Project Horseshoe Farm (PHF) in Greensboro, Alabama celebrated the 10th Anniversary of their Community Health Fellowship program. The best and brightest of their generation–young people interested in medicine and public health–apply to come and work for a year in rural Alabama and learn what holistic, community medicine is all about.
This year 19 fellows joined the Project Horseshoe Family. I was able to be there for the celebration, sing-off and party. It is inspiring to speak with the fellows–like Winona who is heading off to medical school next fall. I also met a few of the women who live in the supportive homes provided by PHF and lots of the community members who support the program, including by serving dinners to hungry fellows.
Congratulations Dr. John Dorsey and the growing happy band of alumni!
It was also the kick-off to my #MiddleAmericaTour. I pointed my rental car north and I’m excited to see what I can see in the next week.
If you are looking for a small town experience that matches the romantic notion of small town life, look no further than Greensboro, Alabama. So many small towns in America are dying or struggling to survive. Greensboro was almost dead 12 years ago and is now on the rise.
Some small town southern cliches were actually walking around on four legs. This is Fred the bloodhound and the locals said he goes where he wants. As dog people, we thought he was a great ambassador.
The Pie Lab was the first restaurant to open on Main Street, perhaps the first business too. Seven years ago it became an important gathering place for the Auburn University Rural Studio architecture students and the Project Horseshoe Farm fellows. Plus people in town who were driving to Marion and farther flung places for dining out.
We stayed in this five bedroom AirBnB. The girls were THRILLED with having a room of their own and LOVED the pool. It was good to remember what it was like to travel when you are 9 or 12 years old. They also were interested in local history.
We visited the Greensboro Safe House Black History Museum on Saturday by prearranged tour. Then on Sunday we walked around the grounds of Magnolia Grove. The latter stately home was a wealthy mansion (not a plantation home) in town and has volunteers staffing it Tuesday-Sunday (but not in the morning when everyone is in church).
There is a fabulous coffeehouse, The Stable, also on Main Street. They have a bookshelf (take one, leave one) and the library is less than a block away. I could envision a relaxed week of reading, swimming, cycling and eating. I’m betting on Greensboro’s future.
Some people questioned why we were traveling to Alabama either because of their shameful track record with recent voter suppression or their abortion laws. We actually encourage coastal folks to visit en masse! We can learn and they can learn. And we can agree on pie and coffee!
Greensboro, Alabama is practically unknown to people outside of this part of Alabama. When you tell someone you are going to Greensboro—even people in Birmingham—they assume North Carolina. Nonetheless, Greensboro is worth a visit for the SafeHouse Black History Museum.
I had called ahead over a week in advance. It took a little phone tag before I was able to confirm meeting up at 10:00 a.m. The volunteers who help Theresa Burroughs maintain the museum are a mix of locals and people who grew up in Greensboro, had careers in larger cities and other parts of the US and are now retired close enough to drive to Greensboro and open up the museum for 3 women from California.
The museum is a gem. The Rural Studio helped to design the exhibits and this house museum hits above its weight. There is a video where Theresa Burroughs tells her story as an young woman drawn to activism. She marched, was arrested, and organized her community. In the 1960s, Greensboro was the home to a sewing factory in the black side of town and many more people lived in the community. The downtown business district was bustling and boycotts of businesses by the African American community struck an economic below and created fear amongst the white residents. The exhibits and talking to the docents really brings the sense of what it was like in a small rural town during the civil rights movement. The main focus of the museum is one particularly fraught incident involving Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Klu Klux Klan. I won’t give anything away except to say it is worth making the side trip.
Driving through Alabama, I came to a renewed appreciation of small towns. So many of the town squares and courthouses reminded me of some of my favorite Iowa small towns. People who live in small towns are often underestimated or overlooked. The history of the civil rights movement has deep roots in rural places.
The March from Selma to Montgomery has its roots in Marion, Alabama. Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot in Marion by a state trooper during a peaceful protest for voter rights on February 18, 1965. This prompted the first attempt at a peaceful march from Selma to Montgomery on March 7, 1965. Reverend Hosea Williams and John Lewis stepped from the pulpit of Brown Chapel Church and led 600 marchers six blocks to the Edmund Pettus Bridge where the Sheriff and mounted deputies met them with nightsticks and tear gas. Known as “Bloody Sunday” it sparked the expanded civil rights movement in Alabama.
We drove to Marion, Alabama on beautiful country roads. Marion, the college city, is only 28 miles away and is the county seat for Perry County. As a Californian, it is odd to have so many small counties, each with their own courthouse on a square, although it is charming architecturally. We were visiting my friend Dr. John Dorsey in Greensboro, Alabama. We needed an accessible accommodation, so we reserved rooms at the Sleep Inn in Marion. Greensboro is so small the only sleep options are bed and breakfasts and AirBnB.
Marion is also the home of the Marion Military Institute and Judson College, so it is nicknamed, “College City.” The Marion Military Institute has been preparing young men for college and military service for over 165 years. Judson College was originally a “ladies college” or finishing school and has evolved into a liberal arts college. The town of Marion is a classic southern county seat with a courthouse in the middle of a gracious town square. Marion can also claim Coretta Scott King as one of their own.
It was a home game for Alabama so Greensboro had many people driving through from Mobile and stopping at the Pie Lab. My friend Dr. John Dorsey arrived in Greensboro 13 years ago and the downtown was almost empty. He came to serve as a psychiatrist in a rural community and try some ideas about affordable homes with supportive services in a lower cost area. Project Horseshoe Farm has grown and the 15 fellows that are living and working in the community, along with the Rural Studio students created an economic spark and now there is a gym, The Stable coffeehouse, Pie Lab, several retail shops, and more.
Hale County, just 10 miles down the road from Greensboro, is the home of Auburn University’s School of Architecture Rural Studio. The students are required to design, fundraise, and build their final project. Many of their projects are in Hale County or in Greensboro. It is world-renowned and a terrific resource in the Black Belt of Alabama.
We were excited to learn all we could about civil rights history and our ongoing struggle for justice. At the same time we were looking forward to eating some good southern food. When I stepped off the plane in Birmingham I’d been traveling all day on Southwest Airlines. I didn’t say yes to all the high carb, high salt snacks they offer so I was hungry. It was already 8 p.m. when I left the Payless Rental Car counter. And the first car reeked of cigarette smoke and I had to ask for a different vehicle. This took some time. Now I was almost past hungry, so I reminded myself that in California it was only 6:30 p.m. and I headed for the only place I could find near the airport–Hardee’s. Not exactly hitting the southern spot yet a good charbroiled burger. Interesting to note a different fast food chain. (Or is it? It looks remarkably similar to Carl’s Jr.)
The food at Central was delicious and service was solid.
Chantay, Phyllis and I were all together by the next morning and ready to leave early for Montgomery. The plan was to stop along the way but Chantay doesn’t like fast food, so all of the wayside places were nixed and she got busy looking up options in Montgomery on Yelp. She found Cahawba House and directed us there. It is in the heart of downtown and just up the street from the Central Square Fountain. Within minutes we were enjoying good coffee and just what we wanted to eat. Chantay got her grits with cheese. Phyllis got some pimento concoction. (They do love pimento in ‘bama.) I got an amazing biscuit with bacon.
The rest of our trip was not food-obsessed, but we ate very well. For the best experience, wave off your diet till you get home.
Pie Lab in Greensboro, Alabama
In Montgomery we split a giant plate of barbeque at Dreamland BBQ with four meat and 3 sides. Our waiter was terrific but the food was just okay. Central, a restaurant on same side of block as the Legacy Museum was wonderful. I had a pork chop with sweet potatoes and brussel sprouts that was yummy. Chantay had some lemon pie that she only reluctantly offered to share a bite. We returned to Cahawba House for more of those biscuits. When we searched for a restaurant in Tuskegee, both Yelp and Trip Advisor ranked Subway number 1, so we decided to drive back to Montgomery and eat at Sweet Creek Country Store. The smoked chicken was wonderful. The peach cobbler was also delicious but I would have enjoyed it more without the soft serve ice cream on top. Phyllis was yet to be really impressed by the food. She found Chantay and my fascination with searching for places to eat and enthusiasm to try different dishes amusing.
My friend John’s adopted home of Greensboro had a number of delicious places. We enjoyed breakfast at The Stable coffeehouse and lunch and pie at the Pie Lab. Both of these establishments are relatively new and we hope they will prosper.
Birmingham is a foodie’s delight. There are so many places to try that it was daunting to decide where to eat. We started with a recommendation for brunch after worship at 16th Street Baptist Church. We walked about 5 blocks to the site of Mrs. B’s only to read it is closed. The sign on their door redirected us to Mr. Z’s. We trooped off to eat there and then saw the sign for Roots and Revelry. I couldn’t get enough fried chicken. Chantay couldn’t get enough of po’boys–either oyster or shrimp. And everywhere we wanted to try the pie.
P.S. I also was looking for a bookstore and a coffee shop. I found the perfect blend in Church Street Coffee and Books. I browsed the carefully curated books on sale and noticed I have read about half, which means I’ll love the other half! I bought a few… Coffee is good too.
Alabama looked different than I expected. I’ve been to all of the other Southern states save Kentucky, and I thought Alabama would be flatter and dominated by farm crops. Blame digital map apps. If you are looking up where you are going on a paper map you can’t help but see that the Talladega National Forest is like a green smoothie spilled across the state. With Google Maps I zoom in on where I am going and if I don’t take the time to zoom out or use the other features, I make a mental map that is mostly flat.
I also expected more water. A small part of Alabama touches the gulf shore at Mobile, but for the most part Alabama receives its water from the sky. Far from the Mississippi River, the state and its largest communities are not dominated by rivers in the way so many other places are in the US.
There are more hills than I expected and the forests are the same mix of pine and hardwood that cover the Appalachians. We came for the civil rights history but these woods made me wonder about the indigenous people who were here even earlier. The Cherokees, Choctaws, Creeks, and Chickasaws, as well as the Alabama-Coushattas and the Yuchis hunted, danced and walked in these woods.
Our adventure is a civil rights crawl. Our plan is to drive our rental car to Montgomery-Tuskegee-Selma-Marion-Greensboro and Birmingham. Phyllis, Chantay and I have done internet research and we are also using the “Alabama Civil Rights Museum Trail” as a guide. We also look forward to eating good food and meeting friendly folks from ‘Bama all along the way.