Archive | November, 2019

Review of My Alabama: John Dersham Photographs a State, by John Dersham

19 Nov

Master photographer John Dersham’s work is familiar to millions of people who have perused any tourism literature on the state of Alabama in the last few years, even if they do not know it. Currently president of DeKalb Tourism, he has been capturing the beauty of northeast Alabama’s mountains for visitor-oriented publications as a second career after spending three decades employed by Kodak. An award-winning and internationally acclaimed photographic artist, Dersham is one of the most accomplished photographers working in the state today.


It will come as no surprise, then, that his latest book, My Alabama: John Dersham Photographs a State, is a visual masterpiece. Containing stunning images of Alabama’s incredible natural landscape, compelling scenes capturing the vibrance of its cities and towns, views of the haunting solitude of its rural backroads, and the grandeur of its treasure trove of beautiful waterside vistas—rivers, waterfalls, and of course the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico—the book is a vivid and poignant journey through the state. Alabama’s diverse scenery is all here, from the windswept heights of the southern Appalachian overlooks Dersham calls home to the breezy beaches of the Gulf.

The book features an introductory essay on the land and the process Dersham followed in producing his images, along with a foreward by none other than former Auburn football and baseball star Bo Jackson. Both are nice pieces which help place the content of the book in context. But rest assured Dersham’s photographs speak for themselves. Arranged by season, they capture the very essence of the unique natural and cultural environment which makes Alabama such a special place and are a wonderful remainder of the beauty Alabamians are blessed with as well as a siren call to those who have not explored the land to come see what it is all about. Thanks to Dersham for channeling his passion into such a gorgeous celebration of the state, and thanks to NewSouth Books for its publication. It is definitely one of the most beautiful products of Alabama’s Bicentennial celebration.


Review of Early Alabama, An Illustrated Guide to the Formative Years, 1798-1826, by Mike Bunn

12 Nov

The Historian’s Manifesto co-host Clay Williams provides a review of Mike Bunn’s most recent book:

Alabama became the 22nd state in the Union on December 14, 1819, and the state has sponsored many celebratory events to commemorate this bicentennial. Perhaps the best way to recognize this occasion is with the publication of a new book that highlights Alabama’s journey to statehood. Mike Bunn, current director of Historic Blakeley State Park and author of numerous works on Alabama and Gulf South history, has written Early Alabama, An Illustrated Guide to the Formative Years, 1798-1826 that provides a superb overview of the crucial years surrounding Alabama joining the United States.

The book’s introduction states that most of the general public has only limited knowledge of these influential years in Alabama’s development. Other periods of history such as the Civil War or Civil Rights eras draw much more interest. Bunn states clearly, however, that this chapter in Alabama’s story sets the stage for the other crucial events to follow. Bunn proceeds then to succinctly cover those years in a brief, yet engaging way that covers all the necessary events and personalities. In less than one hundred pages of text, accompanied by interesting and colorful illustrations, Bunn discusses Alabama’s involvement in the Mississippi Territory, the climatic Creek War, the tumultuous journey of immigrants flooding into the region, the hardships of the indigenous people caught in their path, and the colorful personalities who shaped the land and its political future. Bunn pays special attention to the landscape itself, which with its abundant natural resources, served as the chief catalyst for the Natives and immigrants desire for the land in the first place. Bunn’s narrative, however, goes beyond being a simple overview as he provides plenty of individual tales and quotes that enrich the story. His detailed endnotes showcase an in-depth knowledge of the literature available and his thorough research of the topic.

Following the narrative and showcasing one of Bunn’s true passions is a listing of historic sites associated with this time period. Using maps and photographs, Bunn directs the reader to see and visit the actual sites where these important events took place. This section highlights the fact that seeing these places firsthand adds a level of appreciation and understanding of the events and people that one cannot get from simply reading alone. Including this section adds a richness to the book that other basic narratives do not have. This reviewer does wish that Bunn might have also included a timeline that can be another useful resource.

Writing a review of a book by a colleague and good friend can be a difficult task. Thankfully, Bunn made it easy with a well-written narrative that accomplished what it sought to do. If there is a negative to this work, it is that this reviewer wanted more. Anyone wanting a clear understanding of Alabama’s process from territory to statehood would do well to read this book. Early Alabama deserves to be added to the growing bookshelf of other recent works on Alabama’s path to statehood such as Edwin Bridges’s Alabama, The Making of an American State, Herbert Lewis’s Alabama Founders, and Daniel Dupree’s Alabama’s Frontiers and the Rise of the Old South.


Review of First Freedom: The Responses of Alabama’s Blacks to Emancipation and Reconstruction, by Peter Kolchin

5 Nov

Peter Kolchin’s groundbreaking study of Alabama’s black community during Reconstruction, First Freedom, was originally published in 1972 by the University of Alabama Press. Still a standard source on its subject nearly five decades later, the book was reprinted in a revised edition in 2008 and is still relatively widely available. Few history books of its vintage have aged as well.


At the time of its publication, the book was at the forefront of emerging trends in scholarship that fundamentally changed the way we understand the Reconstruction era, the most important among them being an unprecedented focus on the lives and actions of the black residents at the center of the political discord which characterized so much of the time period and altered the course of Southern history. Traditionally, these people had been discussed as merely acted upon rather than being treated as actors in events, and characterized as generally being of the same opinion in most matters. Kolchin was in some ways ahead of time with the book by working diligently to flesh out details of life within the black community that illustrated its autonomy and diversity. Lest there be any doubt about Kolchin’s abilities, he went on from the publication of First Freedom to embellish his resume and establish himself as an uncommonly accomplished historian, with several noted books and accolades such as the Bancroft Prize to his credit. In his late 70s, he is still teaching at the University of Delaware today.

First Freedom offers among the most compassionate, insightful, and comprehensive view of Alabama’s black community during Reconstruction to be printed. Kolchin examines all strata of black society in the volume, drawing on an impressive amount of documentary evidence to form conclusions about its responses—politically, culturally, and economically—to both the first experiences of freedom and the larger troubled political waters in which it was forced to function. He evaluates such disparate issues as labor contracts and the rise of a black political leadership class in the book, the result being a unique, multi-dimensional study which at once challenged older conceptions in the early 1970s and pointed the way forward for the study of the era and its people in a way which still resonates today.

It must be pointed out that even though its content was new at the time, its language can seem stunningly outdated to contemporary readers since the first edition of the book refers to the black community throughout as “Negro”—an accepted term at the time which has now fell out of fashion. This anachronistic wording aside, readers will find the nearly five-decade old volume to otherwise be stunningly modern and contain much valuable information that easily makes it worth the read. If you have any interest in the Reconstruction era in Alabama, you should be familiar with this book.