Perceptions of Perry County and the Black Belt have transformed from pinnacles of the Old South to abandoned towns with empty buildings. Today the essence of these communities is lost on travelers who do not go beyond the surface of what they see while passing through. Yet, there is a beauty to these towns that can be discovered through the voices of the people who lived there. Their experiences and stories serve as a window to the past for present generations who wish to see Black Belt towns as they once were. This is accomplished by looking into the storyteller’s eyes and hearing their voice. The Faces of Marion exhibit, funded by the Alabama Humanities Foundation, uses the senses of sight and sound to move beyond generalizations. Divided into categories of place, process and people, this exhibit contains individual stories and photographs collected by Samford University’s Oral History Program, Jonathan Bass, and Caroline Summers. The photos and audio will be on display in Samford University’s Davis Library beginning Saturday, November 1st. Lowell Melton and Martha LeCroy are just two examples of the faces, voices, and stories that can be seen and heard during the exhibit.
Lowell Melton, the son of a Marion farmer, explains…
First we had mules to plow the land with, break up the land . . . chopped cotton, hoed corn and then we sprayed cotton, and then after a while we got somebody [to spray cotton], but first we did it by hand with all those sacks and stuff. After a while my father decided to get a tractor to spray it first with a tractor. So we did that until the cotton started growing out or blooming out, or whatever you want to call it. And by the time September comes we had to go out and pick the cotton. After we did that for about a month then we went to school. There wasn’t no school for us until we finished picking cotton . . . In the fall after we got our crop together and [we] would go to school from that time until May, and then school would turn out for spring break or whatever you want to call it . . . Most of the time it’d be October before we got to go to school . . .
And then my dad got sick, so he bought a tractor one day and I used to drive the tractor every day plowing the fields until I joined the army and then from the army I didn’t stay [in] Alabama and went to Detroit in 1963 . . . Well I heard they were hiring people up there in Detroit and so I went up to see for myself. I got a job working with my cousin in a barbershop for a while. Then I got a job working at a steel plant for about one year. Then I got a job working for Chrysler for about three years. Then I went to California and stayed out there until 1983 when my papa passed away. Then I came home to look after my mother; then she passed away too.
Martha LeCroy, born in 1923, has lived in Marion, Alabama her whole life. She looks back on her memories of the town:
When you’ve lived in a place for so long . . . it’s home . . . I still cherish the country that I lived in and back then there were so many people who lived in the country it was almost like a town. Saturday – that was the main shopping day for everybody in the vicinity. We would come to town and buy groceries, or if the children needed shoes. We came every Saturday. It was 7 miles to Marion. We had a model T Ford . . . My daddy was a mechanic and he liked cars. He loved automobiles. I guess we were some of the first people that really had a way to travel to Marion because so many had to travel by . . . horses and buggy but not many, just a few people–but they’d have mules and wagons that’d come to town…and buy what they needed for the whole week.
We had a garden. You know the family worked the garden–mostly my mother and father–and when we got old enough we kind of just picked whatever grew like tomatoes and English peas. Oh they were so good . You could eat English peas green then. They were green then and oh they were so green and sweet! We always had meat on weekends, but we had vegetables. My mother cooked a good meal. We always had potatoes on hand, she loved to cook peas and okra, and oh, that’s good stuff, squash. We ate all that kind of food, but in the summer was the only time we had a garden because it was so cold in the winter, you know it would freeze. We used dried peas in the winter, dried beans, and things like that, canned food. My mother canned and corked jars. Everybody did back then.
The stories of Lowell and Martha are proof that every individual, even though he or she may have grown in the same small town, can provide a unique perspective on the town’s history and what it meant to him or her. To see the rest of these individuals and hear their stories, visit the Faces of Marion exhibit in Samford’s Davis Library between November 1st and 14th.
Oral History Interviews of Lowell Melton and Martha LeCroy
Photography by Jonathan Bass and Caroline Summers