Saturday, May 03, 2008

Huntsville, Alabama: A foray into Dixie

Huntsville, Alabama
This last week, as part of my duties in the convoluted and bewildering process of developing software for public consumption, I made a visit to Huntsville, Alabama.

Huntsville is Alabama's fourth largest city, with a population of some 370,000 people in the metro area, and is situated in the extreme north of the state, only some 30 miles from the state line with Tennessee.

Huntsville was founded by John Hunt, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, who built his cabin near Big Spring in 1805. The settlement grew quickly and was originally named Twickenham  in honor of Leroy Pope, the "Father of Huntsville" because of his early investment in the area. (Pope was born in Twickenham, England.)  But anti-British sentiment that arose in the War of 1812 led to a rechristening to "Huntsville" after old John Hunt.

The "basket room" in Constitution Village
Huntsville grew prosperous when wealthy cotton growers came from Georgia, Virginia, and the Carolinas and established plantations just in time for the "Cotton is King" era. Huntsville was also the site of a major rail head for the Memphis and Charleston Railroad; the first railroad to connect the Atlantic coast to the Mississippi River.

A monument to Confederate soldiers
At the outbreak of the Civil War, sentiment in Huntsville (and most of northern Alabama) was of a Federalist bent.  That is, Huntsville wanted to stay in the Union. But the city followed her state.  The people of northern Alabama joined their brothers in arms by raising the 4th Alabama Infantry Regiment.  That unit fought in the first Battle of Mannasas (or Bull Run).  But Huntsville's time with the Confederacy was short.  Due to her strategic rail head, Huntsville quickly became a military objective for the Union. The city was occupied without a fight by Federal troops in April, 1862 and, other than a brief interval in early 1863, it remained in Union hands for the remainder of the war. The Federals spared Huntsville the torch, no doubt due to its pro-Union sentiments.

Big Spring Park
Today, Huntsville is a thriving metro area. I've heard that Huntsville boasts more Ph.D. graduates per capita than any other city in the United States. It is home to the Marshall Space Flight Center and a growing software industry.

This trip was my first foray into Dixie. My previous visits to former Confederate territories were limited to Florida and Texas (which any southerner will tell you are not "real" Dixie). I have to admit I had some trepidation. The images that I had conjured up in anticipation of my trip involved racial segregation and gun-toting rednecks. Well, this trip served as a reminder to me that such stereotypes are grossly unfair.

Netting fish
Although coworkers assured me that racist sentiments still exist, running just below the surface of public perception, the Huntsville I saw was filled with charming, friendly people. I spent one morning walking around Huntsville's downtown area and Big Spring Park and was greeted with a nod, a smile, and a friendly "Good morning" by everyone I encountered.

One of Huntsville's many antebellum mansions
I dined on excellent local cuisine, including hush puppies (deep-fried cornbread), catfish fillets, barbecued pork, coleslaw, and fried pickles. I visited the Harrison Brothers Hardware Store, founded in 1879 and walked through the Constitution Village museum with many exhibits that depict life in the old South. I walked through the Twickenham district and saw the long street lined with stately antebellum mansions. The city is very proud of its Big Spring Park which has a long beautiful walkway along the Big Spring, originating at the site of John Hunt's first cabin.

Friendly southerners
I came away from my visit with my perceptions changed, which, of course, is why one travels in the first place. Southern hospitality, I found, is real. But I was also mildly chastised by the friendliness and openness of the people. I was compelled to put aside my ugly misconceptions about the South. And, I realized that...I liked these people.

1 comment:

Ridwan said...

Great post Dade. I travelled some in the south and I came away with a similar experience.

Now I have Huntsville, Alabama, to visit and see, thanks to you.

Can't wait.

Peace brother,