Hearts of Dixie

Dec 27, 2004

A profile of 50 of the state's most colorful characters, with introductions by other notable natives.

Hearts of Dixie is, as the title suggests, 50 mini-biographies of Alabamians of the 20th, 19th, and, in a very few cases, the 18th century.

I began leafing through this oversized book?it approaches being a coffee-table book?and looking at the many pictures. Each entry has a full-page photo, usually very good, and a few smaller accompanying photos.

I was looking at first for a few entries I expected to find, those of Nelle Harper Lee, E. O. Wilson, perhaps Senator Howell Heflin, and found none of them.

I had failed to notice that the subjects had to be deceased to be included in the volume. This was a good idea, really, and saved the author, Jim Noles, a world of trouble, I am sure.

There are, besides the entries, 50 little introductions to the entries, and the living make an appearance there. Winston Groom, author of Forrest Gump, introduces Truman Capote, Senator Heflin introduces the heroic congressman Carl Elliott, and so on.

Usually these prefaces contribute?the above two do?but they are uneven and not as smoothly written as the entries themselves, all by Noles.

How do the 50 entries arrange themselves? They are alphabetical, so I did a little taxonomy.

There are two entries on Native Americans, William Weatherford, Red Eagle, who led the Creek attack on white settlers at Fort Mims and later helped arrange the truce, and Sequoyah, credited with inventing the Cherokee alphabet.

There are 11 entries on African Americans, and most of these are fairly predictable: Joe Louis, Satchel Paige, Jesse Owens, from the world of sport; W. C. Handy, Nat King Cole, Erskine Hawkins, and Dinah Washington from the world of entertainment, and Martin Luther King Jr., of course.

There is an entry on Booker T. Washington, the head of Tuskegee, but most interesting to me were the entries on George Washington Carver, who was far more impressive than I remembered, with 300 products developed from the peanut and over 100 from the sweet potato. I was also startled to be reminded that Carver refused almost all financial gain from his discoveries and turned down an offer of a ?princely salary? to go work for Thomas Edison.

The entries that struck me as most interesting, because they were the people I knew the least about, were the businessmen-industrialists.

Daniel Pratt (1799-1873) set up a textile mill and had trouble selling the cloth around Montgomery because people thought that northern cloth was superior. So he secretly shipped his cloth north, had it stamped as made there, and shipped it back home. After local customers happily bought the ?foreign? cloth, Pratt revealed his hoax. No problem after that.

I also learned a good deal from the entry on Arthur G. Gaston, who developed the insurance business in Alabama. Gaston?s story was especially strong, since he started with less than nothing, saw a need for black burial insurance, then a black mortuary, then a life insurance company, then a savings and loan company. Gaston became wealthy by meeting a real need, not by selling pet rocks and bottled water.

The most problematical entry is that of George and Lurleen Wallace. Reading Noles?s prose is like watching a man walk through a mine field. Noles remarks, cautiously, that Wallace left a legacy that many historians and political scientists regard, at best, as mixed, ?while his politicization of various Alabama public institutions significantly lessened their effectiveness.?

The introduction to the Wallace entry is by Dr. James C. Bailey, president of Wallace State Community College, who tells the reader he worked for Wallace in four consecutive campaigns and that if George Wallace had grown up in Illinois (as Lincoln did), he no doubt would have been President of the United States.

Well, maybe.

The entries on Helen Keller and, of course, Paul Bryant are fine, but familiar.

More interesting, or at least newer, was the story of Shug Jordan, who fought in Morocco and in Salerno and at Utah Beach and Okinawa.

Julia Tutwiler?s entry yields the following: once, when Tutwiler, not a fancy dresser, fell asleep sitting on a bench in New York?s Central Park, ?she awoke to find her bonnet filled with coins.?

It?s bits like this that make it all worthwhile.