What Has Been Will Be Again
Michael Farmer’s family has lived in Spring Hill for generations, 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 asked what he hoped might come from the 2020 presidential election, Farmer said, “I hope the young folks might think about what their ancestors came through to get where we are.”
The area now known as Old Cahawba was first occupied by large populations of Paleoindians; then from 1000-1500 CE the Mississippian period brought agriculture and mound builders. Spanish conquistadors were welcomed to a walled city with palisades, yet the Afro-Eurasian diseases the explorers brought with them killed thousands of Indigenous people in the 16th and 17th centuries. The remaining native peoples were killed 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.
Jonathan Myrick Daniels, a white Episcopal seminarian from Keene, NH, had come to Alabama following 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, working at a health clinic, and helping integrate an Episcopal congregation. In August 1965 Daniels and fellow activists attempted to purchase drinks at a Hayneville store but were held at gunpoint by volunteer special deputy sheriff Tom Coleman, who demanded they leave the property. Coleman shot at 17-year old African American activist Ruby Sales, but Daniels pushed Sales to the ground and took the impact of the blast, dying instantly. Coleman was charged with manslaughter in Daniels’ death, but an all-white jury acquitted Coleman of all charges after deliberating for less than two hours.
As a response to national division and the COVID-19 outbreak, Sunshine and her husband Rusty bought a home in downtown Childersburg and created The Commons Community Workshop. Through their Fearless Communities Initiative they have built a community garden in a donated downtown lot, host trade days, and foster 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 vaccines, and shares her beliefs about global child sex trafficking networks, the threat of Marxism, and the coming of the end times.
Yoholo-Micco, chieftain of the Upper Creek town of Eufaula, is said to have addressed the Alabama Legislature in 1836 at the state capital in Tuscaloosa before departing the ancestral Muscogee homelands on the Trail of Tears. Yoholo-Micco’s actual words are unknown, but white, colonial writers of history have painted the Creek leader as one who accepted Indigenous removal with an air of romantic resignation, going so far as to contrive his final words in a way to whitewash the genocide that had taken place over 300+ years’ time. Yoholo-Micco’s apocryphal address – which has been reproduced in Alabama history books and grade school curriculum for decades – reads, in part: “I come here, brothers, to see the great house of Alabama and the men who make laws and say farewell in brotherly kindness before I go to the far west, where my people are now going. In time gone by I have thought that the white men wanted to bring burden and ache of heart among my people in driving them from their homes and yoking them with laws they do not understand. But I have now become satisfied that they are not unfriendly toward us, but that they wish us well.”
In 1978, a subsidiary of Waste Management Inc. purchased a landfill permit for a 300-acre tract of land just north of York, Ala. in a community where 90% of residents are Black. Since then, the company has expanded the site to 2,700 acres, creating the largest hazardous waste landfill in the United States directly over the Eutaw Aquifer, which supplies water to a large part of Alabama. Nearly 40% of the toxic waste disposed of nationwide between 1984-87 under the federal Superfund removal program ended up at the landfill. One of its original owners, James Parsons, is the son-in-law of former governor George Wallace. The political connections enabled the company to obtain the necessary permits from the Health Department to operate the dump.
According to a 2020 investigation by Northeastern University, 123 Black people were killed by white police officers in Jefferson County between 1932–1968. In only two cases were officers charged for the killings. For 26 of the 36 years chronicled, the commissioner of public safety in Birmingham was Eugene “Bull” Connor, who infamously turned fire hoses and attack dogs on civil rights protesters in Birmingham in 1963.
Originally constructed by French colonialists in 1736 on the border of French Louisiana, Fort Tombecbe was positioned to hold back British intrusion into the area and served as a major French outpost and trade depot among the Choctaw. Control passed to the British in 1763, who renamed it Fort York but abandoned the site. In 1793 Spain acquired the site from the Choctaw in the treaty of Boufouka, which ceded approximately 10,000 acres of Choctaw land to the Spanish.
Destroyed by fire in 1956, the 1840 Greek Revival-style antebellum mansion was built for Walker Reynolds, who owned some 13,000 acres of land and several hundred enslaved persons. The plantation–located near the site of Abihka, once one of four mother towns of the Muscogee Creek confederacy–was reportedly a location for the 1915 white-supremacist film, The Birth of a Nation.
Uniontown is home to around 2,000 people, 91% of whom are Black. The average annual household income is just over $30,000, and 51% of the population lives 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 30 miles away.
Dinosaur Adventure Land is a Christian campground, science center, and adventure park dedicated to anti-evolution teaching. Its founder and leader, Christian fundamentalist Kent E. Hovind, takes a literalist interpretation of the Genesis creation narrative and promotes discredited Young Earth Creationist theories. Before building DAL in Alabama, Hovind operated a similar theme park in Pensacola and served a ten-year sentence in federal prison for failure to pay taxes, obstructing federal agents, and structuring cash transactions.
Located along the Alabama River in present-day Monroe County, Claiborne was a once flourishing center of political and economic life in territorial Alabama. Serving as a base of operations during the Creek War in the early 19th century, Claiborne was also home to Alabama’s first Eli Whitney-designed cotton gin. Today, the Georgia-Pacific Alabama River Cellulose paper mill is located just upriver of the old town site. The mill produces specialty fluff and market pulp for consumer products that are found in more than 65% of U.S. households. While in process of switching to sustainable and renewable energy sources and investing in conservation projects, Georgia-Pacific self-reported that the Alabama River Cellulose paper mill released more than 120,000 pounds of reproductive toxins into the Alabama River in 2015.
With a median household income of just $24,000 per year Sumter County is among the poorest counties in Alabama and is part of the so-called “Black Belt” region of the state. The term refers to the dark, rich topsoil found in the central part of Alabama; this natural feature attracted plantation agriculture to the area in the 19th century. The 1860 Census showed the following totals for Sumter County: Whites - 5,919; Enslaved Blacks - 18,091; and Freed Blacks - 25. The current total population of today's Sumter County is slightly less than the figure of 140 years ago, but the proportion of White/Black residents is almost exactly the same (approximately 25/75%).
Legend has it that sometime around 1868, a handsome man rode into the Sumter County seat 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.
The Bellefonte Nuclear Generating Station is an unfinished nuclear power plant operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority. A total of four nuclear reactors have been proposed for the site over a 40-year period at a cost of more than $4 billion, but no nuclear reactor nor electric generating plant has ever been completed. While most construction was halted in 1988, by 2015 TVA determined that the Bellefonte’s potential power output was unneeded and moved to auction the plant. A private developer–Nuclear Development LLC, led by Franklin L. Haney of Memphis, Tennessee–purchased Bellefonte for $111 million in 2016. With plans to complete two reactor units, Haney purportedly agreed to pay Trump lawyer Michael Cohen $10 million in exchange for obtaining federal funding for the project. According to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Haney–who had donated $1 million to President Trump’s inaugural committee–says he hired Cohen to pursue investment from a Qatari sovereign fund and that neither he nor Cohen sought to lobby Trump about Department of Energy loan guarantees. TVA pulled out of the sale agreement in 2018, citing failure by Haney to obtain regulatory approvals. Haney then filed suit to force the completion of the sale, but as of April 2021 the deal was still pending, with Nuclear Development changing tactics and promoting the completion of the plant as a means of meeting the Biden Administration’s carbon reduction and climate change goals.
The Tally Mounds area was first occupied as early as 5,000 years ago, with a Woodland and Mississippian settlement site located along the banks of Valley Creek near present-day Bessemer. Three mounds were constructed around 1100 CE, predating those found 75 miles southeast at the historically-preserved Moundville Archeological Park. The mounds were leveled in the early 1900s following archaeological excavation; along with the water sewage plant, an Amazaon fulfillment center, outlet shopping mall, and VisionLand–a defunct theme park–are now located near the site.
In July 1905, four Black men–Jack Hunter, Vance Garner, Will Johnson, and Bunk Richardson–were arrested for the murder of a white woman in Gadsden. Although Richardson was innocent, a mob forced its way into the Etowah County jail where he was being held, beat him, and lynched him from the train trestle over the Coosa River. No one was ever held accountable for the lynching.
Located near several important Muscogee (Creek) towns along the Old Federal Road, Fort Bainbridge was constructed in 1814 to guard the U.S. Army’s supply route into Creek territory. After the Indian Removal Act of 1830, local white landowners established a plantation system using extensive forced labor of enslaved people. Between 1932 and 1972, investigators from United States Public Health Service and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention enrolled a total of 600 African-American men from Macon County in “The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male.” Participants were not informed of the nature of the experiment and left untreated for 40 years. As a result, 28 patients died directly from syphilis, 100 died from complications related to syphilis, 40 of the patients’ wives were infected with syphilis, and 19 children were born with congenital syphilis
would lead to layoffs. Afraid their jobs would be given to Black citizens, the mob terrorized the town. In 2019 Carbon Hill mayor Mark Chambers published several inflammatory statements on Facebook, including a call to “kill out” the LGBTQIA community. Chambers’ posts were later deleted, and he apologized. One year later Chambers aimed racist remarks at the Black Lives Matter movement in a Facebook comment that read in part, “When you put Black lives before all lives they can kiss my ass.” Three days after publishing the comment Chambers deleted his remarks and resigned. As of 2011, there were approximately 30 churches in Carbon Hill for a population of just over 2,000 residents, of which 89% are white and 25% live below the poverty line. More than 83% of local residents voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 election.
Alabama has known a deep and complex history. From Native American genocide to slavery and secession, and from the fight for civil rights to the championing of Trumpist ideology, the state has stood at the nexus of American identity. In many ways, Alabama has also played a pivotal role in the history of photography. “For more than a century, travel writers, folklorists, journalists, photographers, and filmmakers attempted to reveal the realities of life in rural Alabama, and, by extension, the South, through documentary forms of expression,” writes Scott Matthews. “Their portrayal of (the place) and its people, however, contributed to a broader twentieth-century romance of the rural South that transformed the faces, landscapes, and architecture of the poor into art that resonated with educated, middle-class audiences eager to see and experience islands of vernacular beauty and authenticity in a sea of standardization.”
Social isolation is both a phrase and an experience that has defined the past year in the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic, and the images in What Has Been Will Be Again expressly evoke the loneliness that has characterized this period. Yet What Has Been... features subjects for whom social isolation is nothing new. The project, instead, makes a case for a long history of isolation and alienation—one that has exacted a costly human toll vis-à-vis generations of willful neglect by a mainstream America only now starting to visualize what—and who—has been pushed out of our collective frame of vision.
Begun in Fall 2020, What Has Been Will Be Again has led me across colonial routes including the Old Federal Road and Hernando de Soto's 1540 expedition to bear witness to and connect with the individuals and communities plagued by generational poverty and the exploitation of the environment. Such images speak to the forced marginalization of African-Americans, Indigenous people, and members of the LGBTQ+ population across Alabama’s past (and present). Accompanied by historicizing captions, the images also catalogue sites of injustice, at once mirroring and challenging the silence of historical narratives that, for so long, have failed to speak the names, dates, and places where such raucous violence occurred. While certain images visualize the ancestral home of Alabama’s First People and evoke notions of Indigenous exile, erasure, and abuse, other images reflect the white nationalism that embodies the exclusionary politics of today.
There is a paradox that purposely exists in What Has Been: it visualizes the very real social isolation that has had tangible consequences on the individuals and communities photographed, while simultaneously revealing connections across space, place, people, and time. By tying together events in Alabama’s centuries-long past with present-day issues, the project insists that it is impossible to view our current period outside of history. The confluence of the COVID-19 pandemic, Black Lives Matter movement, and seditious domestic terrorism marks our times as significant, but What Has Been Will Be Again confirms that the isolation, socioeconomic inequalities, racism, and marginalization we’ve witnessed is not unprecedented. Instead, it speaks specifically to our current moment while also illustrating the perpetuated use of segregation and sequestration in service of the myths of American individualism and exceptionalism.
Jared Ragland (MFA, Tulane University) is a fine art and documentary photographer and former White House photo editor. Utilizing a range of photographic tactics including reportage and historical processes, filmmaking and bookmaking, and image/text relationships, his visual practice critically confronts issues of identity, marginalization, and history of place. He serves as Assistant Professor of Photography at Utah State University in Logan, Utah.