It was a cool, crisp autumn day in central Florida. The young girl struggled to keep pace with the man she followed. At the edge of tall grass the man offered a hand and said, “Follow me.” He led her through it to the edge of a shallow marsh dotted with ancient live oak and cypress trees draped in Spanish moss. The man chose a log under one of the oaks and instructed to girl to sit. After explicit instructions to not leave the log, sit still and keep your eyes open the man walked away and disappeared into the tall grass.
The girl did as instructed. She was excited and her anticipation was palpable. She sat still and concentrated on what was around her. Her eyes and ears focused in search of her quarry. One hour later, the man returned, greeted her with a smile and hug and asked what she had seen.
In the spring of that same year a young boy reached for the hand of a man in the pre-dawn gloom in northeast Louisiana. When the man grasped the boy’s hand he helped him out of the small boat moored on the shore of the Tensas River. With firm ground under their feet the man led the boy into vast hardwood forest that stretched for miles away from the river’s bank.
The man held the boy’s hand until they had climbed the steep river bank and reached level ground. Once there, the man let go of the boy’s hand and said “follow me.”
The five-minute walk proved challenging for the boy. He was not accustomed to negotiating fallen limbs and sticks on the forest floor in low light. Each time the boy tripped the man offered a hand and guided him further into the forest.
When the man stopped he leaned down, put that strong hand on the boy’s shoulder and whispered instructions for the boy to stay here, be still, listen, and concentrate of what he heard and saw. The man turned, walked away and disappeared into the forest.
That year was 1960, almost six decades ago. The girl was there to see how many snipe she could count. The boy was there to try to hear a turkey gobble. After a short period of time, around an hour, the men returned to the children to ask what they had seen and heard.
During that single hour, the girl learned lessons that would guide her through a life where ever unfolding happiness and joy to be found in the outdoors was her lot in life. She learned to listen, watch, be patient and not be afraid of what lived in the marsh. The girl had not seen a single snipe.
The boy did not hear a single gobble but learned that the forest was alive with other birds and their songs. He learned how he could hear better if he did not shuffle his feet. He learned that his eyes would adjust to low light with the passage of time. He learned there was nothing to fear in the forest.
That girl was Tes Randle Jolly. The boy was me. The men were our fathers. They recognized our desire to explore and understand the world around us. They knew the lore of tales we had heard about snipe in the marsh and turkeys gobbling in the forest.
The Black Belt region of Alabama is ripe with history, legends and folklore. The origins of stories such as Jeffrey, the friendly ghost who haunted the Kathryn Tucker Windham House in Selma, the ghost Agnes at Double Gates near McIntosh, rumors of long-tailed cats and bears heard all across the region, tales of parents taking their children to listen for the wompas cat in Macon County’s Hardaway Swamp or the legend of sleek P51 Mustangs with red tails piloted by young African American men and how they helped turn the tide in World War II live in the Black Belt.
Come along, learn the history of the Civil War and hear stories of Union and Confederate soldiers still told after more than a century and a half. Visit sites where forts were built and battles were fought brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor, American against American. See the antebellum homes and churches built during that era and hear the stories of ghosts, broken hearts and lost souls. Or go back into the misty recesses of time, deep in yesteryear, and pause to ponder the fate of the Native Americans who built the mounds alongside Black Warrior River. Hear the music, taste the food and meet the people who live here. Let their way of life soak into your soul. Feel the energy and pride for lauded athletes like Bo Jackson, Bart Star, Joe Namath, Charles Barkley and legendary coaches like Pat Dye, Shug Jordan and Paul “Bear” Bryant on an autumn Saturday afternoon.
Visit small towns like Monroeville where Harper Lee, inspired by racist attitudes as seen through the eyes of two children, wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, a haunting, timeless tale that won her a Pulitzer Prize and Presidential Medal of Honor. Explore Tuskegee, home of celebrities Robin Roberts and Lionel Richie, the Tuskegee Airmen and George Washington Carver. Explore the route from Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge to the capitol city of Montgomery where the civil rights movement was born. Walk in the footprints of distinguished civil rights activists Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks who took a stand and changed a state and a nation.
Spend time in any coffee shop, sporting goods store, cafe or bait shop and listen to tales of giant whitetail bucks, wild turkey gobblers named Houdini or tackle-busting bass shared and savored by the hunters and anglers who pursue these legends of field and water. Look around and see the forests, rivers and streams that provide what the bucks, gobblers and bass require to grow old and big. Appreciate the people who manage the land, water and forests and make them better for all wildlife and the people who live here.
All this and more comprise the lore, legend and history that is the Black Belt. It is much more than fertile black soil. It is much more that than the wildlife and natural resources. It is where black, white and red people live as one people. It is where the traditions, customs, legends and beliefs of all people have room and space not only to exist but to flourish.
Sometimes, all it takes is a rumor of a wompas cat in the swamp, a ghost in an attic or the legends of famous people to open the door of your imagination. Once in a while a rumor of snipe in the marsh or a turkey gobbling in the forest rouses you to take the step into the unknown. Challenge a child, friend or family member to investigate the rumors, myths and legends. Slow down and discover all the wonders, history, traditions and lore that dwell here. You will always find a helping hand extended, waiting to show you the way. Follow me to Alabama’s Black Belt!