Archive for the 'Alabama' Category

Inspiring story of Benjamin Sterling Turner shared in new children’s book embraced by Congresswoman Terri Sewell

Monday, March 16th, 2020 by Matthew Byrne

Neither Congresswoman Terri Sewell nor Benjamin Sterling Turner were born in Dallas County, Alabama, but both came to IMG_1175represent the 7th District of Alabama with fervor and dedication. Turner was born a slave and rose to be Alabama’s first African American representative in Congress. 140 years after Turner took office, Terri Sewell was put in charge of the 7th district, the first African American woman to do so. After the recent publication of The Slave Who Went to Congress—an illustrated children’s book detailing Turner’s early life and political career—Congresswoman Sewell visited Clark Elementary in Selma with authors Frye Gaillard and Marti Rosner and gifted students there fifty copies of the book. Sewell movingly told the schoolchildren attending her program that she “stands on the shoulders of Benjamin Sterling Turner,” who paved the way for her civil service with his bold
FrontCover choice to run for office. This incredible intersection of history reminds us of how important historymakers like Turner and Sewell are; the effects of their leadership can be felt in Dallas County today. The Slave Who Went to Congress—which the Midwest Book Review calls “a choice pick for personal, school, and library collections”—is a powerful account of an impactful life and, importantly, introduces Turner’s remarkable story of bravery and leadership to children around the world.

Barry Alexander Brown, Spike Lee team up on movie project based on Bob Zellner book

Monday, June 10th, 2019 by Matthew Byrne

Legendary civil rights activist Bob Zellner gained a loyal cadre of fans after the publication of his award-winning memoir The Wrong Side of Murder Creek in 2011, a book which was recently re-released in trade paperback, but the story will reach an entirely new audience with the production of Son of the South, a movie based on his book that is due out in fall 2019. Barry Alexander Brown and Spike Lee team up on 222-2 TWSMC fcover 300dpi project, with Brown directing and Lee signed on as executive producer; Brown has worked with Lee for more than 30 years, serving as editor on almost every film Lee has made. Brown met Bob Zellner twenty years ago and was fascinated by the civil rights activist’s story of redemption. He has adapted Zellner’s memoir into a biographical film, covering Zellner’s life from his time as a youth (he was born into a Klan family) to his becoming the first white field secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The film features two rising stars in Lucas Till and Lucy Hale, both well-known for their roles in the hit TV shows MacGyver and Pretty Little Liars, respectively. Till plays Zellner with the passion and commitment to civil and human rights causes that the subject retains in his 80th year. To film one exciting scene, Brown and crew reenacted the tragic beating the Freedom Riders suffered in Montgomery outside of the actual Greyhound bus station where the historic event took place. Read more about Son of the South at the Hollywood Reporter and Variety (;, at, and also enjoy a special documentary interview with Barry Brown from Germantown High School’s student-led news program:

Author Foster Dickson bridges school borders in the name of sustainability

Monday, May 20th, 2019 by Matthew Byrne

Foster Dickson is many things: a writer, an English teacher, a Southerner, and a former NewSouth staffer. He’s taught at Booker T. Washington Magnet High School in Montgomery, Alabama, for many years now, but he recently embarked on a new project aimed at educating his students about environmental sustainability, especiallyAuthor Foster Dickson with respect to the production of food. Foster started a gardening club a few years ago, talking to students about how one can grow a garden and helping them to see sustainability as a social justice issue. Following Booker T. Washington’s recent move to a new campus, he found himself with enough space outdoors for an official school garden. To continue his personal growth as a sustainability educator and advocate, Foster has joined forces with Loveless Academic Magnet English teacher Gina Aaij and will attend the Rob and Melani Walton National Sustainability Teachers’ Academy in Montana. “Since neither Gina nor I are science teachers, I thought we were a long shot to get in,” he said. Foster’s new book Closed Ranks: The Whitehurst Case in Post-Civil Rights Montgomery is an example of his other social justice work, as he struggled to bring the true story behind Bernard Whitehurst’s killing at the hands of a Montgomery police officer to light. About his book historian Richard Bailey says, “Foster Dickson has pulled together every possible resource to afford Bernard Whitehurst Jr. the sense of justice surrounding his death that he never received in life.”

Aileen Kilgore Henderson awarded Druid Arts Award from the Arts Council of Tuscaloosa

Wednesday, May 15th, 2019 by Matthew Byrne

Aileen Kilgore Henderson is much beloved in artistic and historical circles in Alabama. So we are pleased to see her work celebrated last month by the Arts Council of Tuscaloosa, which awarded her the Druid Arts 56890335_10157286392877009_4602948311190601728_o Award in the Literary Arts. The award recognizes the demonstrated quality of her body of work, her contributions to the literary community, and the overall visibility she has helped bring to the arts. Pictured here with her daughter and son-in-law, Henderson is the award-winning author of several children’s books, but it’s her Eugene Allen Smith’s Alabama we are obviously most proud of. This book published by NewSouth Books is the definitive work on Alabama’s first state geologist, who spent the better part of a lifetime traversing the state with notebook and Brownie camera in hand, documenting Alabama’s abundant natural and geological resources. Smith’s work directly contributed to the commercial and industrial development of Alabama of the late nineteenth century. Lewis Dean in his foreword to the book says, “Smith was short in stature, but a giant of1588382435 a man. He believed in progress. His life and work testify to the conviction that society and individuals can build a better world.” Like Smith, Ms. Henderson has done her state a service. Eugene Allen Smith’s Alabama reintroduces a preeminent Alabamian, who in his own time had a positive influence in shaping his native state and left an enduring legacy of science and service. We celebrate Ms. Henderson’s outstanding achievement in returning that story to us.

Frye Gaillard adds Jefferson Cup Honor Book for Go South to Freedom, film documentary about Journey to the Wilderness to list of credits

Wednesday, July 12th, 2017 by Randall Williams

Award-winning author Frye Gaillard is enjoying a banner year: his book Go South to Freedom has just been named a Jefferson Cup Honor Book for young adult readers by the Virginia Library Association. The Jefferson Cup honors a distinguished biography, work of historical fiction or American history book for young people. Presented since 1983, the Jefferson Cup Committee’s goal is to promote reading about America’s past; to encourage the quality writing of United States history, biography, and historical fiction for young people; and to recognize authors in these disciplines.

News of the award reached Frye as he was on the road filming a television documentary based on his book Journey to the Wilderness: War, Memory, and a Southern Family’s Civil War Letters. Produced by Mike Letcher of Dragonfly Public Media, the program follows the footsteps of Gaillard’s ancestors who fought in the Civil War. In the film Gaillard reflects on the Civil War letters written by his great-great-grandfather and other family members, noting, “My own generation was perhaps the last that was raised on those stories of gallantry and courage. Oddly, mine was also one of the first to view the Civil War through the lens of civil rights.” The film is being produced in partnership with The Center for War and Memory at The University of South Alabama for public television.

In other news, Frye Gaillard has just put the final touches on his forthcoming memoir A Hard Rain: America in the 1960s, Our Decade of Hope and Innocence Lost. In this book, Gaillard gives us a deeply personal history, bringing his keen storyteller’s eye to this pivotal time in American life. A Hard Rain is due out from NewSouth Books in spring 2018. He is presently at work researching the life of Benjamin Turner for his first illustrated children’s book, a project he’s collaborating on with Marti Rosner. The Slave Who Went to Congress will be released by NewSouth Books in fall 2018.

Go South to Freedom is available from NewSouth Books or your favorite bookstore.

Anniston, Alabama’s pitfalls, triumphs, told in books

Tuesday, July 1st, 2014 by Brian Seidman

Baptized in PCBs by Ellen SpearsAnniston, Alabama has a storied, sometimes infamous history, including the burning of a Freedom Riders bus in the 1960s and more recently, legal battles over environmental pollution caused by chemical plants in the city. A new book by University of Alabama professor Ellen Spears, Baptized in PCBs: Race, Pollution, and Justice in an All-American Town, tackles those latter environmental issues — not to denigrate Anniston, Spears suggests in her book, but so as to face Anniston’s past and help it move forward.

Both Spears’s book, and a recent Anniston Star column about books on Anniston, cite NewSouth’s Beyond the Burning Bus by J. Phillips Noble, about the Freedom Rider attacks. Spears’s book makes powerful linkages between Anniston’s civil rights history and the polychlorinated biphenyls environmental crisis. Spears points to Noble’s memoir in her account of how both crises were handled by local leaders; she also discusses the lingering effects of both events on Anniston, its reputation, and the lives of local people.

Another recent memoir on Anniston published by NewSouth is In Love with Defeat: The Making of a Southern Liberal, by Anniston Star publisher H. Brandt Ayers.

Read more about these titles from the Anniston Star.

Ellen Spears’s Baptized in PCBs: Race, Pollution, and Justice in an All-American Town is available now. Beyond the Burning Bus by J. Phillips Noble and In Love with Defeat by H. Brandt Ayers are both available from NewSouth Books or your favorite bookstore.

On MLK’s Holiday, a Few Words About the Poor

Monday, January 20th, 2014 by Randall Williams

Today is the MLK holiday, although in Alabama the adoption of the holiday passed the legislature only by designating it as also being in honor of the birth of Robert E. Lee, who coincidentally shares the same birth week as King, so that white state workers taking the day off didn’t have to do so in tribute to civil rights.

Setting aside that head-in-the-sand Alabama political posturing, it is MLK Day, which means it’s a good day to remember that though MLK is rightly celebrated as a leader of the movement which broke the back of legalized segregation, toward the end of his life he was mostly campaigning to end economic injustice and war (at the time, in Vietnam). And while the civil rights movement was relatively straightforward — Jim Crow laws were an obvious evil — and gained the support of government, business, and, for the most part, the public, the same support was not forthcoming for anti-poverty and anti-war efforts.

For one thing, poverty and war have complex causes that are not easy to identify, much less target. For another, while changes in the U.S. economy and infrastructure had largely eliminated the economic benefits to white Southerners of first slavery and then segregation, there remained/remain powerful interests who profited from poverty and war.

The poverty part of that profit equation is hard for some to swallow, though I believe the case can be made. Consider the hugely profitable low-end loan, check cashing, rent-to-own furniture, etc., businesses that prey on the poor. Consider the prison-industrial complex that has expanded alongside the increased incarceration rates of the poor. Consider the increased numbers of well-paid and well-pensioned judges, prosecutors, police, and support personnel, and all the suppliers and manufacturers of their furnishings and consumables needed to keep a lid clamped on the “criminal” poor.

The military part of the profit equation is more obvious; even President Dwight D. Eisenhower, our last five-star commander in chief, famously warned of this danger, but we just keep spending and spending.

But back to the poor, and the impetus for my taking up your time today …

The NYT has recently been running a good series, “The Great Divide,” about the country’s return to Gilded Age levels of income inequality. Reading the NYT this morning, I was struck by today’s entry about the results of a study by an epidemiologist examining linkage between poverty and mental health. Her conclusions seem to indicate that — surprise — giving poor people money improves their lives and saves the taxpayers money. I suppose this is the academic equivalent of the folk wisdom that money can’t buy happiness, but the absence of money does buy misery. And the societal costs of misery are high.

As Congress dithers on extending benefits for the long-term unemployed, and is likely to pass a Farm Bill that will further cut food stamps even while subsidies continue to agribusiness, it seems a good time to think about policies that might actually help the poor and the country.

Jeff Benton compiles Montgomery reading list, recommended books

Monday, October 28th, 2013 by Brian Seidman

Jeffrey Benton edits local history titles for NewSouth Books; he is also the author of the newly released Respectable and Disreputable: Leisure Time in Antebellum Montgomery, Alabama. He was inspired to compile a list of books about Montgomery in completing the writing of his own book. Jeff writes:

When I was looking over the bibliography of Respectable and Disreputable: Leisure Time in Antebellum Montgomery for one last time before the book went to the printer, it occurred to me that there are a respectable number of books about Montgomery. Although there is no definitive history of the city, Mary Ann Neeley’s The Works of Matthew Blue, Montgomery’s First Historian fulfills this role for the city’s early history.

Scores of more specialized books fill in the intervening years up to the present. Personally, I’ve use many of these books in writing more than 250 newspaper articles on local history. So I was inspired to compile a list of books on the city and its environs with the hope that others may find local history more accessible. I forwarded the list to the main Montgomery County Library and to NewSouth Books. The latter, of course, has made this list available on its website. I am grateful to NewSouth Books for having done so and assume that others who want to appreciate and understand the city will also be grateful.

View the “Selected Books About Montgomery, Alabama” reading list on the NewSouth website. Jeff Benton’s latest book, Respectable and Disreputable: Leisure Time in Antebellum Montgomery, Alabama, is available now.

Memoirist Sue Pickett shares an economics lesson, still meaningful

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012 by Randall Williams

In the current Great Recession, some 8 to 9 percent are officially unemployed; many more—especially among groups such as minorities, the young, those without high school diplomas, those 55 and over—are omitted from the official statistics because they have quit looking for jobs. Still, there’s a huge difference between 9 percent and the 25 to 30 percent that were unemployed during the Great Depression of the 1930s (or now in some European countries).

For those U.S. families whose breadwinners are still working and who didn’t lose their homes to foreclosure, etc., what we have been going through since the last half of George W. Bush’s administration mostly passes without personal pain. Small wonder then that the average citizen ignores the debates around economic policy, the safety net, and the nature and role of government itself; such matters are left to the special interests, the pundits, and, sadly, the talk radio and faux news show hosts.

Around the office, we have been proofreading the forthcoming The Path Was Steep by Suzanne Pickett. This is a small gem of a book, a memoir by an Alabama woman who was a young wife and mother during the Depression, in the coal camps of north Alabama and for a time in West Virginia. This will be a new edition of a book that we first published in the 1990s and that has been out of print for several years.

Mrs. Pickett died a few years after we initially published her book. She was, as her memoir proves on every page, one of those spirits who make you feel more alive by knowing them. Though she was self-taught as a writer, she had a natural storytelling gift and the ability to express a scene so that you feel present in it.

Two or three of our young staffers and interns have remarked while copyediting and proofreading the page galleys of The Path Was Steep that it made them for the first time understand the Great Depression. Here’s an excerpt of a few pages from the memoir, in a chapter from the period when Mrs. Pickett’s husband David had found work in a West Virginia coal camp:

One afternoon, as we ate supper, a small boy and girl appeared at the kitchen door. The little girl was about ten and had a curious, old-woman look in her face. The boy, a year or so younger, stared at a plate of leftover boiled corn.

“Have you had supper?” I asked gently.

The girl’s face reddened. “We was just going to ask if you have any food to spare.”

“Of course there is food.” I took down two plates.

“Could we have it in a poke?”

“Are there others?” I asked.

“Mommie and Aunt Bess and three small children.”

“Where do you live?” I asked.

She bent her head, and her face reddened again. “Nowhere.” It was only a breath. “We—we’ve got people over the mountain.”

“Where did you sleep last night?” I put my arm around her shoulders.

“Down the road.” She raised her head. “I aim to pay for the food. I’ll wash dishes,” she said.

“You slept outdoors?”

“We built a fire. Hit wasn’t cold.”

Nights in the mountains were always cold. “Go tell your folks to come here for supper,” I said.

“If you’ll let me work. I aim to pay.”

“If that’s the way you want it,” I agreed. I knew the stern pride of the mountaineers.

“That’s the way hit has to be,” she said.

I stirred the fire in the kitchen stove, sliced salt pork, put it in a pan at the back of the stove, and ran to the garden. The pork just needed turning when I returned with corn, tomatoes, onions, and lettuce. By the time the corn bubbled on the stove in salted water, with a little butter added for flavor, and biscuits were browned, the girl was back with her family. The women, young and fair, looked tired and hopeless. The smaller children were shy, hardly speaking. After supper they were all a little more cheerful.

The girl’s name was Irene. She washed her hands, cleared the table, and began to wash dishes. One look at her face, and I didn’t interfere.

“You got some soap we could have?” her mother asked. “We ain’t washed no clothes since we left Pennsylvania.”

“How did you travel?” I took a bar of Octagon laundry soap from a pantry shelf.

“Rode a freight. They found us at the state line and throwed us off the train. Said if hit wasn’t fer the children, they’d a throwed us in jail.”

Irene swept the kitchen floor, then carried water to wash the clothes. They hung them up on my lines and stayed until dark; then the aunt said, “You mind if we sleep in yore yard?”

“We’ve plenty of room for all of you,” I said, my throat dry.

“Just make us a pallet,” she smiled listlessly.

But I crowded Sharon and Davene into bed with David and me, so the women could have a bed. Perhaps it was the first they’d slept in for many nights.

Irene spread their bedding on the floor. It was dirty and mud-stained. I offered my only clean sheets for cover. “I mean to pay,” her eyes were fierce gray. “I’ll sweep yore yard in the morning.” She had watched as I put the girls to bed, first kneeling with them for their prayers. She knelt and whispered, and I saw tears falling from her hands between her fingers.

I fought back tears. How had she kept her pride? Her mother, aunt, and the smaller ones had the very smell of the Depression about them. Pride, if they ever possessed it, and most mountaineers do, was gone and there was a trapped, animal look—I couldn’t describe it, but when David came in from work the next day, I knew. It was the look of cheap, shoddy, used goods.

There was two dollars in my purse. I didn’t even dare look at the fireplace, but slipped the money to Irene’s mother and gathered corn and tomatoes, found half a box of crackers and some cheese, and put them in a bag just before they left the next day.

Irene washed dishes, swept the floors, and was sweeping the yard when her mother called. “Time for us to git on.”

“I done what I could,” Irene told me.

“You did more than you should,” I stooped to kiss her.

She threw her arms around me and gave a big, gasping sob. “You are so good, as good as any angel,” she wept.

“Oh, no,” I whispered and held her close. “Why don’t you visit with us for a week or so?” I asked. I’d bathe the child, cut her hair, make her a dress. “All right?” I asked her mother.

“You can have her fer good if you want,” indifferently.

I looked at Irene, dreading to see the blow strike. But her eyes grew luminous and she ran to her mother. “I have to go with Mommie! I have to!” Her face grew protective, tender, burning with love, and suddenly I understood. The mother was whipped, cowed. Nothing was left to her, not even love for her children; but this child was not whipped. Somehow, Irene would get them through this Depression, if it ever ended, as a golden voice over our $14.50 portable radio promised over and over that it would end.

As they started away, Irene darted back to whisper fiercely, “Don’t think Mommie wants to give me away. She just wants to get a good home fer me.”

“Of course she does.” I kissed her, and her face lighted at my words. I offered them as a sacrifice to the child, and if He will accept a lie as a sacrifice, I offered them to God, for I knew the words to be a lie. Irene’s mother would be happy to be rid of the child. But no earthly power could make Irene believe this. Her love was so overwhelming that she wrapped it like a warm blanket around her mother. She was a swamp blossom. Pure gold, growing from black swamp mould. Perhaps her love would be strong enough to save her mother.

Sadly, there were not enough Sue Picketts in the 1930s to save or even help all the Irenes. But brick-by-brick, led by that golden voice that resonated on the Picketts’ $14 radio, Congress built the New Deal safety net programs, expanded during the 1960s by the Great Society legislation, that today by and large keep our Irenes fed, clothed, and housed during hard times. Today these programs are threatened. We should tread carefully before we dismantle them.

Remembering Alabama education pioneer Dr. Ethel Hall

Monday, November 21st, 2011 by Brian Seidman

Dr. Ethel Hall, the first African American woman elected to the Alabama State Board of Education, died this month at age 83. Hall had recounted both her two decades on the Board of Education and her early struggle to achieve higher education in her memoir My Journey, published earlier this year by NewSouth Books.

In a review of My Journey, First Draft‘s Linda McQueen called Dr. Hall “the epitome of a true role model for all generations. [Her memoir] is filled with memorable narratives of faith and hope. It is an inspiration to readers facing adversities and finding joy and success in achieving their goals.”

In her memoir, Dr. Hall discussed her experiences with prejudice and discrimination, while at the same time emphasizing her family’s love that helped her pursue education despite her family’s poverty; Hall left her parents’ farm at a young age live with her grandparents in order to be closer to school. She later graduated from Alabama A&M College, received masters and doctoral degrees, and taught high school and college before her election to the state board. Among issues she dealt with were strengthening academic requirements for grade school education and maintaining education standards despite budget cuts.

Dr. Hall wrote, “I carefully and consciously prepared for a challenging, demanding career in education because I believe learning is a lifelong process that impacts every individual. My experiences have affirmed my belief in a greater need for advocacy for those who are least able to make the changes needed in our social system.”

Read more about Dr. Ethel Hall from the Birmingham News.

My Journey: A Memoir of the First African American to Preside Over the Alabama Board of Education by Dr. Ethel Hall is available from NewSouth Books,, or your favorite bookseller.