Have you ever thought about Tuscaloosa, Alabama without your thoughts going immediately to the powerhouse football team whose motto is “Roll Tide Roll?”
If you have, you would be one of the rare people on the planet who does not associate Tuscaloosa with the Crimson Tide of the University of Alabama. For most people Tuscaloosa is visions of Bama on any given Saturday in the fall and usually extending into the first week of January, where they dominate the college football playoffs.
I have to admit it, until a year and a half ago whenever I thought about Tuscaloosa, Alabama, two thoughts came to mind.
One, a childhood memory of the Alabama Governor George C. Wallace standing in the door of the admissions office at the University of Alabama in June 1963.
Ostensibly, Wallace sought to deny admission to James Hood and Evelyn Malone. They were the first two African Americans to seek admission after Autherine Lucy was admitted in February 1956 and was later suspended because the university alleged it could not guarantee her safety after riots broke out on campus.
The other is a childhood memory that extends through this day: visions of Paul “Bear” Bryant, Joe Willie Namath, Johnny Musso, Kenny “The Snake” Stabler and a host of other coaches and players who have defined college football in the image of Bama.
Then a year and a half ago, I received a telephone call from Dr. Charles Steele, Jr., the President and CEO of the International Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
He wanted to know if I could drop what I was doing and meet him in his office on Auburn Avenue in downtown Atlanta within the hour. Steele had a friend visiting him from his hometown of Tuscaloosa he wanted me to meet.
I do not receive calls everyday from civil rights leaders who follow the footsteps of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., so I stopped in mid-sentence of the manuscript that I was working on and drove down to “Sweet Auburn” Avenue.
When I arrived, Steele introduced me to Ruby J. Simon, a Black native of Tuscaloosa, who recently had retired from the Tuscaloosa Public Schools System.
Although, I knew that Steele, George Curry, the first Black sports writer at Sports Illustrated and the archivist James Horton were from Tuscaloosa, it had never occurred to me that Tuscaloosa had a viable Black community.
Oh my gosh!
I was in for an education. Simon told me about her interest in publishing a book about the Black community in Tuscaloosa.
Since I had edited and published a book for Dr. Steele, through my publishing house (Easier to Obtain Than to Maintain: The Globalization of Civil Rights, Charles Steele, Jr., Cascade Publishing House, Atlanta, 2016), Simon asked if I would edit her manuscript and serve as publisher.
Frankly, I had little knowledge of Black people in Tuscaloosa outside of the few that I knew personally, so I did not think that there was much there; yet I agreed to read the manuscript and get back to her.
She presented me with a manuscript titled “Ruby’s Chronicles.”
Immediately, I became fascinated with Simon’s research and her story on the legacy and history of Black Tuscaloosa which predated the creation of the University of Alabama.
Simon tells her story through the lenses of two churches founded in what is known as the “Big Bend” Community in Tuscaloosa. Both churches, one Baptist (Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church) and one Methodist (Beautiful Zion African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church) were founded in 1870. They originally held services in the same “bush abhor,” splitting into the two dominations when their numbers grew too large for the bush arbor services.
I was struck by the oral histories Simon had collected, some of the oral histories had been handed down since 1865 on the very day that certain enslaved people in “Big Bend” had been notified they were now free. Had Simon not written her book, this account of the day freedom came to the enslaved in Tuscaloosa would have, in a few years, disappeared from human memory.
We went to work to fashion Ruby’s Chronicles into a volume that tells the story of the indigenous inhabitants and Africans who sustained the majority culture that has come to be known as Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
For in the beginning was the Spirit. The Spirit uttered a sound. The sound formed the Black Warrior River and caused it to bend around a land mass later to be named Tuscaloosa for the dreaded Warrior who had Native and African DNA.
The Spirit caused the river to bend around the Crimson Tide long before the first football was punted, long before the first forward pass, long before the first half-back ran around left end, long before Paul “Bear” Bryant, long before, Joe Willie Namath, much longer before Nick Saban yells “Roll Tide, Roll!”
Simon has recorded the history of the Tuscaloosa that was Tuscaloosa before football was invented. It is a look inside the Big Bend Community where on Saturdays in the fall the Crimson Tide rolls around Tuscaloosa. It is a look at the descendants of the former enslaved who sustained Tuscaloosa during the time of King Cotton when pigskin was synonymous with pork rinds and not football.
Yes, Tuscaloosa, Alabama is more than the sum total of a powerhouse college football team. In the pages of Big Bend: Where the Tide Rolls Arounds Tuscaloosa,you will meet the men and women who settled in the Big Bend Community in Tuscaloosa following the Civil War. Their stories are told by the descendants who still reside on the land their fore parents worked during the period of enslavement, then as sharecroppers and later as civic and government leaders.
Cascade Publishing House is proud to present to the world, Ruby J. Simon and her work Big Bend: Where the Tide Rolls Arounds Tuscaloosa.
Harold Michael Harvey is an American novelist and essayist. He is a Contributor at The Hill, SCLC National Magazine, Southern Changes Magazine and Black College Nines. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org