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November 14, 2000

NEWSMAKER INTERVIEW

Dr. Michael Thomason is professor of history and director of the University of South Alabama Archives. Dr. Thomas is also a member of the 2001-2003 Alabama Humanities Foundation "Speakers in the House" program. He is working on a book on the tri-centennial of Mobile, which will be celebrated in 2002.

Harbinger: The Alabama Humanities Foundation (AHF) Speakers Bureau program brochure says you have spent five years putting the City of Mobile's tri-centennial history into print. What did you discover about Mobile that you find the most fascinating?

Thomason: We've been working on this project since 1994, and it won't be out until fall 2001, so that's seven years. The book has been written by ten authors, each an expert on the period his or her chapter covers; I am the editor. The book will have nearly 200 illustrations, selected and captioned by Elisa Baldwin. The volume will be very handsome, nearly 500 pages long, and altogether quite beautiful. We plan to have a grand autographing party on September 29, 2001, the three hundredth anniversary of the Pelican's setting sail from France on the journey that resulted in the founding of Mobile. That voyage launched Mobile; our party at the new Museum of Mobile will launch Mobile's Tri-centennial celebration

There was a great deal about this city's history that I didn't know when we began this project, especially regarding the eighteenth century. However, I like to think that I was hardly alone, and no one person knew enough to do the project without help by the Tri-centennial. I think the most fascinating thing about this project for me was realizing how much our city is a product of the contributions of Mobilians of every race and creed. Our city really has been a joint effort, although not everyone involved was free to choose the role they played. From the native Americans to the present, Mobile would never have made it without non-Europeans. And a great many of the Europeans were not "Anglo-Saxon Protestants". Mobilians have lived with diversity and made it work long before it became fashionable to do so in recent years. Our history suggests a mixture of conservatism and tolerance that I wasn't expecting, largely because that's a pretty unusual combination.

Harbinger: Which of the three European powers, France, Spain, and Great Britain, has left the greatest imprint on Mobile, and what are they?

Thomason: In many ways, all the European powers left the same message in the eighteenth century -- "You're on your own, boys!" Mobile had to look to itself to survive. We were largely ignored by our colonial masters in far-off Europe. The settlement made it by using the talents of Europeans, Africans, Indians, slave and free. We even traded clandestinely with Pensacola when it was part of a competing empire! We had no choice, and we made it largely on our own. That's the legacy of the eighteenth century. It was a hard era for us, and its legacy is less in terms of bricks and mortar and more in terms of attitude. The Spanish are probably the most underestimated (1780-1813), but to know why, you'll have to read Richmond Brown's excellent chapter in our book!

Harbinger: The AHF Speakers Bureau program brochure states that the City of Mobile faces the problems of modern-day American cities with "a special sense of its history." How would you describe that "sense of its history"?

Thomason: Mobilians may not be the best historians to come down the pike, but they know there's a lot of history around here. That's not surprising, but it is important to remember that our history is not the endless success story that American history often seems to be. Mobile has had a lot of tough times and reverses over the years. We got bumped from being the state's largest city by Birmingham, for heaven's sake. That's hard to take. The rest of the country thinks that New Orleans invented Mardi Gras, and has it all to itself. How dare they? We lost the War, and that still rankles. Even other Alabamians don't understand us as we think they should. They don't know history, we believe, and so don't understand our unique heritage down here. Well, all that makes us more interested in history as we look for a sense of identity in our long past. However, the fact is, most of us don't really know much more than anecdotes about our past. I hope our book will help change that. The real story is so much better than those half-remembered stories, anyhow!

Harbinger: In your opinion, what is it about Mobile that makes the city special for its natives and transplants?

Thomason: Most places people live are special, because people are special. None of us should imagine that we live in a time or place that is better than others. It may be better for us, and we can hope that it will be better for lots of others, but all places, like all people, are special. Having said that, I think it is essential that we try to realistically judge our community's strengths and weaknesses. Mobile is certainly not perfect, and we should have no difficulty naming our problems in areas of education, environmental quality, race relations, etc. Of course, if we had no problems we wouldn't be human. So does anything make this place special for new and old Mobilians alike? I think it may be the last thing that a lot of newer arrivals would guess --inclusiveness. You don't have to be here very long before someone will tell you how closed the local society is, but that's just not so, and I'd argue that it never has been. Mobile has always needed the contributions of newcomers to keep going. Sometimes we were hostile, as in the case of the "Famine Irish" in the 1850's, but we still needed them, and in a generation we were electing them to political office. We have never been rich enough to not need newcomers. On the other hand Mobilians are proud of their city, all the more so because we feel others really don't understand us. So there's a strong sense that nobody is going to apologize for anything, even if we privately feel that we should. What we encourage is for newcomers to get involved, to take part in local life on whatever level they wish, until one day the newcomer finds he or she has become a Mobilian, at least in his or her own mind. Look at how many old homes newcomers restore and enjoy, how many Mardi Gras societies they join, and how much time they spend doing all the things "Old Mobile" does. Mobile has evolved a culture that is shared on various levels by rich and poor, new and old, black and white. It's positively seductive, and given time it's as inclusive as a culture can be while retaining its subtle level of distinctiveness. Mobile has a personality that has been formed by 300 years of history, gradually and imperfectly, but in the end, uniquely. In the final analysis it may be too subtle an achievement for many Americans to appreciate or understand, but it is our legacy.

           

In its fourteenth year, the "Speakers in the House" program aims to fulfill the Alabama Humanities Foundation's goals of celebrating the humanities and enabling every citizen in Alabama to be a lifelong learner and teacher. If your civic organization wishes to request Dr. Thomason or other speakers in the program to speak to your group, contact the Resource Center Coordinator of AHF at (205) 558-3980; email: ahf@ahf.net; web: http://www.ahf.net/.


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