Our Summer Trip to Alabama
I don't know about you, but I am emotionally spent, you guys! These last few weeks, with the sad and shocking death of George Floyd and learning more about the death of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, sucked all the gas out of my tank. I keep wrestling with the question: how do we contribute to change in a way that we don't have to go through this again? I really don't have the answers, but I offered a few suggestions on my IG page a few days ago (see the "seek solutions" post). One of my suggestions was to "educate ourselves." We ALL have to know and frequently remind ourselves of our history in the country.
With that being said, I want to share with you our family's 2017 summer road trip to Alabama to educate our two boys about Black History, specifically Civil Rights, in America. Our kids had the opportunity to learn and take in the Civil Rights Movement by way of interactive museum exhibits and tours. We took this trip in the latter weeks of August. Therefore, the city was very quiet. We didn't wait in any lines the entire trip. The city was nearly empty, and I assume that was because Montgomery is a college town, home to Troy University. I assume that when students are on campus, the city is bustling. However, we picked a week in August where summer classes were completed and fall classes had yet to start. Please be mindful that museum hours are different during the summer when tourism is lighter. Now, that being said, I don't believe any of these museums get really busy...ever. So, I think you can practice social distancing in each of these cities without any problems.
Cities We Visited:
- Montgomery, AL (home base during our trip)
- Birmingham, AL (1hr, 21 min to the north of Montgomery)
- Selma, AL (52 min west of Montgomery)
- Tuskegee, AL (40 min to the east of Montgomery)
I used a few apps to help us along on our trip, but the primary app that I used is the Alabama Civil Rights Trail app. If you follow this app, you will get an excellent, in-depth self-guided tour through Alabama's Civil Rights Movement history.
Side note: Yes, we could have found all of this history in books or on websites complete with pictures and likely video. However, we wanted our children to "see" our history, to experience it. We felt this would leave a more lasting impression on them. And, we were right. Both boys remember this trip fondly and remember details of historical events that I think would have been overlooked or already forgotten had we not "gone the extra mile" to have them walk in history.
Like most vacations, you can't (unfortunately) see/experience everything, especially when you're traveling with kids. At the time of this trip, my sons were 11 and 7. So, while our focus was on sharing history with them, their focus was on electronic devices, food, naps, snacks, and play. Montgomery was our home base. We stayed at the Renaissance Hotel, which was perfect for our stay -- close to eateries, the Gun Island Chute (river), and the home of the AA Montgomery Biscuits baseball team (yes, we did take in a Biscuit game). The Civil Rights Movement monuments and museums are just a short drive or walk away. What I found so fascinating about Montgomery is that the whole downtown area feels like a throwback to the 1950s. It's as if the city planners intentionally left downtown Montgomery just as it was when MLK, Jr. walked those streets fifty plus years ago. In fact, everywhere we walked in Montgomery felt like hallowed ground. As I mentioned, we didn't cover all that Montgomery has to offer, but here are the spots we did hit and we consider them all must-sees:
Dexter Avenue King Baptist Church - Such an amazing tour of the Montgomery church where Dr. King was a pastor from 1954-1960! I couldn't believe that the church he served was just a few blocks from the State Capitol. Don't go without taking the church tour. We were able to go inside the church itself, then we were able to visit Dr. King's office on the lower basement level. And it's not just a "walk around and look around" type tour. You can sit at Dr. King's desk, and you can stand behind his lectern and pretend for a moment that you are the great Dr. MLK, Jr. The kids got into it! There is also a wonderful short film available to watch on the basement level and a beautiful mural about Dr. King. In the end, all the tourists visiting were invited to gather in a circle, hold hands and sing, "We Shall Overcome." It was really special for everyone.
The Civil Rights Memorial at the Southern Poverty Law Center - This center is just around the corner from Dexter Avenue King Church. The Civil Rights Memorial is "the nation's first civil rights memorial to the martyrs of the civil rights movement." So, this area is one of the more moving spots in Montgomery. The day that we went, there was no one else there at the outdoor memorial. Just us. So, the moment was very somber and quiet. The boys played in the water that flows off the monument and we were able to explain to them what each name represented. The memorial was created to pay respect to "those activists and others who were murdered by white supremacists during the civil rights movement." Inside the Civil Rights Center, those who lost their lives for Civil Rights are further discussed and honored. There is a moving film that is also shown. The whole experience is so gut-wrenching that when we sat down to watch the short film, I cried the entire time. To come face to face with the people who gave their lives for me and my family to have equality is a heavy truth. The memorial and the center are so well done. We were impressed beyond words. Don't miss out on this treasure in Montgomery.
The Dexter Parsonage Museum - This was the highlight of the trip for me. To walk through and stand in the home of our great hero, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his family meant so much to me. The tour is beautifully done, filled with anecdotal information that gives you a colorful and insightful look into daily life in the King residence. For the kids, this was a great tour because they could see the simplicity of life in the 1950s (ie washboards, the smallness of rooms, the clothesline outside, etc.) Do not miss this tour! I believe you have to call ahead to book your tour.
I'd love to return to Montgomery to revisit all of these wonderful destinations that I've described above, but I'd also like to visit a few other places that we didn't have time to visit: the Freedom Rides Museum, Holt Street Baptist Church, and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (which wasn't completed in 2017, but was in the works when we were there in 2017).
Visiting Selma was a must for our family. We have watched many movies and documentaries that told the events that transpired on Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Once again, I was taken aback by the city of Selma. It's a tiny and beautiful town, but it feels sacred and somber. Selma is chock-full of history. I learned that Selma was once a booming city and has a rich history that precedes the Civil Rights Movement. However, we traveled there on a Sunday and the town was very quiet -- very few tourists. That leads me to my first suggestion. Try to visit Selma on a weekday or Saturday. On Sundays, much of the town is closed or has limited hours.
Selma Welcome Center - The Welcome Center is just over the Edmund Pettus Bridge as you travel west into the city. It is a National Park site, so the kiddos can have their National Parks books stamped. Let me say this, do not go to Selma and just walk the bridge (That was our original plan.). Go to the visitor center, spend time there and participate in the exhibit that they have there. The exhibit is small but so powerful. You can listen to first-hand accounts of by people who were present for the Bloody Sunday march. They recount the events in the days leading up to Bloody Sunday and then recount details of the successful march to the State Capitol led by Martin Luther King, Jr. from Selma to Montgomery. On the second floor of the Visitor Center, there is a documentary film available to watch and it's a must-see. Don't skip the film. This particular film also moved me to tears. Between Selma and Montgomery, there are markers along the way to help tell the story of the long journey of about 300 activists who marched from Selma to Montgomery. Give yourself about 2 hours to complete the exhibit and film at the Visitor Center.
Edmund Pettus Bridge - Please take the time to walk the length of the bridge. I'd suggest walking the bridge after you visit the Selma Visitor Center and view the exhibit and film. The walk across the bridge will be even more meaningful.
Brown Chapel AME Church - Brown Chapel was closed when we drove by, unfortunately. It was the starting point for the march on Bloody Sunday and the march led by Dr. King on March 21, 1965. However, we did get out and take pictures. There is a monument on the grounds of the church.
We left Selma drained and feeling very heavy. However, I was smitten by this little town that has endured much. Then, when we drove back to Montgomery the marchers were on our mind the entire time. We did stop to read some of the markers along the way. It's so impactful. You can feel history all around you. It's a bit eery.
There are other historical sites in Selma that are worth seeing. As I mentioned, we visited on a Sunday; therefore, much of the city was closed. I would highly recommend visiting www.selmaalabama.com for additional historical sites to visit.
We didn't spend much time in Birmingham. I'm going to say, upfront, we did not do Birmingham justice. We arrived in the city late, and we missed a lot. There is plenty to do in Birmingham, and we only touched the surface of the city's rich history.
Birmingham Civil Rights Museum - Just wow, wow, wow! Get to this museum if you can. It exceeds expectations. I have now been to many, many museums, and this museum is in the top five. Why? It's comprehensive but still interesting and easy to maneuver through and digest. Also, it's very kid-friendly. You need at least 3 hours to get through this museum. This museum covers all bases as it pertains to the Civil Rights and life as a Black American during that time period. The museum does a wonderful job reminding you that although the Civil Rights Movement presented much darkness for African-Americans in this country, there were still bright spots and triumphs for us during this time, culturally and socially. The visuals are absolutely wonderful. You will walk out of this museum feeling enlightened. Because the visuals and the vignettes are so well put together, the kids could really get into it. I would love to visit this museum again. I know we rushed through it, but we tried very hard to "see" it all.
Sixteenth Street Baptist Church - We didn't have the opportunity to go inside the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where the KKK bombed and killed four little girls. However, we were able to see the outside of it as it is located across the street from the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum. It's on the list to do if we returned to Birmingham.
Rickwood Field - When my husband and I travel, we like to visit ballparks. If we can take in a game, we do. If not, we just visit the park and take it in from the outside. So, visiting Rickwood Field was a must. It was closed to the public at the time; however, we did take pics. Rickwood is America's oldest professional ballpark! It was the home ballpark for the Birmingham Barons and the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro League. It's in excellent condition! Be sure to check that out if you're a baseball enthusiast.
The Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site is about 40 minutes outside of Montgomery. Once again, this site was not highly trafficked by visitors, but it's so worth the drive. This was the training site for African-American military pilots. According to the Alabama Civil Rights app, Tuskegee and the African-American men who trained there were part of a "military experiment" to determine "if African-Americans were mentally and physically capable of operating and maintaining complicated military aircraft." Sounds unbelievable, but it's true. I would give yourself and your family a couple of hours to walk through the museum and to see everything. The boys really loved seeing all the colorful planes. And there is a lot of open space for kids to roam.
I decided to share this family trip with you guys because it made such an enormous impact on our family. This trip means more to me now than ever. I also share this trip to remind you that our history can be experienced in a way that far exceeds the limitations of a book or Netflix documentary. As I mentioned at the outset of this post, I don't have all the answers to fix the racial disparities and inequalities that still persist in this country today. However, after this trip, my heart was filled with deep gratitude for how far our country has come and deep gratitude for how much was sacrificed for future generations. We owe it the generations who fought and sometimes paid the ultimate price for freedom and racial and social equality to preserve the gains they won. It's our duty.
If you have already made the journey to Alabama to visit some of the sites I talked about, let me hear your thoughts about them below. I'd love to hear about your experiences.
Many blessings my friends,