The back roads of Alabama’s Black Belt region are some of the greenest, friendliest and most interesting in the South. Stretching from Tuscaloosa over to Auburn, the region includes nine themed trails that highlight everything from BBQ, civil rights and metal art in Selma to Conecuh sausage, pepper jelly, pottery and pecans.
Selma is a good place to start if you want to learn about civil rights history on the ground, Black Belt art and taste some true regional cuisine. Book a tour with Terry Chestnut, whose father J.L. was the first Black attorney in Selma. Terry was just seven years old and remembers being with his dad during the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965.
Terry’s historical tour starts at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge and includes the Old Depot Museum; Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, the primary site for mass meetings that brought about “Bloody Sunday”; the Rev. B.L. Tucker House; George Washington Carver Homes Project; Sturdivant Hall; and Selma University, which has graduated notable alumni like Autherine Lucy and the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. There’s also the Selma Interpretive Center and National Voting Rights Museum and Institute to tour.
With Terry, you’ll get a personal touch and moving stories about the movement and all the players that were involved. You may even meet up with a former civil rights leader on the street corner. He also has copies of his father’s Black in Selma book for sale for those who want to learn more about J.L. Chestnut and his legacy as the attorney for Martin Luther King Jr. and many other respected civil rights leaders.
Charlie “Tin Man” Lucas is another important figure in Selma. I remember hearing about his “outsider” art when I first visited the town in 2010. Now, he has his own gallery in the historic district with an outdoor courtyard for events. He’s been in his current space for the past six years but his art career began in 1985, and he’s exhibited his work all over the U.S. and as far as France and Italy.
He doesn’t see himself as an artist, though. “I’m just a person who makes toys,” he says. If you have the pleasure of meeting Lucas when you stop in, you’ll notice the boyhood gleam in his eye. His art started with things like dolls out of old fertilizer bags with sticks for arms when he was a child. He didn’t fit in with the rest of his family because he couldn’t sharecrop or pick cotton. He had a need to make things out of it instead of just putting it in the bucket.
His great-great-grandfather had a blacksmith shop and understood him best. This fact explains a lot about Lucas’s whimsical faces made from metal and tin. But his meandering gallery also has paintings in the folk art style, life-sized sculptures and lots more to look at.
As for the names of his pieces, he says they tell him what they want to be. “It’s like walking down the road and meeting new friends,” he explains. Several pieces titled “Spirits Coming Down” serve to “uplift his ancestors,” but there are also things like “Mummy on the Sofa” that are just plain fun.
Lucas thanks God for the freedom to be himself and is an inspiration for anyone else in a small town that doesn’t fit in and walks to the beat of their own drum.
After visiting his gallery, stroll the block to Gallery 905 and Arts Revive for more local art.
Spend the night in Selma at the St. James Hotel with an unobstructed view of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. I stayed here in 2010 as well, and the hotel is now part of Hilton’s Tapestry Collection, which included a full makeover. The property dates to 1837 and is one of the last riverfront hotels in the southeast. Book a room with a river view from the balcony, where you can sit and imagine what it would have been like to march across that bridge. Or sit in the courtyard and look out for the spirit of Jesse James, who reportedly spent time there in the 1880s.
There’s also the cozy Bridge Tender’s House, a Victorian cottage right next to the hotel at the foot of the river. It goes for $250 a night on Airbnb and was built in 1884 for the bridgetender who had to open the original bridge so that riverboats could pass.
Just as cozy is Tally Ho restaurant, THE place to have dinner in Selma. The log cabin location nestled in the trees will make you feel like you’re out in the woods, and the menu is a true taste of Alabama. Start with the fried green tomatoes with sauteed crabmeat and hollandaise sauce or the vegetable spring rolls and then move on to filet mignon, shrimp and grits or fried oysters. Sometimes live music and sushi are on the menu as well.
Continuing down the road to Camden (about an hour from Selma), Black Belt Treasures Cultural Arts Center has everything from affordable local art and crafts to classes and workshops for all ages. There’s also a Textile Circle on Thursday mornings, pottery classes and the opportunity to learn hand quilting with second-generation Gee’s Bend quilter Mary Margaret Pettway. You can see Charlie Lucas’s art on display and for sale here too.
Go down the street to The Pecan on Broad for some gourmet tasting and shopping. Pick up a chicken salad sandwich from the cooler or take home a tub of House Made Pimento Cheese. There are also lunch specials Wednesday through Friday and Saturday brunch with pitchers of mimosas. Shop for home decor, candles, local sauces and more carefully curated gifts while you wait.
You could end your trip here or take the ferry from Camden over to Gee’s Bend for another unforgettable experience in the Alabama Black Belt.
Thanks to Terry Chestnut, Charlie Lucas, the St. James Hotel, Kristin Law at Black Belt Treasures and Selma/Dallas County for hosting me in Selma and Camden. All photos are by Deep South.