Archive for the ‘Alabama’ Category

Tina Onassis’s Divorce, Alabama 1960 (radio story)

August 7, 2010

"You grow up thinking you know your parents, but I found out only recently that back when I was a little baby, my father was involved in Tina Onassis's divorce."


Roots of Rock & Roll in the Rocket City

August 7, 2010

civil rights book signing/ rock & roll show was a big hit

March 23, 2010

"Ivy Joe would sing and the white guys would back him up." 

Jane DeNeefe March 20, 2010 Flying Monkey Theater

Ivy Joe Milan

Frye Gaillard

Marengo County: Reclaiming the History

March 12, 2010

Listen here:
WLRH podcast of

Tombigbee River Bluff

“Marengo County: Reclaiming the History,” adapted for audio from Alabama’s Civil Rights Trail: An Illustrated Guide to the Cradle of Freedom.

“Why is Alabama like it is?”

February 8, 2010

About the book Lost Worlds in Alabama Rocks.

Ivy Joe and the Snowballs Integrate Huntsville

February 6, 2010

Tommy Graham, Ivy Joe Milan and Chris Couchois, Huntsville Alabama, 1968

“Ivy Joe and the Snowballs Integrate Huntsville”

Everybody knows the 1960s were turbulent in Alabama. The general facts have been established: Huntsville managed to accomplish racial integration with less violence than Birmingham or Montgomery.

Back then, just like now, Huntsville’s business community was motivated by its special relationship to the federal government. To maintain our image as a forward-looking “space capital” or “rocket city” we really had no choice but to desegregate public facilities. Faced with local civil rights demonstrations, Police Chief Chris Spurlock did everything he could to keep Huntsville’s civic life civil.

Teenage musician Ivy Joe Milan also did his part to integrate Huntsville. As part of the first big wave of black students to attend Huntsville High School, he was looking for a way to shine.

So Ivy Joe was delighted when Tommy Graham, Chris Couchois, Billy Brown and Mike Byrum asked him to front their new band. Ivy Joe would sing, and the white guys would back him up.

Ivy Joe had always managed to find his own way. As an experienced “shoeshine boy” downtown, he was already an independent businessman. And he knew all the rock and soul classics.

So “Ivy Joe and the Snowballs” assumed their role in Huntsville’s social history. They played for white kids at the country club. They played black social clubs, a white country and western bar, high school dances and family barbecues. They played at teenage dance clubs like the Epic on Andrew Jackson Way, and television’s “Hullabaloo.”

Effective social change rarely occurs by administrative decree. Social change starts with individual acts of courage. As teenage musicians, “Ivy Joe and His Snowballs” helped Huntsville integrate peacefully.

Ivy Joe recalls, “It was all going fine until the night Martin Luther King got shot. That night, the people outside the Night Life Club on Holmes were so frustrated.

Some of them just turned on the Snowballs, just for being white. Ernest Jones and I just barely got the guys into the car and out of there! Then I got kicked out of Huntsville High for socializing with white girls in the corridors.”

When he says that, my sense of injustice flares, and I demand a better explanation.

But Ivy Joe says “Now, hold it!” He smiles at me, his dreadlocks animated. Then he explains, “I’m a historic figure. I’ve got to save some stories for my book!”

Legends of the Kaffeeklatsch

January 2, 2010

This podcast from WLRH’s Writer’s Corner about the 30th anniversary of the Kaffeeklatsch started out as a column in the Huntsville Times.  At the end of the podcast WLRH producer Judy Watters has added music Microwave Dave Gallaher recorded live at the Kaffeeklatsch.

Huntsville’s Big Spring and the Cave Under the Courthouse (print version)

January 2, 2010

Huntsville’s Big Spring and the Cave under the Courthouse
Valley Planet December 29, 2005
Janie DeNeefe

Have you ever drunk water directly from a natural spring in the woods? Many of you have, though it might be a distant memory. So many natural springs have been tainted by now that most of us buy our “spring water” in plastic bottles.

Until recently, you followed old trails to find the best spring water. John Hunt found Big Spring by following such a trail. Before John Hunt, before cotton and rockets, people came here for the drinking water.

There are hundreds of natural springs in the Huntsville area, but few rival Big Spring in output of water. According to data from the Geological Survey of Alabama, Big Spring yields more than one thousand gallons of water per minute.

Take another look at Huntsville’s Big Spring. The water flows from a gap in the massive bluff, some of it spraying from a pipe in a mossy boulder. Try to picture one thousand gallons of water flowing out of that gap in one minute.

You know what a one gallon jug of water looks like. Can you see one thousand jugs of drinking water tumbling out of the limestone wall every single minute? Imagine gathering those jugs of water into cases and loading them onto semi trucks.

In one working day, how many truckloads of drinking water might we have sent to the thirsty people stranded after recent hurricanes? How many gallons would be available to each of our own citizens, if our power grid went out and our water treatment plants shut down?

Of course, the idea of drinking from Big Spring is strictly hypothetical now. I guess it was from lack of foresight that collectively, we fouled our own drinking water. We violated the rules of ecological camping. We built privies, stables, and eventually, sewer lines, directly over a natural resource so crucial to our collective well-being that, of all the springs in the area, this is the one we named the “Big Spring.”

Even though we no longer drink from the Big Spring, it remains a central player in Huntsville’s psyche. Rumors abounded, when I was a teenager, about the cave under downtown Huntsville, possibly under the courthouse itself, out of which Big Spring’s water flowed. Supposedly you could get to it through a manhole cover on Green Street, but that seemed farfetched.

A delightful new book called Tales of Huntsville Caves confirms this rumor as true.

The Huntsville Grotto of the National Speleological Society published Tales of Huntsville Caves this year to celebrate Huntsville’s Bicentennial and the Grotto’s fiftieth birthday. Maps and stories bring seventeen Huntsville caves to light. You can buy this book at your local independent book store, or at the NSS office on Cave Street.

If you have never seen cave maps, prepare yourself to think about the underground in three dimensions. If this book is your first opportunity to see cave maps related to familiar surface features such as roads, realize that our rocky earth will never again seem as solid and unshakable as you previously thought.

Now that I have seen the maps that relate Big Spring Cave to Huntsville’s courthouse square, I am amazed that the square isn’t a giant sinkhole. Fortunately, the courthouse we built in 1964 was engineered with the cave in mind. By then the city had wisely abandoned the use of Big Spring as a potable water supply. Concrete pillars placed within the cave reinforce the cave roof to support our current courthouse.

I wasn’t there, but a friend said the old George Steele courthouse was so dank that “they had no choice but to tear it down.”

Nowadays we take it for granted that we can’t drink from Huntsville’s Big Spring. If we prefer spring water to other forms of drinking water, we tend to buy it in bottles trucked in from someone else’s spring. Big Spring is a park now.

I realize it would be farfetched to rearrange downtown Huntsville to restore Big Spring as a drinkable water source. Visit Big Spring to stroll. Read the historic marker, ponder the massive limestone bluff… but don’t drink the water!

Alabama is haunted by the mean spirit that created the Constitution of 1901.

January 2, 2010

First ran in the Huntsville Times in October 2006, then re-ran in the statewide constitution reform newsletter (where an ellipsis turned into a character I've never seen.)

Biodiversity/ E.O. Wilson

January 2, 2010

Please let me know if this is not legible.