What Has Been Will Be Again

Jared Ragland

2020 - Ongoing

Alabama, United States

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 often stood at the nexus of American identity.

In a time of pandemic and protest, economic uncertainty, and political polarization, "What Has Been Will Be Again" has led me across more than 10,000 miles and 40 counties to survey Alabama’s cultural and physical landscape at this consequential moment.

By tracing historic colonial routes including the Old Federal Road and Hernando de Soto's 1540 expedition, the project bears witness to generational racial, ecological, and economic injustice, reckoning a haunting yet tender look at my home state’s troublesome past and tenuous future.

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  • Michael Farmer fashions a scarecrow next to his garden in Spring Hill, Alabama, USA on Election Day. 2020.
    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 election, Farmer said, “I hope the young folks might think about what their ancestors came through to get where we are.”

  • Perine Well at Old Cahawba, Dallas County, Alabama, USA. 2020.
    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.

  • Eclectic, Alabama, USA. 2020.

  • Robert, Eclectic, Alabama, USA

  • Gordo, Alabama, USA. 2020.

  • Civil War Monument, Carrolton, Alabama, USA. 2020.

  • Payton, Cordova, Alabama, USA. 2020.

  • Mural depicting the murder of George Floyd, Ensley, Alabama, USA. 2020.
    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 1963.

  • Wylam, Alabama, USA. 2020.

  • Miller Steam Plant, West Jefferson, Alabama, USA. 2020. The Miller Steam Plant is an 800-acre coal-fired electrical generation facility operated by the Alabama Power Company. In 2017 the EPA cited Miller as the largest emitter of greenhouse gasses in the United States. More than 29 million tons of coal ash are stored in Miller’s 321-acre unlined storage pit located behind an earthen dam along the Locust Fork of the Black Warrior River. In response to a 2015 EPA ruling on coal combustion residuals, Alabama Power plans to seal its ash pit using cap-in-place methods, despite the site’s location upstream from major drinking water intakes that serve 200,000 people.

  • Ruins of Tallassee Mills, a Civil War–era armory and textile mill, Tallasee, Alabama, USA. 2020.

  • Fairfield, Alabama, USA. 2020.

  • Tom, Fairfield, Alabama, USA. 2020.
    Fairfield was originally planned as a model city by the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company in 1910 to house workers in their new Fairfield Works plant. While the steel plant remains a major employer, the industry has seen significant decline since the 1950s. Redlining policies and the construction of a major interstate that bisects the city soon followed. Most major retailers have now shuddered their stores. Public bus transportation was terminated in July 2016 for the city’s failure to pay its bill, and the water board has threatened to cut off all water to public buildings because of non payment. On May 20, 2020, the city filed for bankruptcy. Tom has lived in Fairfield for the last 16 years. In 2000, he broke his back when he fell in the bathroom. After multiple surgeries and having 19 screws placed on his spine, he was told he would be wheelchair bound for the rest of his life. His medical bills caused him to go bankrupt, and he lives alone and survives on his social security and medicare. Under Obama Administration, Tom saw cost of living adjustments made to his monthly checks, but he says the Trump Administration cut those adjustments and he struggles to afford groceries each month.

  • Cassie, Sayre, Alabama, USA. 2020.

  • Taxidermy and Confederate Battle Flag, Jacksonville, Alabama. 2020.

  • Former home of D.K. Christenberry, grandfather of artist William Christenberry, Stewart, Alabama, USA. 2021.

  • Locust Street Bridge, site of the lynching of Bunk Richardson, Gadsden, Alabama, USA. 2020.
    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.

  • Sunshine turns soil in the Commons Community Workshop garden, Childersburg, Alabama, USA. 2020.
    As a response to recent national division and the COVID-19 outbreak, Sunshine and her husband, Rusty, bought a home in Childersburg and created the Commons Community Workshop. Through their Fearless Communities Initiative, they are building a community garden in a donated downtown lot, hosting trade days, and fostering 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 masking and vaccines, and shares her concerns about global child sex-trafficking networks, the threat of Marxism, and the coming of the end times.

  • Wanda and Jerry unload Trump-themed fireworks in Carbon Hill, Alabama, USA. 2020.
    “He’s my president–I just love him,” Wanda said as she went to kiss a box of “WE THE PEOPLE D.J. TRUMP” brand fireworks that guarantees “45 EPIC SHOTS.” Originally established as a mining and railroad community in 1863 by the Galloway Coal Company, Carbon Hill’s founders incorporated the town on February 14, 1891, nicknaming it “The Village of Love and Luck.” However, just two weeks prior a group of 200 white coal miners on strike from the Carbon Hill Coal and Coke Co. devolved into a violent mob after hearing rumor their strike would lead to layoffs. Afraid their jobs would be given to Black citizens, the mob terrorized the town, prompting mayor John T. Anderson to telegraph the governor, writing, "There is a lawless mob here. Colored people are shot and driven from home. No arrest made. We need troops." 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 Walker County residents voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 election.

  • Blake, Irondale, Alabama, USA. 2020.

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