Alabama: a vital yet forgotten U.S. history

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This past Tuesday, Feb. 9, people flocked from far and wide to New Orleans in search of plastic beads among other, more decadent indulgences to celebrate the beginning of the Lenten season. But did you know the first American Mardi Gras was celebrated in Mobile, Alabama?

No. Of course you didn’t. Alabama lives mostly in a Lynyrd Skynyrd song. In FX’s You’re the Worst, Lindsay even refers to Jimmy’s less than pleasant family as “Alabama English people.” In our cultural consciousness, Alabama is basically a stand in for gun-toting hicks.
It’s time for that to change.

The state of Alabama has been the centerpiece of many societies throughout its history. Mobile was the home of the first Mardi Gras because it was the capital of French Louisiana from 1702 to 1720 due to its strategic positioning as a saltwater port on the Gulf Coast. While Alabama has not always housed the capital of the societies it was part of, it has always stood out in the American south as a vital home to many social movements, becoming a capital to all of them in its own way.

Alabama was ceded from France to Britain in the 1763 Treaty of Paris, at which point Britain allowed Jewish people to enter the territory for the first time since it was colonized by France. Communities of Sephardic Jews were able to establish trading posts and the largest antebellum Jewish settlement in America was located in Mobile, Alabama. The most famous settler is Abraham Mordecai, who came in 1785. Mordecai believed the Native Americans were members of the lost tribe of Israel, so he felt a connection to them and preferred to negotiate on their terms rather than trying to forcibly expand Alabaman territory. During the Civil War, Jews largely migrated north — an order from General Ulysses S. Grant for all Jewish people to evacuate his military district was a large reason for the mass migration. However, that settlement in Mobile was one of the first instances of America’s Jewish community, one that continues to thrive.

Nearly one hundred years after the Civil War and only 61 years ago, Alabama became one of the most prominent battlegrounds in the Civil Rights Movement. These events are all well-known and incredibly important historical moments, but don’t seem to resonate when people talk about Alabama. Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger occurred in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 along with the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote the Letter from Birmingham Jail in 1963 and led the Selma to Montgomery marches with James Bevel, Hosea Williams, and John Lewis.

Even before the Civil Rights Movement hit its peak, Alabama was home to large-scale racial activism. Julius Rosenwald’s schools, which were funded in part by donations from Andrew Carnegie, attempted to remedy the stark disparities between opportunities of black and white students in the early 1900s.

All of this is without even mentioning the Native American tribes who occupied the land before France and have reason to call the state home, even if their families have been separated from the land for generations.
Of course, Alabama has had its demons in the past. Montgomery was the first Confederate capital; racial terrorism ran rampant for much of the state’s history; former governor George Wallace campaigned for president based on expanding segregation as recently as 1968; and President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act devastated Native American tribes living in the state. The centuries of violence and strife are important to a meaningful examination of the state’s history. This article is not a meaningful examination of anything, just a call to attention for a state that provided some of the most visible front lines for this nation’s deepest and most violent existential crises since the Civil War.

Given its past, it is frustrating that the history of the Yellowhammer State often gets condensed into being a breeding ground for stereotypes of bible-belt rednecks (Then again I said New Hampshire only had one demographic in this same issue, so I’m a hypocrite). The ties Mardi Gras has to Alabama offers an opportunity to examine the state with one of the most complicated legacies in a nation that is itself wrapped in a complicated legacy.