Photographs made September–December 2020 and produced with support of the Do Good Fund and the Magnum Foundation.
Not too long ago, the sky down South was dimming, turning down from the lemony warmth of the day, deepening into gold and rose and then lavender and gray, poking through the thick moss of the weeping willow trees all around the neighborhood where I was staying. I was in my hometown of Montgomery, Alabama, mostly there for work but partly there, as always, for a chance to gather myself. Every evening felt the same—lazy light, heavy air, a languorousness that never fails to feel decadent to someone who is not a resident. For some of those people—the ones, like myself, who grew up in Alabama and then moved elsewhere—we are doomed to forever being of two minds about our home state. The ugly often appears to be its most dominant feature, the history and present of willful exclusion and oppression; but the tenderness, the land and people that make so many choose to call it home, is right there alongside it.
In a non-plague year, I go to Alabama more than anywhere else—at least five or six times a year—which I explain to people by saying that I started writing a book about the state almost three years ago, but the truth is I traveled nearly as often even before that. It went like this: I would get on a plane from New York to Atlanta, then wait around the Atlanta airport for a while before boarding a much smaller plane to Montgomery; and then, after landing, meet my dad at baggage claim to drive the half hour to my parents’ house. Along the way, we’re greeted by everyone from an airport custodian to a guy in camouflage who’s likely carrying. The same thing happens when I’m running around town and encountering people: We greet, talk, try to find out who we are, what matters to us—a regional custom of connecting to each other.
In these photos, photographer Jared Ragland returns home to Alabama in order to, as he said, “critically explore Southern identity, marginalized communities, and the history of place”—big ideas that feel smaller when you start meeting people on the road. The state becomes increasingly intimate and hard to define, starting with stories from the southern tip of Alabama, a place of both Indian reservations and vividly-remembered Civil War battles, to its northern reaches, where working-class white folks and Latino immigrants live side by side. Ragland takes another look at the state’s psychic and geographical landscape in a time of crisis: health-wise, politically, ecologically, and economically.
Part of his visual journey had him follow the Spanish explorer and colonialist Hernando de Soto’s trail through Alabama in 1540, as a way to document the ghosts and people that now reside on its most holy lands: sites of American Indian removal, battlegrounds of the civil rights movement, old coal mines where one of his ancestors worked, places of ongoing economic and environmental strife. The land is haunted, true, but the people living and working on it are determined to forge their own paths.
There are the things we all tend to know about Alabama. As Ragland told me, “From Native American genocide to slavery and secession, and from the fight for civil rights to the championing of Trumpist ideology, Alabama has stood at the nexus of American identity.” But there are also the things that only some of us know, and those truths about the tenderness of our home will take time to convince others of—through photos, writing, and however else we can make our experiences known. Because, as Ragland says, “it’s a complicated place, simultaneously beautiful and horrifying—full of instances where the abject and beautiful mysteriously intersect.” And importantly, it’s home, to Ragland, me, and a whole host of motley people—and that in itself makes it worthy of exploration, again and again.
— Alexis Okeowo
Notes from the Road // Jared Ragland
DALLAS COUNTY, AL.
Perine Well at Old Cahawba.
The area now known as Old Cahawba was first occupied by large populations of Paleoindians four thousand years ago. During the Mississippian period (1000–1500 CE), mound builders established a walled city with palisades that was visited by Spanish conquistadors in the sixteenth century. In the years that followed, Afro-Eurasian diseases the explorers brought with them killed thousands of Indigenous people, and the remaining native peoples were wiped out or forced to move by an even greater influx of Europeans. By the early nineteenth century, the dirt from the ancient mounds at Cahawba was used to build railroad beds, and the town briefly served as the state capital of Alabama. At the time it was dug in the 1850s, the Perine Well, at seven hundred to nine hundred feet deep, was the second-largest known well in the world, feeding cool water through a system of pipes to “air condition” a twenty-six-room brick mansion. Cahawba became a ghost town shortly after the Civil War, largely due to recurring floods. By the late 1800s, the town site was purchased for $500 and its buildings demolished.
Locust Street Bridge, site of the lynching of Bunk Richardson.
In July 1905, four Black men—Jack Hunter, Vance Garner, Will Johnson, and Bunk Richardson–were arrested in connection with the murder of a white woman in Gadsden. While Hunter was the only one guilty of the murder, both he and Garner were tried, convicted, and executed. Johnson was also convicted, but then-Governor William Jelks commuted his sentence to life in prison, sparking outrage. Although Richardson was innocent, a mob seized and lynched him from a train trestle over the Coosa River. No one was ever held accountable for the lynching.
SPRING HILL, AL.
Michael Farmer fashions a scarecrow next to his garden in Spring Hill on Election Day.
For generations, Michael Farmer’s family has lived in Spring Hill, where the predominantly Black community has faced a history of racial violence and voter disenfranchisement. On November 3, 1874, a white mob attacked the Spring Hill polling station, destroying the ballot box, burning the ballots, and murdering the election supervisor’s son. Farmer is a lifelong Democrat and military veteran who served two tours overseas, in Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom. When I asked him what he hoped might come from the 2020 election, Farmer said, “I hope the young folks might think about what their ancestors came through to get where we are.”
Uniontown is home to around two thousand people, 91 percent of whom are Black. The average annual household income is just over $30,000, and 51 percent live in poverty. The city faces a multitude of environmental issues that affect the health and lives of its residents. At the time of a 2017 report by the Alabama State Nurses Association, Uniontown had only one doctor’s office and no public transportation system, with the nearest hospitals located more than thirty miles away.
SUMTER COUNTY, AL.
Near the purported grave of the outlaw sheriff Stephen Renfroe.
Legend has it that sometime around 1868, a handsome man rode into the town of Livingston on a white horse. Immediately charming the townspeople, Stephen Renfroe would rise to prominence as a leading figure among disgruntled whites against their “carpetbagging Yankee oppressors.” As Sumter County Sheriff and leader of the local Ku Klux Klan, Renfroe was known more for breaking the law than keeping it—orchestrating the kidnappings and murders of several local Republicans, committing arson, and embezzling money. In 1880, he was charged with assault with intent to murder and other crimes, but was acquitted. Following several more arrests, escapes from jail, and living as an outlaw and drifter for years, Renfroe returned to Sumter County, where he threatened to blackmail his former Klan associates. A mob formed in response, seizing Renfroe and marching him to the banks of the Sucarnoochee River, where they hanged him from a chinaberry tree.
MONTGOMERY COUNTY, AL.
Near the site of the old Tyler-Goodwin Bridge, where Willie Edwards Jr. was murdered in 1957.
In late January 1957, a Black man named Willie Edwards Jr. was abducted by a group of Klansmen and forced to jump to his death from the Tyler-Goodwin Bridge. Nearly twenty years later, three suspects were indicted for Edwards’s murder, but the charges were dropped after the FBI notified then-Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley that one of the accused, Henry Alexander, was a federal informant. Alexander had previously been implicated in racially motivated crimes—including church bombings and an assault of a Black woman while she was riding a bus—though he was never prosecuted for them. In 1993, it was reported that one of the accused Klansmen confessed his involvement in Edwards’s murder. However, a 1999 Montgomery County grand jury declined to issue an indictment.
Sunshine turns soil in the Commons Community Workshop garden.
As a response to recent national division and the COVID-19 outbreak, Sunshine and her husband, Rusty, bought a home in Childersburg and created the Commons Community Workshop. Through their Fearless Communities Initiative, they are building a community garden in a donated downtown lot, hosting trade days, and fostering relationships with their neighbors as a means of “celebrating solidarity and strength.” The couple invited me to find them on Facebook, where Sunshine posts Initiative announcements, vocalizes her opposition to masking and vaccines, and shares her concerns about global child sex-trafficking networks, the threat of Marxism, and the coming of the end times.
Coosa Pines Resolute Forest Products.
The site of the Coosa Pines paper mill was once home to an important Creek chiefdom called Coosa, where Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto visited and enslaved people in 1540. Four hundred years later, the Alabama Army Munitions plant produced explosives such as TNT at the site and secretly produced heavy water for the Manhattan Project. According to the EPA’s 2017 Toxic Release Inventory, industries in the area release 1.5 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the Coosa River each year; one of the largest emitters is the Coosa Pines paper mill, responsible for discharging high amounts of cancer-causing chemicals and reproductive toxins.
Beside the former location of Cash’s Store, where in 1965 civil-rights activist Jonathan Myrick Daniels was shot to death.
Jonathan Myrick Daniels, an Episcopal seminarian from Keene, NH, had come to Alabama after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for clergy to join the march from Selma to Montgomery. Daniels remained in Alabama after the march, assisting with voter registration efforts and helping to integrate an Episcopal congregation. Daniels and three other activists were later targeted by Tom Coleman, a volunteer special deputy sheriff, who gunned down the civil-rights organizers. Coleman was charged with manslaughter in Daniels’s death; an all-white jury acquitted him of all charges after deliberating for less than two hours. Today, Daniels is recognized as a saint by the Episcopal Church and a memorial commemorating his life stands in the Hayneville town square.
Ruins of Tallassee Mills, a Civil War–era armory and textile mill.
In 1813, General Andrew Jackson established Fort Strother near this point in the Coosa River and launched his campaign against the Muscogee Creek Confederacy. Over the last two centuries, the river has been harnessed to capitalize on its economic potential. In the 1880s, a series of river locks were constructed to expand commercial shipping; today the river holds seven Alabama Power Company dams, including the nearby H. Neely Henry Dam.
LOWNDES COUNTY, AL
In 1837, a planter named John Collins migrated from Virginia to Alabama. In his will, Collins bequeathed six hundred acres to four Black families, who then used this inheritance to lay the foundation for Freetown. Freetown became known as the home for several prominent teachers, masons, and carpenters, and, in the 1960s, as a kind of sanctuary for Black tenant farmers who were evicted after they registered to vote. Today, only a handful of families remain in the area. — Alexis Okeowo