An Unexpected Gem: A Fire Museum!

On Saturdays in Allentown, NJ, the New Jersey Fire Museum and Fallen Firefighters Memorial opens to the public. It may sound a tad remote, but if you’re on the NJ Turnpike (unlucky you) approaching exit 7A, you’re only 4.5 miles away!

It’s a volunteer-run facility, and the time investment and thoughtfulness of the volunteers are evident at every turn. The museum building has an interesting collection of esoterica. You find out how fire alarm boxes work. You find out about “fire grenades” (glass bulbs filled with water or carbon tetrachloride thrown at the base of a presumably small fire. They were outlawed in 1954 not only because of hazardous broken glass, but because burning carbon tet produces phosgene, the deadliest WWI gas). You find out why US firefighters’ helmets have such an unusual shape: the long back brim keeps water from running down inside the firefighters’ collar, and the peaked front, often featuring an animal, can be used to break glass), and much more.

The photo above shows a hand-pumper purchased in 1822 by the Crosswicks (NJ) Fire Department for $100. Damaged at a fire, it was rebuilt in 1850 and still being used in 1922—giving the community more than 100 years of service! The horse-drawn fire wagon pictured below is from 1789, the year George Washington became President. (The flowers seem an unusual touch, though early luxury automobiles sometimes offered bud vases, as did the Volkswagen Beetle, with its blumenvasen.)

A barn adjacent to the museum houses a fantastic collection of mostly vintage fire trucks, mostly restored to dramatic beauty (see more here). Lots of red paint. Clearly a labor of love. Kids (adults too, I suppose) can sit in the driver’s seat. Also there’s a gift shop in the museum. If you’re in the market for a stuffed Dalmatian, you’re at the right place. Another reason kids will enjoy this museum? A roomful of fire trucks and related toys.

The memorial component is woven into mission of the organization. The website includes a list of fallen firefighters, noting nine whose Last Alarm was in 2021, 12 in 2020, and a list of 107 whose service dates back more than 200 years. An area is set aside to honor the 343 firefighters and paramedics killed on 9/11. The memorial itself will be on the Museum grounds, when it’s complete.

From One White House to Another

Herbert Hoover is one of only two US Presidents (John F. Kennedy was the other) who declined to accept pay for that job—a rather thankless one in Hoover’s case. His personal fortune and Quaker values made that choice possible. Was he heir to a life of wealth and privilege? Not at all. He was born in 1874 in the two-room Iowa cottage pictured and lived there with his parents and two siblings.

At age 9, Herb became an orphan, and family members took the children in, eventually sending him to an Uncle in Oregon. He traveled there by train, by himself, at age 11. The uncle was a lumberman, but also ran a Quaker school, which must have been a pretty good one, because, besides learning his uncle’s business, Herb was a member of the first class at the then-new Stanford University (now home of the Hoover Institution).

He studied geology, aiming toward a career as a mining engineer, met his to-be wife Lou (the first woman student in Stanford’s geology department), and eventually worked for a British mining company. Sent to Australia, he discovered a sizeable gold mine, which was the foundation of his personal fortune. He and Lou were living in China when the Boxer rebellion broke out, and she remembered sweeping the brass cartridge cases off the front porch every morning.

Hoover made his name in public service by helping Americans stranded in Europe at the start of World War I, then managing famine relief efforts in Europe after the war (and later after World War II). He relied on his own and others’ volunteerism, and a fundamental tenet of his personal philosophy was that, if you ask people to help, they will. Alas, this worked against him after he became President, just before the start of the Great Depression. Too many people were affected. His conviction that government’s role in relieving poverty should be minimal contributed greatly to his unpopularity, and for many years, the good things he accomplished were overlooked.

Hoover had a lifelong interest in the Boys’ Clubs of America, as Lou did with the Girl Scouts’ organization. I was surprised and glad to learn that there was more than I thought to his legacy; it’s a shame that a career of serving others is obscured by the dark shadow of the early 1930s and a financial catastrophe too big for him to manage.

On our recent Midwest trip, we visited West Branch, Iowa (just east of Iowa City), his boyhood home, where his Presidential Library and Museum are located, along with his birthplace cottage, gravesite, and other late-1800s buildings. Not on the beaten path, but well worth a visit.

Quad Cities Attractions

Everyone knows what the big US cities are all about. But the country’s mid-sized towns also offer possibilities for tourists and aren’t so overwhelming. And there’s parking. We recently visited the Quad Cities—Davenport and Bettendorf ,Iowa, and Rock Island and the Molines in northwest Illinois—population 468,000. Whoever thought of going there? My husband.

We stayed two nights at the restored Hotel Blackhawk in Davenport—a 1915 gem (lobby ceiling pictured), beautifully restored and now one of Marriott’s autograph collection hotels. The restaurants were fine, not fabulous, the martini bar was fun, and the guest rooms had many little touches to make a guest’s stay more enjoyable. They were the epitome of “it’s the little things that count.”

Because of the cities’ size, they’re easy to get around in, but you have to cross the Mississippi River to travel from one state to the other. We wanted to see the Rock Island Arsenal and associated attractions which are entered from the Illinois side (GPS saved us) via the Moline Gate, and you have to get a military ID card at the Visitors Control Center—they check your criminal record, BTW. I guess we were “OK.” It’s the largest government-owned weapons manufacturing arsenal in the country and a National Historic Landmark. Both a National Cemetery and Confederate cemetery are there.

We knew the Rock Island Arsenal had been a major manufacturer of US arms and armaments in both World Wars up until today, but we hadn’t realized it’s also the home base of the First Army, so lots of barracks and military housing, as well as beautiful old stone buildings.

A Mississippi River visitor center is on the island, and that was our first stop. It’s smallish, with enthusiastic staff. It’s also well positioned, overlooking two locks (Locks and Dam #15) that help boat traffic navigate the changing depths of the river. There are 29 lock and dam structures along the upper Mississippi that maintain a 9-foot navigation channel, allowing boats of all kinds to travel from St. Paul, Minn., to St. Louis, Mo.—around a 400-foot drop. Below St. Louis the incoming water from the Missouri, Ohio, Illinois, and Arkansas rivers widen and deepen the Mississippi, and the lock are no longer necessary.

Nearby is a still-used, historical railway swing bridge, one section of which can pivot out of the way to allow taller boat traffic to pass beneath. (If the accompanying animation will work, you’ll see the bridge in action, as well as Mississippi barge traffic entering and leaving the locks.) The locks and dam structures are the province of the Army Corps of Engineers, which has a headquarters building on Rock Island. The building has a clock tower, built in 1867, and the clock isn’t working. Hmmmm. They should fix that. And, of course, you’re thinking of the Rock Island Line and Johnny Cash. The Rock Island Railway was so famous in its day it was Jesse James’s choice for his first robbery.

The museum, with the history of armaments (focusing on their manufacture) was well done and impressively large. You may be glad to know that the military is up-to-date with 3D printing, and at Rock Island it’s tested for use in creating spare parts no longer available or quickly needed tools and parts in the field, as well as lighter-weight gear. In the military, 3D printing is termed “additive manufacturing.” The museum takes pains to acknowledge the contributions to its history from Black Americans, who guarded its camp for Confederate prisoners, and women, who took on the manufacturing jobs when the men went overseas.

A great way to spend half a day! We skipped the botanical gardens (rain) and went to the art museum instead.

The Great Gimmelmans

Lee Matthew Goldberg’s title for his new crime novel–The Great Gimmelmans–sounds like the name of a circus act. And, indeed, the story includes masks, taking on roles, daring feats, and surprising actions, all most definitely like a circus. While in its early stages, you may be inclined to believe—in fact, you may fervently hope—that what is presented as Aaron Gimmelman’s memoir is the recounting of a light-hearted romp. It is not, and the author takes pains to foreshadow the darkness to come.

Twelve-year-old Aaron and his family—father Barry, mother Judith, sister Stephanie (16), and sister Jenny (8)—live an upper middle-class life in suburban New Jersey until Barry loses his job, and their house and nearly all their belongings are repossessed. Left with a few clothes and a campervan the collection agency didn’t know they own, they pile everything into the vehicle’s small space and head south. Nicknamed the Gimmelmans’ Getaway Gas-Guzzler, the camper threatens to exhaust every penny they have in the first few hundred miles, until, in desperation, Aaron robs a convenience store. Barry recognizes a good idea when he hears one and begins to plot other robberies—liquor stores, then a small bank. The farther south they travel, the more grandiose his ideas, the bigger the robbery targets. He ropes every family member into commission of the crimes, even Jenny.

They’re headed toward the Florida home of Judith’s mother, who has become an Orthodox Jew. She’s a hard case—prickly and judgmental. She’s never liked Barry, and as the story progresses, her criticisms seem more than justified. The contrast between her world, extreme in its own way, and that of her daughter and her family of talented lawbreakers is a head-spinning example of competing realities. It can be hard to know whom to root for.

Many humorous moments are sprinkled throughout, but author Goldberg makes his characters so real, I couldn’t set aside my anxiety about the increasing dangers they face—from the armed robberies, from an alcoholic FBI agent, and from a New Jersey mobster Barry has cheated.

Barry Gimmelman takes his family—and readers—on a wild ride at such a pace that family members rarely have time to stop and think. You may wonder how such a deluded individual ever operated as a stock trader. Or maybe that was the perfect job for him. Hope overcoming caution every time. Until . . . This crime thriller has received several award nominations (Anthony, Lefty), not, you’ll understand, from the Good Parenting Association. Yesterday I posted about establishing causation in a story (what prize-winner George Saunders says is often missing in his students’ literary works), well this novel is packed with consequences, most of them awful.

Travel Tips: Treasures of the New York Public Library

A jaunt into Manhattan recently let us visit the New York Public Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. On exhibit is just a portion of this 125-year-old institution’s many treasures. Well worth a visit, the jaw-dropping free exhibition lets you see first-hand a wide selection of amazing artifacts—Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten Declaration of Independence, George Washington’s handwritten farewell address, and the drafts of literary icons like Maya Angelou, manuscripts by musical geniuses Beethoven and Mozart and Dizzy Gillespie.

A small section shows some of the anti-Nazi pamphlets smuggled into Germany cleverly hidden in packages of food and the like. You can see all six of the Library’s copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio. One of the interesting things about that display is that the descriptions enumerate the subtle—and not so subtle—differences among them. You can see the first great printed book, too—Gutenberg’s Bible—but before modern printing, individual copies of a book were not perfectly standardized. The discrepancies created fodder for innumerable dissertations and theories by Shakespeare scholars.

But, it’s not just books. It’s also stuff. The collection of stuffed animals that inspired the creation of Winnie-the-Pooh, Eeyore, Tigger, and Kanga. Five batons made for Arturo Toscanini in their unfinished state. Eventually, the wand would be painted white to look like ivory. The costume of ballerina Alexandra Danilova from a century ago. Cole Porter’s cigarette case. Charles Dickens’s desk and chair, and on and on. Globes, Virginia Woolf’s walking stick. Really, a feast for the mind, and every visitor will find at least one thing to love. You might forget to look up, you’ll be so fixed on the displays, but the ceiling of Gottesman Hall, where the exhibit is, is pretty spectacular too.

The Golden Triangle (The Pittsburgh One)

A recent Midwest trip involved a brief stayover in Pittsburgh, where my husband and I met as graduate students at Pitt. Whenever we’re in town, we seek vainly for traces of those days!

We drove into town late one afternoon and up to Mt. Washington, the neighborhood overlooking the Golden Triangle where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers meet to form the Ohio River. We had dinner at a restaurant cantilevered over the steep cliff, which you can reach by funicular (the red car in the photo), as well as by auto.

The meal was great, and we watched the pleasure boats, one big barge, and the Cruisin’ Tikis meandering around the rivers below. Also of interest, but not in a good way, was the swarm of Spotted Lanternflies in that part of town—and all over Pittsburgh, really. I stepped on as many as I could, but they tend to be too fast for me. We have these dangerous pests in New Jersey where we live, but not in numbers like this. We even saw one crawling up the inside of the restaurant window!

Over the years, we’ve visited many of the Pittsburgh’s museums and attractions and used this visit to catch up on two we’d missed. Neil had read David Randall’s The Monster’s Bonesabout the fierce competition between Andrew Carnegie and NYC’s Museum of Natural History to acquire dinosaur bones being discovered in Montana and Wyoming in the late 1800s. Neil wanted to see what Carnegie’s team had found, so we visited the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Wow! Dinosaurs obsession skipped me, but the curatorial staff has done a remarkable job of presenting the skeletons and the paleontology. Much else of interest to see there too. Like gemstones—more up my alley.

We stopped for a nourishing lunch at the Milkshake Factory. Exactly what it sounds like, though they sell ice cream sundaes too. Oh, and chocolate candy. The branch we visited was near the Pitt campus, and we strolled around, working off maybe 1% of those milkshake calories and visited the Stephen Foster memorial on campus—who knew?—near the Cathedral of Learning. (The University boffins were very proud of the Cathedral of Learning and showed it off to Frank Lloyd Wright, whose reaction was, “Nice lawn.”) Anyway, the Foster memorial seemed mostly closed, but it’s nice to know the composer of “Oh! Susanna” and “Camptown Races” is honored in his home town.

The visit to the Heinz Memorial Chapel (yes, that Heinz, Mr. 57), dedicated in 1938, was something else again. It’s a beautiful small nonsectarian chapel, also near the CofL, which hosts about 2500 events every year. Its brilliantly colored stained glass windows depict leaders from science, literature, governance, religious, and human aspiration—with an equal number of male and female figures. Thus you find Sir Thomas More just above William Penn (pictured) and Queen Isabella above Florence Nightingale. The windows were designed by Bostonian Charles J. Connick, whose first training was in Pittsburgh, and contain almost 250,000 pieces of glass.

You can’t visit Pittsburgh without traveling over some of its many bridges, most painted an unexpected, bright yellow. We naturally had to cross the Andy Warhol Bridge to visit the Andy Warhol Museum. This was an attraction I enjoyed more than expected to. I was thinking, “I don’t even like canned soup,” but there was much to see, as the artist worked in so many different styles and media.

He was born on Pittsburgh’s South Side to an Austro-Hungarian family named Warhola. They were poor, had no indoor plumbing, and yet he became one of the most famous celebrities of his era. The exhibits included a how-to video about his method for creating his blotted line works (like those pictured in this article), which was fascinating. Well worth a visit!

Travel Tips: Saratoga Springs

Saratoga always brings to mind two things: horse racing and poor Adelaide in Guys and Dolls. She’s desperate for gambler Nathan Detroit to take her to Niagara Falls and tie the knot, but he never makes it that far. “And they get off at Saratoga for the fourteenth time . . .” See it here!

Our recent upstate New York trip included a stop-off in Saratoga, less than two hours north of New York City, where we watched an afternoon of graded stakes races. Our betting system has a perfect record: we lose every time! But not this time. We won enough on one race to come out ahead. That’s if you don’t count parking, what we paid for the program, and a bag of chips. But a very pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

If you do go, note that you don’t need to go through the complicated reservation system for the Turf Club and other sit-down restaurants. There are plenty of food vendors. And I’ll bet (this one I won’t lose), you can get a beer or cocktail, too. You can find an online map of parking (including free parking), but parking is not a problem.

The pair of trumpeters who play the iconic call to the post wandered through the reserved seats and entertained a bit—“When the Saints Go Marching In” and the like. There are about forty minutes between races for walking around, finding a snack, and seeing the paddock area.

But the big attraction not to miss is Saratoga’s National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame “where the history of thoroughbred racing comes to life!” Fascinating permanent exhibits about horse racing in America (which started in the Colonial era with some of my ancestors) up to today. Artworks, replays.

And, at present, a special exhibit commemorating the 50th anniversary of Secretariat and his jockey, Ron Turcotte’s, astonishing 31-lengths Belmont victory (see it here). We have a friend who was at that race! It was an amazing performance.

My husband rides every week, and we couldn’t feel more respect for these wonderful animals. I know there are plenty of questions about the ethics of horse-racing, and I won’t convince any anti-racing advocates. Certainly, everything should be done to protect the animals, like adopting some of the European practices that make the sport safer there, and, possibly, my friend Eileen’s idea that major races like the Kentucky Derby shouldn’t be for three-year-olds. Giving them another year might let them gain strength. Various sources say equine skeletal development and bone growth is complete by age two, though the supporting muscles and soft tissue may continue to increase. When you look at that 1500-pound animal and those immensely slender ankles, it’s no wonder the sport is risky.

Still, a well-run horse race is a thing of beauty.

Related Reading: Hyperion’s Fracture by Thomas Kelso about the effort to safe an injured race-horse. The veterinary aspect was fascinating, though the pharmaceutical exec bad-guy a little over-the-top for my taste. You learn a lot while rooting for Hyperion.

Fort Ticonderoga: Key to the Continent

A short trip to Upstate New York last week involved a smorgasbord of activities, including getting my thumb stung by a hornet, which I do not recommend as a vacation enhancement.

We used Glens Falls as our base and drove along the west shore of Lake George up to Fort Ticonderoga, site of so many battles in Colonial times. We didn’t visit Fort William Henry at the southern end of Lake George, because it is already so fixed in my mind by my favorite movie, the 1992 Daniel Day-Lewis Last of the Mohicans.

Instead, we headed to Fort Ticonderoga at the narrow southern end of Lake Champlain. The northern tip of Lake George and the southern portion of Lake Champlain, both north-flowing lakes, are connect via the difficult La Chute River. Although the river is only 3.5 miles long, it drops about 230 feet (more height than Niagara Falls), which made it a key portage point for the military, if not an easily traversable waterway. Fabulous views on this drive!

Fort Ticonderoga was a pivotal point in numerous battles; between French explorer Samuel de Champlain and the Iroquois (1609); during the French and Indian War, when the Colonials fought alongside the British (1758-59); and in the American Revolution when the Patriots fought the British (1775-1777). As you can imagine, it’s easy to get tangled up in this history as the flags flying over the fort were changing with great regularity.

To combat confusion, each year the nonprofit (non-governmental) organization that maintains the Fort and runs its extensive history education program, adopts a particular year and focuses some of its programming on the experiences of a particular set of combatants at that time. When we visited, the program was focused on 1760 and the final British campaign to conquer New France (i.e., Canada).

Another notable year in the Fort’s history was 1775. News traveled slowly in those days, and the fort’s small contingent of British occupiers hadn’t heard about the battles of Lexington and Concord—the start of the American Revolution. In the middle of the night, they were overwhelmed by a small group of Green Mountain Boys, led by Ethan Allen, and Massachusetts militia, led by Benedict Arnold (still on the American side at that point).

Their purpose in capturing the fort was to seize its cannon and transport them three hundred miles over the snow-covered Berkshire mountains to Boston. The cannon were desperately needed there, in order to end a nearly year-long British siege. Several famous artworks depict the struggle over rough terrain by men and oxen, but it is apocryphal that oxen were used in this way. The cannon were pulled on sleds by horses, no easy feat, either, though the myth persists.

Don’t miss the boat trip out into the lake which provides helpful views of the Patriots’ various military positions on both sides of the lake, including Mount Defiance and Mount Independence. Ticonderoga was uniquely situated to control any forces seeking to travel south from French Canada and thereby, it could protect the entire Hudson Valley, Albany, and New York. Although New York itself was in British hands, it could not be resupplied by this route.

Aside from the costumed tour guides and staff who put on a wide variety of programming, the property includes a really beautiful “king’s garden,” corn maze, hiking trail, colonial crafts demonstrations (tailoring, shoemaking, musket maintenance, and the like), and spectacular scenery. Kids and grownups were having a great time! We did too. Except for the, you know, hornet thing.

Photos: of the fort by Mwanner and of the soldiers by Gin; each used under this Creative Commons license, no changes made.

More Southern Adventures: Travel Tips

A few remaining travel tips and sightings from our recent trip to South Georgia and Alabama. We stayed in wonderful hotels. I mentioned already the Plains (Georgia) Historic Inn. In Montgomery, our hotel was the Renaissance Montgomery Hotel, a lovely modern property with a super-convenient location. Check out the photomural behind the bed! Interesting contemporary art throughout. A conference of veterinarians who’d graduated from Tuskegee University was under way when we were there. I’d overhear them discussing their “patients,” and suddenly realize said patient was a farm animal probably weighing 1500-2000 pounds!

In Atlanta we stayed at the historic Candler Hotel on Peachtree Street, an art deco gem (lobby pictured below) now part of the Curio Collection by Hilton, that has an excellent restaurant. The only drawback is that it is little awkward to get to, because the entrance is on a short one-way street. Required circling.

We were in Alabama when those awful storms went through the area, causing multiple deaths. We weren’t caught up in that, but when we toured Selma, we saw where a recent tornado there had done massive damage. It was several weeks before our visit, but roof repairs were still under way, trees toppled, and much structural damage to homes.

One Montgomery site that didn’t fit in to the literary, presidents, or civil rights themes of last week’s posts was Old Alabama Town, a square block-plus near downtown (as everything is) where a collection of 1800s buildings has been relocated. Visitors can go inside most of them, including the general store, the “First Presbyterian Colored Church,” a schoolroom, a cotton gin, a shotgun house, and a dogtrot house. The reception building for the attraction is, not surprisingly, a historic tavern. Although the buildings are mostly empty, a fully restored house is also part of Old Alabama Town. The Ordeman-Shaw Townhouse and associated dwelling for the family’s enslaved people are furnished and the subject of a lively tour.

In Gadsden, Alabama, we visited a state park with a notable waterfall (rainbow slightly visible in front of and below it): the Noccalula Falls Park, which has a variety of features, including a miniature train whose short ride provides an overview of the layout.

At the park, I snapped this picture of a hawk and black squirrel. The squirrel must have been climbing the tree when the hawk appeared, from which moment, it had the squirrel’s undivided attention. The hawk would fly from a branch on one side of the tree to the other, and the squirrel quietly circled the tree trunk, taking pains to keep the trunk between the two of them. We left before the final scene of this drama. Some things I’d just rather not know!

The rest of the series:
Brushes with Literary Fame (Lee, Capote, O’Connor, and more)
“Bloom Where You’re Planted” (US Presidents in rural Georgia)
Reckoning with a Troubled Past (key Civil Rights locations)

Reckoning with a Troubled Past

The main motivation for our recent trip through south Georgia and Alabama was to visit civil rights sites. To that end, we spent four nights in Montgomery, Alabama, which has them in thought-provoking, overwhelming abundance. The photo is of the marker for Martin Luther King’s church, with the Alabama State capitol only blocks away and visible on the right. 

First, we drove an hour west to Selma, to see the Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of the “Bloody Sunday” voting rights march in 1965 that focused national attention on the civil rights cause. There were three attempts at a Selma to Montgomery march. The first ended with Bloody Sunday when marchers, including the young to-be congressman John Lewis, were attacked with billy clubs, whips, and tear gas. Many were injured. Two days later, Dr. Martin Luther King led several thousand protesters back to the bridge. They crossed it then turned around to return to their starting point. It was a symbolic gesture of their determination, as well as a necessity, given a court order prohibiting the march.

Two weeks later, the march was allowed to proceed to Montgomery, with ample protection from military police and US Army troops. Some 25,000 people joined for the last stretch into the city and the Alabama State Capitol. Three months later, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (a law Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts has dedicated his career to dismantling).

As of this writing, the Lowndes Interpretive Center, located on US Hwy 80, the route of the march, is temporarily closed due to a water main break, but should reopen soon and be well worth a visit. The National Park Service also maintains a small but powerful National Voting Rights Museum on the Selma side of the Pettus Bridge.

Several days are needed to properly take in the civil rights sites in Montgomery itself. We started with a visit to The Legacy Museum, a project of Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative. (If, in the unlikely event you are not familiar with this profound thinker about US race relations, start here.)

When you enter the museum, you find yourself in a large space dominated by the sight and sounds of the sea, whose overpowering waves were filmed at surface level. It’s a dramatic and creative opening. It certainly put me in mind of the terrifying experience of Africans wrested from their homes for a perilous journey across a wild ocean. Throughout the museum, the curation is remarkable, from the recreation of the transatlantic slave trade to the domestic slave trade, to the Civil War and Reconstruction, and the push for Civil Rights. The museum employs many compelling ways to tell these complex stories.

A second powerful EJI project is the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened in 2018. In words and sculpture, it commemorates the lives of African Americans who were victims of racial terror lynchings, in order to more truthfully and completely reflect the nation’s history. Each of the more than 800 hanging steel monuments represents a county in the United States where a racial terror lynching took place. Each bears the names of the victims.The accompanying photo is the monument for McLennan County, Texas, whose county seat is Waco, where my mother was born in 1908. My grandparents and great-grandparents lived in the county during the years when many of these lynchings took place. These events had to be known to them and their children, but the family never spoke of them, at least not in my presence. That’s one reason the Memorial is so vital, to connect us to this past.

While some white Americans oppose exhibits like these, because they believe the experience will make children (and, possibly, themselves) “feel bad about themselves,” I believe the opposite should be true. By not hiding the past, we can see it more clearly and avoid being stuck in its destructive attitudes and behavior. We can see how ideas about right and wrong have evolved, acknowledge how far we have come and the importance of honoring and preserving those gains. At the same time, we can recognize the work that still needs to be done. Deliberate ignorance of the past only perpetuates wrongs.

We visited the Dexter Avenue Memorial Baptist Church, Dr. Martin Luther King’s home church in Montgomery, as well as the Parsonage Museum on South Jackson Street, where the King Family lived from 1954-1960, and which was bombed several times.

The tour of the house let us walk the floors Martin and Coretta walked, see the rooms they saw. We were fortunate to have as our tour guide the granddaughter of R.D. Nesbitt, deacon of the church and chairman of the pulpit selection committee, and he recruited Dr. King to Montgomery. She knew everyone in every photograph! Nesbitt said, King’s “major strength, in my opinion, was his ability to get along with people.”

The Rosa Parks Museum, part of Troy University, includes a nice recreation of the famous bus ride in which she refused to give up her seat for a white person. This led to the 13-month Montgomery bus boycott, a key event in ending segregation.

Also in this Georgia-Alabama travel tips series:
Brushes with Literary Fame (Lee, Capote, O’Connor, and more)
“Bloom Where You’re Planted” (US Presidents in rural Georgia)