Until last Thursday you were going to get a stock assessment of Athens’s history. But just after Thanksgiving dinner, my wife asked her young cousin, who is in 4th grade what he liked about school. I was ready to weigh in on the invigorating discussion that would follow when he stated that he was enamored by Alabama History. Much to my chagrin James didn’t say which subject he most liked, but which he most disliked…Alabama History. After what likely equated to a harrowing cross-examination, he noted that it was boring and that they were currently talking about the Civil War. I firmly believed this was my chance to change his mind. I asked what his teacher said about Athens in the War and he noted that they talked about “some stuff in Montgomery” but that was all. It is easy to blame the teacher or the state and federally mandated curriculums for this incident. But it is not isolated and more worrisome; it is a part of a much larger problem that may have direct effects on Athens and Limestone County.
The survival and greatness of a small town is predicated on its uniqueness. But as the world becomes flatter, places and people assimilate, with all ultimately becoming a homogenized version of their former self. Athens could easily be no different. But, luckily, it doesn’t have to happen here. Athens and Limestone County have the elements in place that make a community a wonderful place to live. But perhaps one of the most significant benefits, and one that is least considered, is our history. As I built my Master’s thesis on Athens, I was amazed as sources seemingly fell from the sky. Perhaps the thing I most learned though during the process was that for years I had searched out history of people and places, far removed from my community, when stories better than any historian could imagine lived here in Athens and Limestone County.
These stories, of Emily Frazier, a self reliant slave, who, when the Union army occupied the town in 1862 bought up all the whiskey she could, and sold it to the soldiers…until their commander complained about their drunkenness. She then went and bought a cow and sold them milk. The story of the Donnell family during and after the Civil War, whose home still stands at the middle school, is better than that of any leading figure in the South. The story of the Isom’s, who lived 4 miles east of Athens and were vocal Unionists, so much so that the sheriff publicly threatened to hang them, is a wonderful example of a divided community.
I recently discovered a quote, which has become a favorite, and is by William Faulkner. He said, “To understand the world you first must understand a place like Mississippi.” What he was saying was that people have a propensity to look outward for direction and guidance. Faulkner was keenly aware that your community is ultimately what defines you. To understand it though, you have to be critical regarding the whole of the community. It is no doubt the reason Faulkner wrote about the Sartoris’s, the Snopes’s, the Compsons’s…disparate families all existing within the same fictitious county… And he also knew that the you can never divorce a place of its past.
For 10 years I have taught in the Madison area. A place esteemed by many as a veritable boomtown. A place to which many look for what to do to move forward and be progressive in education, economic and housing development, etc. I’ve no inclination to believe that there are many lessons to be learned from the place. But one that I hope Athens and Limestone County will take away from the Madison model is that what has developed there is a people and a community that has lost their “sense of place.” There is little attachment or pride in the community among the students and the people with whom I interact. Madison could be picked up and dropped into any place in this country and blend in seamlessly. But I can’t believe this is what makes a community great.
Athens and Limestone County have the culture, the people, the education system, and the rich history on which to focus to be a great community. But to keep that focus, businesses, groups, organizations, and institutions must be specific in branding those attributes that makes this place special. Athens State has done a wonderful job recently in renovating buildings which convey something about the institution and its past…and most especially its future. Their Vision 2020 report notes why ASU has thrived for 188 years, and continues to do so. The report plans for the changes and contingencies of the future, while building on the successes of the past.
A friend noted a few days ago that exit 351 has become one of “those” exits. They described it as a blip on the GPS, a place to fill up or grab a quick burger before leaving Athens in their rearview mirror. Many people believe that history should be saved to remember the past and honor those who came before us. In the case of Athens, I believe we can’t afford to forget our past…but only for the sake of our future.
Photo and caption in the News Courier