you only so close to this world. I want to prove these truths of Moose Park because history is too important to guess at. At Presbyterian College, I also teach a course in Holocaust Literature, and I know that even when written down and verified, not all history is believed. Also, I worry that by focusing on a place that no one knows about, much less remembers—a place I can’t prove ever existed, yet a place that is mentioned over and over by legitimate historians—I will be adding to the doubts and questions some have, or will have, about everything related to this time.
Despite my qualms, though, I have to know the details of what those in power did to intimidate others, how they condoned and advocated violence against others. Against Black people. I want Bessemer and its residents to acknowledge that we white citizens allowed such intimidation and violence to happen. That even if we didn’t do the violence ourselves, we abetted it or abided it, because for all the years subsequent to this violence, too many of us either pretended it didn’t happen, wasn’t so bad, or did our best to put it behind us. In many cases, we left Bessemer itself. The scenes of our hatred were there and they were real. We shouldn’t remember or tell these stories to provide catharsis, exoneration, or relief, but to proclaim the truth, the history of Bessemer, of ourselves.
I understand and accept that this history will give “us” doubts; that our faith in what “was”—the rights “we” had to go to separate but superior schools, clubs, and businesses—will be shaken.
Another clarity: I hear quite often that Bessemer’s school system through the mid-1960’s was one of the best in the state. Perhaps it was, and there is nothing so very wrong in believing that. There is more to the story, though. In From the Rough: The Bessemer Story, a section on the history of Bessemer’s schools, written by then Superintendent of the Bessemer School System James O. Knuckles, tells us about the straitened economic conditions of that era, 1958-1962:
State taxes have not been sufficient to pay Alabama’s public schools the amount appropriated by the Legislature. The Bessemer schools, as an example, have been deprived of approximately $290,000 which the Legislature had appropriated. And yet, during this same short period, the enrollment in Bessemer has increased from 7336 to 7982 (Knuckles, From the Rough).
The increase in student population should have been a godsend for Bessemer; a thriving city should want to welcome the abundance of schoolchildren, black and white.
Yet, that wasn’t the history of the Bessemer city fathers’ reaction.
Perhaps Bessemer’s citizenry didn’t have enough time to consider its abundance, though, since it was considering other measures: fiery crosses; how to evade and delay the mandates of district courts; how to follow a new and even more segregationist governor.
Or maybe Bessemer’s leading citizens, its white citizens, were living in the dream of Diamond Jubilees and racial purity. Consider the paragraph that follows Knuckles’ account of the Legislative shortfall:
In spite of the distressing financial plight, at the State level, the increase in enrollment, and the constantly increasing price of materials and services, the community can take pride in the achievements of an able and determined Board of Education, the Superintendent and a competent professional staff. Bessemer High School’s overcrowded condition has been relieved and the Bessemer Junior High School is well established as a full fledged junior high school. Carver High School has come on to the scene [Italics mine] as the second Negro high school in the City (Knuckles, From the Rough).
Knuckles also lists the entire Bessemer School System later in the essay, making sure to cite which schools are for “Whites” and which for “Negros.”
This was inscribed in 1962, eight years after Brown vs. Board of Education, and, again, the year of Bessemer’s Diamond Jubilee. Over the week of celebration, including the violent downtown carnival, a pageant committee staged an historical drama each night at Bessemer Stadium. I know that the committee producing the pageant was entirely white, and in From the Rough, there is a listing of all those who participated in the pageant. It’s a full page listing, and I’m guessing that 500 names are mentioned there. I’m also guessing—a reasonably assured guess—that every name corresponds to someone white, even though the majority population of Bessemer for much of its history was black.
Yet in another section of From the Rough, there is a history of Bessemer’s religious community, and included there are its Jewish and Catholic congregations. Bessemer had a synagogue and a Catholic church. Robert Creel, KKK Imperial Wizard, lived approximately six blocks from each.
Yes, there is more to Bessemer than just a black and white view. I know, though, that we shouldn’t overlook the obvious, the real, or the forgotten places just because times have changed and people have moved on. In truth, Bessemer was a good place to live for many; even now, it boasts the oldest continuous serving restaurant in the state, The Bright Star. It was good to me, too, in that I was privileged and comfortable enough to be protected, taught, fed, and sheltered. In twenty years, the city will celebrate its 150th birthday, and whichever jewel commemorates that jubilee, I wonder what rough story Bessemer will tell about itself then. In any event, unlike the views of that student who enters my mind’s office each January, I hope this story will give pause to anyone who believes or pretends that things in old Bessemer weren’t as bad as they were portrayed by the media. I hope the details of Bessemer’s history won’t get further obscured, distorted, or lost. For this isn’t only, or mainly, my story.
Moose Park is about all of us.
Postscript: According to Moose International, “The Bessemer Chapter was instituted on 11/19/1961 and closed on 12/31/1964. Unfortunately, Moose International went computerized during the 1980’s and all records prior to this timeframe are located on micro phish. Due to short staffing and the amount of time to review the micro phish information we are unable to provide location or reasons as to why the chapter closed. Typically, Chapter’s close due to lodge closures, chapter’s cannot obtain officers or lack of interest, etc.” They also clarified, that this record is only for the chapter, not any building or barn where the chapter regularly met.
The phone line to the Midfield/Fairfield office of the Loyal Moose Order is no longer in service. The leader of the Anniston chapter says he never heard of or knew that there was a Bessemer chapter, and he’s “... been the leader here for twenty years.”
Maybe so. Anniston is roughly sixty miles from Bessemer, and so much can happen
in the distance in between.
PPS: Strangely disputing the Moose International’s dates is this: From the June 23, 1961, issue of The Bessemer Advertiser—a weekly paper published since the late 1880’s—the Loyal Order of Moose, Bessemer Lodge #509, welcomed Judge George Wallace to its “recent grand opening.” Welcoming Wallace, who was campaigning for Alabama Governor, were “Governor (of the Lodge) Bill Thompson, Bro. LC Deen, past Governor of the Gadsden Lodge, JW Abernathy, special events chairman, and several officials of the Birmingham and Ensley Lodges. Mr. Abernathy announced that one of the projects of the Lodge is the Little League and Pony League Ball Field [presumably in Bessemer’s Roosevelt Park] which is almost completed and ready for ball games” [Information courtesy of Bessemer Hall of History. Gov. Thompson was Hall employee William Eiland’s uncle, mentioned earlier].