Friday, December 28, 2018

Walker Evans Photographs an Alabama Cemetery in 1936

Walker Evans [1903-1975] is one of the best known American documentary photographers of the 20th century. He made three brief trips to Alabama in his career, in March and the summer of 1936 and in 1973. I have written about him in several blogs posts, including this one which links to the others. 

Evans made that summer 1936 trip with writer James Agee; they spent a couple of months living with a sharecropper family in Hale County. That experience resulted in the 1941 book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, perhaps the most famous non-fiction book ever written about Alabama. 

Most of Evans' photographs on that trip were taken in Hale and Greene counties. The ones below are taken from a roll of 36 exposures in a cemetery probably in one of those places. My source for these is the Walker Evans Archive at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The Met's web site gives no location information except they were taken in Alabama in 1936. 

Divorced from specifics, these photos have a haunting, timeless quality, floating out there somewhere in the past. What does this cemetery look like today, I wonder? Based on the number of marble headstones, many of them large, and the location in a poor, rural state, this cemetery probably contained the graves of at least modestly well-to-do whites. 

Research into Evans' archives at the Met might reveal the location of these graves. If you recognize the place, please leave a comment on this post.

Other comments are below a few of the photos.



























This grave appears to be that of "Laura Abbie, wife of J.N. Erwin". I've tried searching Find-A-Grave & Ancestry but no luck so far. Two photos below also have names visible, but I've been unable to figure them out yet. 

The Association of Gravestone Studies has a section of its web site devoted to the symbolism of images found in cemeteries. Here's what it says about hands:

"Hands are found on many gravestones.  It may be the hand of God pointing downward signifying mortality or sudden death.  The hand of God pointing upward signifies the reward of the righteous, confirmation of life after death.  Praying hands signify devotion.  Handshakes may be farewells to earthly existence or may be clasped hands of a couple to be reunited in death as they were in life, their devotion to each other not destroyed by death."

The gravestone below appears to have a hand pointing upward. 











This grave is topped by what appear to be salt and pepper shakers and a basket, perhaps of food. 



Thursday, December 20, 2018

John Coltrane's "Alabama"

On September 15, 1963, one of the most infamous events of modern American history took place in Birmingham, Alabama. Four members of the Ku Klux Klan planted some 15 sticks of dynamite at the 16th Street Baptist Church; four young African-American girls were killed in the explosion.  

These murders led to various responses in addition to those from law enforcement. Among the artistic ones was a work by jazz saxophonist and composer John Coltrane, "Alabama". 

Coltrane was born in North Carolina in 1926, and took up the saxophone at an early age after his mother gave him one. He served in the navy, making his first recordings and playing with various base big bands until his discharge in August 1946. Then he returned to Philadelphia, where he had spent time before military service, and joined the burgeoning bebop scene. He played, studied and learned under musicians like King Kolax, Jimmy Heath and Dennis Sandole.

In the summer of 1955 trumpet player Miles Davis, who was reviving his career, contacted Coltrane about joining his new quintet. For the next several years Coltrane played with Davis and with pianist Thelonious Monk. In 1959 he recorded his first work as a group leader, the album Giant Steps that consisted only of his original songs. By the following year Coltrane had a quartet making live appearances.

Coltrane died in 1967 and by that time had worked with various personnel in  quartets that recorded such jazz classics as My Favorite Things (1961)  and A Love Supreme (1964). In the final years he was influenced by jazz avant garde figures such as Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, and Birmingham's own Sun Ra.  His skills on tenor and soprano saxophones and in composition are major contributions in jazz history.

The elegy "Alabama" was included in a recording session at Rudy Van Gelder's  studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, on November 18, 1963. His fellow players were members of his "classic" quartet: McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums. On December 7 they played the composition on "Jazz Casual", a program hosted by critic Ralph Gleason on National Educational Television, the precursor of PBS. You can hear that 5 minute 54 second version here

Five takes were made of "Alabama" that afternoon in New Jersey; Coltrane did not discuss the subject of the piece. The final version ended up on his 1964 album Live at Birdland. Only the first three songs on that album were recorded at the club. The fifth song, "Your Lady" was also recorded at the "Alabama" session.

As history would have it, JFK was assassinated in Dallas just days after the recording of "Alabama".  

In April 2018 the Kronos Quartet premiered a new arrangement of "Alabama" by composer Jacob Garchik. You can read an interview with Garchik here in which he discusses his work with Coltrane's piece. Garchik notes that Coltrane is believed to have adopted rhythms and cadence for "Alabama" from a eulogy Martin Luther King, Jr., gave the day after the bombing. Another source says that Coltrane may have heard a broadcast or recording of the eulogy delivered by King on September 18 at the funeral service for three of the girls. A third source concurs with that idea.

The 2016 documentary film "Chasing Trane" devotes time to "Alabama". You can read an interesting essay by Tommy Stevenson about the film and the piece here





John Coltrane [1926-1967]

Source: Wikipedia




Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Birmingham Photo of the Day (67): Agnes Moorehead

As I often do, I was roaming around at the Alabama Mosaic site recently and came across this photograph of actress Agnes Moorehead. The only clues given are that the location is Birmingham, Alabama, and the date was February 16, 1973. So what was she doing in the city at that time? Let's investigate. 

Moorehead was born December 6, 1900, in Massachusetts. The family soon moved, and she grew up in St. Louis. She earned a bachelor's degree, then returned home to teach school for five years. Then she was off to the University of Wisconsin and a master's degree in English. She had begun acting as an undergraduate and decided to pursue that profession. She graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1929.

She pursued stage and radio work in New York, and by 1937 she had become a principal actor in Orson Welles' Mercury Players that produced works for both stage and radio. Moorehead played Margo Lane in The Shadow radio program in which Welles acted the title character.

In 1939 Welles and company moved to Hollywood, and Moorehead made her film debut as the mother of the title character he played in his masterpiece Citizen Kane. From that point she never lacked for work in film, radio and later television. She received an Emmy Award, and two Golden Globes, four Oscar nominations and six additional Emmy nominations. Moorehead could play puritanical, neurotic, possessive, and arrogant characters in dramas, thrillers and comedies. 

Some of her many films include The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Journey into Fear (1943), Dark Passage (1947) with Bogart and Bacall, and Show Boat (1951). Later she appeared in The Bat (1959), Disney's Pollyanna (1960), and Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964). She continued her radio career alongside her one in films. Moorehead appeared in more of the 946 episodes of CBS's show Suspense than any other actor. Her most famous episode was "Sorry, Wrong Number" but Barbara Stanwyck got her role in the 1948 film. 

Moorehead had many great guest roles on television in the 1960's, ranging from The Rebel and Rawhide to The Twilight Zone. She won her Emmy for an episode of The Wild, Wild West. From 1964 until 1972 she played Endora, the witch with the acerbic wit and mother of Samantha on the popular show Bewitched. 

In the 1950's Moorehead acted in a national tour of George Bernard Shaw's play "Don Juan in Hell". She returned to that role at the Palace Theatre in Times Square for 24 performances that ended on February 4, 1973. You can read an account by a fan who caught her back stage after the final performance here. The production then went on a tour of unknown locations and duration.

Was she in Birmingham on February 16 for a performance of "Don Juan"?  She made an appearance on The Dick Cavett Show on February 19. That's a pretty tight schedule, but Moorehead was a professional, so who knows? Only further research will tell.... 

Moorehead died on April 30, 1974, in Rochester, Minnesota. You can find out more about Moorehead's life in Charles Tranberg's 2006 book, I Love the Illusion: The Life and Career of Agnes Moorehead.  






Agnes Moorehead in Birmingham, 16 February 1973




Moorehead in the 1950's

Source: Wikipedia

Friday, December 7, 2018

Hale Infirmary: An Early Alabama Hospital for Blacks

In 1890 Hale Infirmary opened in Montgomery as one of the state's earliest hospitals for blacks. The facility was largely the work of one man, the city's first black physician, Cornelius Dorsette. I've written an entry on him for the Encyclopedia of Alabama, so let me quote myself on the origins of Hale Infirmary:

"Soon after his arrival in Montgomery, Dorsette had married Sarah Hale, but she died after less than a year. Her father was James Hale, the wealthiest black man in Montgomery at that time, and Dorsette convinced him that the city needed an infirmary for blacks. Hale donated land, and a white women's club helped Dorsette raise money for the building and its operation. The first such facility for blacks in Alabama, Hale Infirmary opened in 1890 and operated until 1958."

Dorsette came to Montgomery in 1884 at the urging of Booker T. Washington; the two were classmates at Hampton Institute in Virginia. By then Washington had been in Tuskegee for three years, and felt a black physician could be successful in Alabama's capital city. He was right. 

Dorsette also had constructed a three story professional building on Dexter Avenue that included his office. He helped found and served as the first president of the National Medical Association, an organization for black doctors, and served as a trustee of Tuskegee Institute and as Washington's personal physician. Unfortunately after a hunting trip on Thanksgiving Day in 1897, he caught pneumonia and died.  

Another prominent black Montgomery physician was also associated with Hale Infirmary. David H.C. Scott, an Alabama native, returned to the state after graduating from Meharry Medical School in Nashville. He practiced in Montgomery until his death in 1920, and often operated at Hale Infirmary which was on Lake Street near his office. Scott married the daughter of a prominent contractor, who built his son-in-law a three story building that housed a drug store and offices. Scott was also an important member of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church

More information about Hale Infirmary can be found in the article below. As noted there, Hale Infirmary cost $7,000 to build its two stories that could hold sixty patients. 

See also Thomas J. Ward, Jr.'s entry "Black Hospital Movement in Alabama" in the Encyclopedia of Alabama. Ward says the first hospital in Alabama for African-Americans was the one at Tuskegee Institute, which opened in 1892. However, the article below notes that the James Hale Infirmary Society was incorporated in Montgomery in 1889 and presumably the facility opened the following year. 





This photo and article depict the infirmary and staff in 1919.

Source: Clement Richardson, National Cyclopedia of the Colored Race. Montgomery, 1919, p. 129









Hale Infirmary, also around 1919

Source: Alabama Dept of Archives and History








David Henry Clay Scott, M.D.

Source: Clement Richardson, National Cyclopedia of the Colored Race. Montgomery, 1919, p. 78




Tuesday, December 4, 2018

A Visit to Demopolis

In March 2018 Dianne and I went to New Orleans to visit our son. On the way back to Pelham we took a detour and spent the night in Demopolis so we could visit the spectacular structure that is Gaineswood. I'll be doing a couple of posts on that house museum soon, but in this one I'm covering some other sights in the town.

Demopolis, the seat of Marengo County, was settled in 1817, the same year that Congress created the Alabama Territory. The first arrivals were French immigrants, who had fled to Philadelphia after a slave rebellion in Haiti. The U.S. government granted them 92,000 acres in Alabama if they would grow grapes and olives. This effort, which became known as the Vine and Olive Colony, ultimately failed but Demopolis survived to become a center of the cotton trade in the antebellum period. Today many beautiful homes and other buildings survive in the town. 

In a previous post I've discussed The Fighting Kentuckian a 1949 John Wayne film set in Demopolis during the "vine and olive colony" period. The town has also been the birthplace of several prominent people. Although he is associated with Birmingham, businessman A.G. Gaston was born in Demopolis. 

Playwright Lillian Hellman based The Little Foxes on her mother's Demopolis family and the play is set there. Alabama actress Tallulah Bankhead starred in the play on Broadway; Bette Davis got the role in the 1941 film version. Hellman's 1946 play Another Part of the Forest is a prequel of sorts to Foxes and is set in the fictional Alabama town of Bowden. That play was filmed in 1948. In 1949 Marc Blitzstein's opera based on The Little Foxes, Regina, premiered on Broadway. 

Two authors born in Demopolis are Wyatt Blassingame and James Haskins. In the 1930's and 1940's Blassingame was a prolific writer of fiction for the pulp magazines. In the 1950's as that market dried up, he began writing non-fiction books for young people. He died in 1985. Haskins, who died in 2005, wrote more than 100 books for adults and youth, many of them related to African-American history. 

Although she grew up in Mobile, contemporary novelist Michelle Richmond was also born in Demopolis. 

Demopolis and Marengo County have numerous properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places; town and county are both rich in historical sites. 

Further comments are below many of the photos. 



Heading toward Demopolis we passed through a bit of the Cuba community; the town was incorporated in 1890. A post office existed in the area from 1850, and two years later planter R.A. Clay moved to the area with 100 slaves. His plantation acreage later became the town. 

Several impressive old homes, churches and a museum are located in Cuba, but we did not get to visit any. 



Further church history can be found here. "Trinity is one of the finest examples of Victorian Gothic Church architecture in the United States."








Trinity Episcopal Church around 1940





Bluff Hall was built in 1832 by Allen Glover using slave labor and overlooking the white limestone cliffs along the Tombigbee River. The residence, home to Glover's daughter Sarah and her husband Francis Lyon, was expanded n the 1840's and remained in private hands until 1967. At that time the Marengo County Historical Society purchased it and restored the structure to its 1850's glory. The society continues to operate Bluff Hall as a house museum. Unfortunately we did not get to tour it; perhaps next time. 




This building sits next to Bluff Hall. 



As far as I can determine the Demopolis Inn is not currently operating. 



Demopolis Inn building and further down that street



One of the many neat old homes in Demopolis



The Red Barn Restaurant has been operating since 1971 and has a very visible exterior. You can learn more about it at the Rural Southwest Alabama site.




The food was excellent!





One of Demopolis' most prominent Jewish businessmen was Julius Rosenbush, who arrived in the city in 1894. He founded the Rosenbush Furniture Company, which the family operated until 2002. The property was then donated to the Marengo County History and Archives Museum Foundation.  






Established in 1858, this Jewish congregation in Demopolis was the fourth one established in Alabama. The temple had about 150 members in 1929, but that number declined until it became inactive in the 1980's. In 1989 the title to this property was transferred to Trinity Episcopal Church which continues to maintain it. 








"[Rooster Hall] is one of the oldest buildings in Demopolis. It was built in 1843 by the Presbyterians of Demopolis using locally-made bricks. It served as their sanctuary until after the Civil War. During the reconstruction period, a garrison of Federal troops, stationed in Demopolis, moved the county seat from Linden, AL, and used this building for a courthouse. The building served as the Marengo County Courthouse through Reconstruction. The county seat returned to Linden in 1871 and the building was turned over to Demopolis city authorities. 

In 1876 the city leased the building to the Demopolis Opera Association. The Association rehabilitated the building for live performances and public speaking events. The Opera House featured mostly local talent but also featured talents from New York and New Orleans for special performances. The Opera House closed its doors in 1902. Since that time the building has served several other functions including city hall, a fire station, a meeting house and auditorium, voting station, and office building. This building is a contributing property to the Demopolis Public Square which was added to the National Register of Historic Places on October 29, 1975. Rooster Hall is located on the northeast corner of the Public Square at downtown Demopolis."






Attorney George Lyon began construction of the Greek Revival Lyon Hall in 1850. He was the nephew of Francis Lyon of Bluff Hall. Construction continued until 1853; then Lyon and his wife journeyed to New York City to find furnishings. Family occupied the house until 1996; it was donated to the Marengo County Historical Society the following year. 





Merchants Grocery Company building and Coca-Cola sign