I commend Dr. Richard Bailey for writing his fifth book on African Americans in Alabama.
I first met Dr. Bailey at a Calhoun Community College Professional Development Conference in 1991. We were both invited participants on the conference program. It was a very cordial meeting, and it was at that time I learned about his first book, Neither Carpetbaggers Nor Scalawags. His prodigious research and the enthusiasm with which he conveyed the content of his book and discussed his topic impressed me. After the program, we indicated that we would stay in touch. However, as often is the case, this did not occur between the intervening years from 1991 to 1995.
However, as fate would have it, our paths did cross again in 1995. Shortly after I assumed a new administrative position as director of the State Black Archives, Research Center and Museum, I met Dr. Bailey again. We both attended the meeting of the Southeastern Regional Conference on Historic Preservation in Birmingham, Alabama, sponsored by the Alabama Historical Commission in the summer of 1995. It was at this conference that I learned of his plans to write another book, They Too Call Alabama Home. Two additional meetings that same year followed this renewed contact. One occasion was Dr. Bailey’s trip to Huntsville to promote his first book at bookstores in the city. The other occasion was during his return trip to Huntsville as a lecturer with the Alabama Humanities Foundation Speakers’ Bureau and as speaker for a program sponsored by the State Black Archives, Research Center and Museum. In addition, the State Black Archives, Research Center and Museum, located on the campus of Alabama A&M University (AAMU), and the AAMU Archives provided some assistance to Dr. Bailey to facilitate the writing project for his second book.
Although there are other works of the same genre that treat African-Americans in Alabama history, they do not deal exclusively with Blacks as a subject. But they are similar kinds of publications geared toward popular and practical use for an audience that appreciates an attractively illustrated reference work with helpful, readable, and easily attainable information, especially on culture and history, as is the case with They Too Call Alabama Home.
Works of this nature occupy an important place in such cultural and historical institutions as museums, archives, historical societies, and shops and stores that promote cultural and historical artifacts, heritage education, and tours. These kinds of works are often purchased as souvenirs and gifts and serve as conversation pieces in homes, businesses, and public places. Chambers of commerce and convention centers often use them as instructional aids to attract visitors and promote travel. Not intended exclusively for academic use, books of this type also serve as ready reference material for individuals, groups, and schools.
Although different in emphasis from the general pictorial or illustrated history and culture, Bailey’s approach reminds me of a book that I came across in Alabama A&M University’s archival collection entitled The Alabama Negro, published by I. H. Rhone in 1946. Rhone’s book is a collection of pictorial prints accompanied by a brief description of each print with additional commentary dispersed throughout. He divided his book into such categories as church, school, business, and social and civic life, and includes material that covers the years between 1863 and 1946. While the organization and editorial treatment of The Alabama Negro lack a professional approach, the book documents some of the significant achievements of Black Alabamians during this period. Despite shortcomings, Rhone’s work is an early attempt to use pictures and commentary to provide a sketch of Black life in Alabama. However, the time is past due for a more professional and extended treatment on this topic. Similar material is found in such publications as “Alabama’s Black Heritage,” a public relations booklet produced by the Alabama Bureau of Tourism and Travel under the direction of Frances Smiley. It is a high-quality piece of work, and she is to be commended for it.
Bailey’s work differs from Smiley’s in his emphasis on people rather than places. Perhaps the difference is that Bailey’s focus is on the humans who made great achievements as opposed to Smiley’s attention on the cultural materials that represent their accomplishments. In this respect, Bailey’s work is most similar to the earlier work by Rhone. In this book, Bailey, an independent scholar and professional historian, provides the treatment that the earlier work by Rhone lacked. It combines the popular and practical appeal with the substantive touch of the scholar and professional writer. The pictorial emphasis includes meaningful descriptions and commentary with useful references accompanying each for the casual or perusing reader. This added feature enhances the textural quality and, with the bibliography at the end of each profile, is good as a more extensive reading list and reflects the thorough efforts that characterized his earlier works.
The significance of Bailey’s work is his unique approach. Although the work focuses on Alabama, it is not limited to Alabama or “Alabamians” in the strictest sense. In They Too Call Alabama Home, Bailey seeks to claim a wider arena for the heritage of Alabama. He discusses not only native-born Alabamians who contributed to Alabama’s indigenous history and culture but focuses also on those persons who came from outside the state and made their mark here in Alabama. He also includes native-born Alabamians who left the state and made their mark outside of Alabama. Bailey places Alabama in a different context by defining its heritage much more broadly than others have done. This I find interesting because it has some affinity with the emphasis used at the State Black Archives, Research Center and Museum.
Calling Alabama home for Americans of African descent indicates their connection to the state. It means different things to those who claim that connection. For some African Americans, this connection existed before Alabama became a state—a time when as a territory the United States expanded and carried with it the spread of slavery and Blacks who were part of its population. For others, this connection came during the Civil War and Reconstruction. In addition, for still others, the linkage is much more recent. Whether native-born or migrant, Alabama residents have different reasons for staying in or moving to the state. Native sons and daughters who left the state, and in some instances returned as prodigals, join newcomers and other Alabamians to help shape Alabama’s history. Bailey also includes expatriates who achieved success elsewhere and who have chosen not to return to the state.
This book makes an important contribution to this genre of works and to Alabama history. It should find a home in many new appropriate places and environments and serve as a host to welcome a variety of visitors.
James W. Johnson, PhD
Professor of History and
Director, State Black Archives, Research Center and Museum
Leah Rawls Aktins, et al., Alabama: The History of a Deep South State (1994).
Edward Chambers Betts, A History of Historic Huntsville(reprinted, 1966).
I. H. Rhone, The Alabama Negro (1946).
Frances Smiley, “Alabama’s Black Heritage.”