Over the Easter holidays I was fortunate enough to be included on a familiarisation trip to Alabama with MSG Tours, who are launching a new tour for schools there. Four History educators and one tour manager toured the sites to get a feel for how a school trip might work and what the benefits might be for students attending, all organised and planned by the tourist board – of course, called Sweet Home Alabama. Full disclosure – I didn’t pay for the trip but wasn’t asked to write this up and it’s not intended as an advert. I am a convert and can see huge benefits to taking students there. If you’re considering a school trip to the USA then you should seriously consider heading south rather than north.
We visited this towards the end of our trip, on our last full day, and it caught me by surprise because I hadn’t heard of it before and therefore hadn’t really clocked it on the itinerary. However, it definitely had the biggest impact on me.
We visited the memorial first, which is dedicated to victims of lynching across the USA. It is laid out as a series of engraved metal boxes, each one representing a different US county and carrying the names of lynching victims, where there are records of them. Walking through it was a very powerful experience and brought me to tears.
It pairs with the Legacy Museum, in downtown Montgomery, which traces the history of slavery and its legacies. Having spent the previous weekend on the Historical Association Teaching Fellowship considering Britain and slavery, it was humbling to see how carefully and thoroughly the subject had been dealt with, particularly in light of the fact we don’t have anything similar in the UK yet.
We had around 45 minutes in each space but could easily have spent twice as long at the memorial and three times as long at the museum. The opening of it has been controversial and both sites require patrons to enter through metal detectors – which opens up a whole avenue of discussion to be had with students around history, memory, politics, tourism, ethics…
Kelly Ingram Park was the site of several civil rights demonstrations in the 1960s. There is a circular walk around the mark to take in several pieces of sculpture related to the civil rights movement, including a statue of Martin Luther King and beds full of Coretta Scott King roses, and some replica water cannon of the type used by Bull Connor on student demonstrators in the park in 1963. There’s even a tree planted in honour of Anne Frank.
Kelly Ingram Park sits opposite the 16th Street Baptist Church, famous site of the 1963 Klan bombing that killed four little girls, and also opposite the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. We visited the former on Sunday morning for part of their service and then moved on to the latter for a tour with another fantastic tour guide, Dr Martha Bouyer, who modestly informed us that she’d worked with schools on their History programmes but when we Googled her we found that she’d basically spent 15 years in charge of the curriculum for her county. She was one of those guides where other visitors start to surreptitiously tag along with your tour because she’s so interesting – to be fair, that happened with almost all of our guides. She really knew her stuff.
The museum was filled with artefacts relating to segregation and even has the actual bars of the cell Martin Luther King was held in when he wrote his ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail.’ And a KKK robe, displayed with a partially burnt cross from the 1990s, donated by the FBI. THE 1990s. Also I got to stand in Rev Shuttlesworth’s pulpit. Guys. How can you not go. Here’s a good article about this place.
So, anyway, all of this is within a few minutes’ walk and just round the corner from an excellent eatery called Pizitz food hall which serves all kinds of different foods (including fried catfish and chicken and waffles) and could only be more perfect for a bunch of teenagers if it had a McDonald’s in it, the lack thereof making it even more perfect in the eyes of a majority of teachers, I’d imagine.
3. Vulcan Park
Because it’s been a while since I taught the CRM at A-level, I tried to brush up my subject knowledge before the trip and started with Vulcan Park, but was left feeling puzzled about its relevance. However, it added a whole extra layer of detail to the history of Birmingham and its people. You can see the whole city laid out below you and climb to the top of the Vulcan monument, which is the world’s largest cast iron statue and a reminder of Birmingham’s steelworking legacy. Dr Bouyer accompanied us to the park and talked us through the origins of the city and the way the geology of the area makes it perfect for steel production but also how it contributed to segregation in the area. One of the biggest steel concerns, Sloss, paid its workers in ‘clackers’ that could only be spent at the company store, rather than in cash, leading to workers being indebted to the company; ‘slavery by another name’, as Martha put it.
There’s a lot here to be discussed from a history point of view – the legacy of slavery and conditions for people of colour after emancipation; America’s industrial revolution (Birmingham has no large body of water and was founded as something of an experiment to see whether rail would do instead); but it’s also a lovely bit of geology/geography and there’s a fantastic display in the museum of the different Supreme Court judgements that Alabama has played a part in.
There’s not much to see in Selma, but what there is packs a punch. We met with a guide who walked across the bridge on the freedom march of 1965, and then again on the anniversary of it with the Obamas – we know this second bit because we saw her in a picture for sale at the Lowndes Interpretive Centre, a museum and monument on the road between Selma and Montgomery. She spoke with passion and energy about the march and the civil rights struggle, walking us across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and telling us about her experiences in the movement. It was one of the most powerful bits of the trip. It also felt humbling to be able to walk across the bridge with such ease, knowing the weight of history that surrounds that act.
5. The most historic corner in America
This space in Montgomery also has a heavy weight of history on it. In the centre, where the fountain is, there used to be an auction site for enslaved people. The telegram that authorised military action at the start of the American Civil War was sent from the Winter building, on one corner. The Selma to Montgomery marchers crossed it on their way to the state capitol, and Rosa Parks got on her bus on another corner. There’s a lot of history here.
6. Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church
A little further up from this historic corner is the church where Martin Luther King preached. Once again, we had a spectacular guide who took us around the church, explaining the mural, allowing us to stand at MLK’s pulpit…
(It had to be done, obvs)
…and then taking us up into the Church and speaking with such verve about the civil rights struggle that it all became very emotional. It’s one thing to read about these places and see pictures, but a real benefit of the trip was to be able to visit them in quick succession, being contextualised with nuggets of information from people that witnessed the events and for whom this isn’t so much history as a memoir. That MLK should end up the pastor at a Baptist church between the site of an auction of the enslaved and the government building where the confederacy declared its independence is surely no accident: being there to see it and appreciate the very special geography of the place helped me to make a lot of connections in my mind.
7. The Rosa Parks Museum
Next to the bus stop where Rosa Parks was forced off her bus and arrested stands the Rosa Parks museum. This is fairly newly opened and has everything you might want to see or know about the incident and the civil rights struggle around it. The museum tour begins with a very cleverly put together video re-enactment, which is projected into the side of a replica bus, so it does really feel as though you are standing watching the event through the windows.
The tour continues with further insight into the civil rights movement and the actions taken by individuals to agitate for change, alongside some really fascinating exhibits, including a great piece of propaganda called ‘Labor Day Weekend at a Communist Training School’ (no pictures allowed, sadly) which painted MLK as a communist and suggested mixed-race relationships were also a communist thing. The context of the Red Scare is helpful as a strand in the story of why the CRM came under such suspicion: being anti-communist was presumably much more fashionable/acceptable than being anti-black.
At the end of the tour there’s a lovely bronze status of Rosa, which a seat next to her. I looked at it for a long time, trying to work out if the slightly shiny patches on the seat and the floor meant people were allowed to sit on it. In the end our hosts noticed and waved me up there with gusto. It is meant for just such a photo opportunity. Joy! Make sure you build in a bit of time here so that every student can do this for the ‘gram.
8. Good for Politics students
On our last day in Montgomery we managed to squeeze in a trip to the state capitol. It’s an impressive building at the top of a street, not far from the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, and it holds an extensive museum, tracing Alabama’s history – we had about 15 minutes so didn’t have a chance to scratch the surface, but there’s a lot to see, from Native Americans to cotton gins to WW2 airmen. As well as this, in the capitol building itself, there’s a spectacular cantilevered staircase with an interesting history, being designed and built by an emancipated slave; and we were able to go into the state Senate and House chambers. Jefferson Davis took his oath as President of the Confederate States in 1861, following their secession. The Selma marchers ended their pilgrimage on the steps.
This isn’t Washington DC, which is probably the natural location for A-level Politics students studying the American system, but there are significant benefits to visiting a state capital and its legislature instead: this bit of the political system is very different to the UK. There are lots of opportunities to discuss states’ rights in the context of the CRM and the aforementioned Supreme Court judgements detailed at Vulcan Park provide insight into the judicial branch of government and how it is used as an instrument of law-making. And the recent politics is juicy: Roy Moore, mixing up church and state, defying the Supreme Court and getting suspended, being accused of sexual misconduct with minors and losing an election, getting pranked by Sacha Baron Cohen. Voter behaviour in the Black Belt. And, since Kavanaugh’s elevation to the Supreme Court, I think Alabama might be where the first Roe vs Wade challenge comes from (follow up: I started this blog at the end of April and the news has moved on a bit since then – I’m pleased to see I was right, is all I can say). There’s a lot going on.
9. Links with other subjects
As well as a good link for Politics students, there are lots of other places that make it relevant for other subjects. Our guide Sheryl talked enthusiastically about Barber Motorsports Museum, just outside Birmingham, which traces the history of motorcycles and includes engineering workshops that provide students with the opportunity to build a small motorcycle alongside the museum’s restoration crew. Alabama is known for its fossils and dinosaur remains and there’s a Museum of Natural History in Tuscaloosa. I did hear a whisper about dinosaur digs that can be visited – the tourist board would undoubtedly be able to give more information about this. F Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald lived in Montgomery for a while and there’s a museum dedicated to him.
Also, there are lots of universities in the surrounding areas: we visited Tuskegee, which is a historic black university founded by Booker T Washington, while the University of Alabama Birmingham specialises in medicine and hosts a lot of overseas students. This is aside from all the galleries, science centres and other visit opportunities available. It would be easy to fill a week with educational experiences for all.
10. Good southern hospitality
I’ve spent a lot of time in the USA, as a result of having a father who’s lived there since 1991. In my experience, Americans are almost universally friendly, helpful, polite and hospitable. Alabamans are like this to the extreme. Everywhere we went, we were greeted with hugs and smiles. Our guides went out of their way to ensure that we got the very best out of the time we had, seeking out extras we might be interested in and squeezing in additional visits where possible. Our host, John, was tireless and endlessly patient with our requests. They were all great advocates for their state and, while of course you would expect this from a group of people employed to ensure we come back, they interacted with each other in the same way, and our interactions with people not working for the tourist board were similarly positive. The hotel staff were friendly, the cities were clean and felt safe, there wasn’t any traffic to speak of. Having been to NYC and Washington DC, I would feel more confident leading a school group in AL than either of those places – and the history is much more powerful. In my opinion. Many of our guides had participated in the Civil Rights Movement – this was a lived experience for them. The opportunities to learn from these people will naturally dwindle as time passes, so it’s worth getting in on it now.
And the weather was lovely, of course. Naturally I got sun burn, though only in the places I put suncream. Bizarre. I’m not sure if a trip in the height of summer would work for me, but April was lovely. And the food! I’m not sure I can ever eat fried chicken again. In the words of Viggo Mortensen in Green Book, it just tastes better there – must be because it’s fresher.
So, if this has piqued your interest, I do recommend getting in touch with Grace at MSG Tours, who wrote her own blog about the visit here. I’m working on plans for a sixth form trip in 2020.