from Conquistadors to Astronauts in Alabama

 
 

Brian Jewell
Published November 07, 2017

Few states in America can boast five centuries of fascinating history. But Alabama has 500 years’ worth of stories to tell.

From the days of Spanish exploration in the 1600s to the Civil War, the civil rights movement and the dawn of space exploration, Alabama has experienced more than its share of historic characters and occasions. Groups traveling through Alabama will find ways to touch that history in cities and towns across the state. All the while, they’ll enjoy new developments that showcase the progress happening from Mobile to Huntsville and various points in between.

New and Old in Mobile

At the southern end of the state, Mobile is among the most historic cities in the Southeast. But history is only part of its charm.

“Mobile is one of the oldest cities in the country,” said Stacy Hamilton, vice president of marketing and communications for Visit Mobile. “It has a really fascinating history. Being a port city for 300 years, there’s an international influence here that you might not see in some Southern towns.”

There are about 15 museums around town such as the History Museum of Mobile that explore the cultural and historic roots of the city. Groups can also experience elements of the area’s history by taking walking tours through some of the city’s eight historic neighborhoods or taking Segway, trolley and duck boat tours around the area.

“We have a really fascinating African American Heritage Trail that groups can take,” Hamilton said. “That will take you through the black experience in Mobile, from the slave market trade to some of the first black-owned businesses. It takes you through to the present to see how some of the slave families are having an impact on Mobile today.”

Beyond the cultural history, Mobile’s ecological roots lie in its location on the Gulf of Mexico, and one of the area’s most exciting attractions gives visitors a deep look into the natural riches of the area.

“The GulfQuest National Maritime Museum is a five-story, $60 million museum dedicated to the history of the Gulf of Mexico,” Hamilton said. “It examines the gulf from a recreational standpoint, from an environmental standpoint, industrial, maritime and shipping. It’s a pretty significant addition to the Mobile experience.

“There are almost 100 exhibits throughout the property, and it’s very interactive. You can virtually navigate a dive submarine around different reefs found in the gulf. And there’s an awesome simulator that they use to train ship captains on tugboats and big ships coming in and out of the port.”

Many groups that travel to Mobile will also take time to visit Bellingrath Gardens, a beautiful historic home and estate just outside the city, and the USS Alabama, a World War II battleship that has been open to the public for more than 50 years.

The city also claims the oldest Mardi Gras celebration in the United States and hosts 35 to 40 parades during the three-week period leading up to Fat Tuesday.

Story of Selma

Selma, a central Alabama town of about 20,000, made a name for itself during the civil rights movement. Visiting groups can learn about the pivotal events in the area during the 1960s and other periods.

“Our primary attraction is the Edmund Pettus Bridge, a critical place in the modern American civil rights movement,” said Sheryl Smedley, executive director of the Selma and Dallas County Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Information. “The events that happened there helped push forward the National Voting Rights Act in 1965.”

The bridge was the site of a march that turned ugly when police attacked demonstrators with tear gas and nightsticks. The events garnered national attention for the civil rights movement and earned the nickname Bloody Sunday.

The bridge is still part of an active roadway; groups touring the area can drive across it and learn more about what took place there from local guides. The National Park Service operates an interpretive center at the foot of the bridge, which recently reopened after a renovation. The museum features three levels of exhibits for touring.

The annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee, which takes place in March on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, gives visitors an opportunity to cross the bridge on foot and learn more about the march’s historical significance.

“We typically have 30,000 to 40,000 people come for the Jubilee,” Smedley said. “There’s a wide range of things that happen, including summits and lectures. There are a ton of vendors that set up around the bridge and a commemorative crossing of the bridge to remember what happened on Bloody Sunday.”

Groups can learn more about the city’s history during a visit to the Old Depot Museum, which is housed in a historic building that served as Selma’s train station in the 1800s and 1900s.

“It bridges the gap between the Civil War and civil rights movement and tells a little bit of the story in between,” Smedley said. “It houses a couple of beautiful murals commissioned by the Works Progress Administration.”

Other historical stops around town include the Old Live Oak Cemetery, a 19th-century graveyard with live oak trees and marble monuments, and Sturdivant Hall, an antebellum mansion that exemplifies Greek Revival architecture.

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