My interest in the history of this Alabaman town may be, at least in part, because I grew up in Alaska. The state has a rich natural history, from the glacial rivers to the mountain ranges, and it is home to one of the most sublime sights on Earth: Denali, draped in crisp white snow, rising spectacularly, improbably from a low, flat plain. The history of people in Alaska is more elusive than such fixed spectacles as Denali, particularly because many of the land’s early people were nomadic. They gathered in tribes, moving from place to place to hunt the best food available and gather whatever was in season. As far as I know, there were no written languages in Alaska until the Russians came, beginning in the 18th century, and took advantage of the land’s resources, particularly furs, finally building a capital on the island of Sitka. Their Russian churches and descendants, children of the Russian men and their Native wives, remain. In the 19th century the United States bought Alaska, and waves of pioneers and prospectors entered the state, leaving old homes, towns, and mining operations behind. While Alaska’s history is long and, at times, vexed, the same, perhaps more so, can be said of Alabama with its history of slavery and segregation, a place where the multi-term governor George Wallace infamously pledged “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” and where so much seems to still exist, at least in a vague outline, of what was.
As a child, I connected most strongly with a sense of history on visits to England with its ruins, battles, and its many ghosts. On my visits there I marveled at structures and artifacts not simply decades old, or hundreds of years old, but thousands of years old. Such an accumulation of time made the discussion of American history in my history classes at home seem no more substantial than a will-o-th’-wisp. In particular, I remember visits to Yorkshire and walks on the remains of a Roman road, part of a route that would once have led towards Hadrian’s Wall. We’d set out from Saltaire, the Victorian model village, heading to the moors and to the town of Ilkley. We’d climb up the huge rocks as we left the green valley and the river Aire, pass by the old pub, Dick Hudsons, where we’d sometimes stop for a drink, and pass through a gap in the dry stone wall. Once through, I’d see pieces of stone set in the chalky soil, the outline of the road still there, flashes of it beside and beneath the low bushes and grasses. I would imagine some lonely Centurion, far from his home—a home where there were grapes, maybe olives, the sun bright against white-washed wall. I would imagine him looking along this road that seemed to stretch forever, on into a gray horizon. The moors are breezy even in summer, but in the winter they are, as the Brontës noticed, wuthering. There was often no sound except the noise of that wind and the baa of the shaggy yellow-eyed sheep as I stood, looking at the road and the moors stretching out in front of me. I would take off my shoes, feel the stones under my feet, imagining, long ago, those sandals, those carts, those hooves, moving over and over again on that surface.
It is a past I couldn’t, I can’t, recover, even as I strained to imagine those sights of centuries past, even as my feet grew cold and my arms goose-pimply and I had to put on my shoes and a sweater. Then, because I was a child and history, mine or anyone’s else, caught me only for a moment, I’d race over the road, no thought of history in my head, on towards Bettys Tea Room down in cheerful little Ilkley, and the promise of a cup of tea and something sweet.