When people think of space, the first things that come to mind are putting a man on the moon, the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, or even Elon Musk. One of the most vital parts of U.S. space history is located in Huntsville, Alabama. Dr. Wernher von Braun and his rocket team first came to the United States in 1945 to build rockets. Huntsville became home to one of three Saturn V rockets, which von Braun developed to take man to the moon. Space Camp is the brainchild of Dr. Wernher von Braun and the first director of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, Mr. Edward O. Buckbee. Since its launch in 1982, Space Camp has welcomed over 900,000 trainees from all fifty U.S. states, all U.S. territories, and over 150 foreign countries. The benefits of Space Camp on attendees and the experience they receive inspires, nurtures dreams, and increases interest in stem topics.
Amidst World War II, the United States developed a desperate need for a weapons manufacturing hub, specifically for chemical weapons. U.S. Senator John Sparkman, strongly suggested Huntsville, Alabama, to be the home of this new manufacturing facility, providing 40,000 acres of land bordering the Tennessee River. Thus, the birth of Redstone Arsenal. The Arsenal quickly became one of the most important U.S. Army facilities in the country. Originally named Huntsville Arsenal, in 1943 the U.S Army decided to combine the installation with the new Redstone Ordnance Plant, and the name Redstone Arsenal developed. Redstone Arsenal provided the United States with weapons, jobs, wartime support, and eventually a trip to the moon.
After racing for Porsche throughout the 1960s and winning nearly 70 Grand Prix races, legendary racer George Barber retired from his craft. However, his passion for racing continued to thrive as he began to collect vintage race cars and motorcycles. He opened the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum in 1995. To expand the museum’s campus, he founded Barber Motorsports Park. Located in Birmingham, Alabama, the 830-acre racing campus is a hallmark of the motorsport’s world.
Following the end of the Civil War, a few black politicians gained political power in Alabama and the South. Although their success would be short-lived, they would hold office and strive to protect the rights of the newly emancipated African Americans. One such politician is the Alabama native James Thomas Rapier. Through the struggles of segregation, terrorism, and a repressive social structure, he sought to make Alabama a better place for all.
Alabama has had its fair share of stories lost to history. One such tragedy took place in Macon County in 1966. Many Alabamians are not familiar with the murder of Sammy Younge Jr., who died in the waning years of the civil rights movement. He grew up in a middle-class family with educated parents in Tuskegee, Alabama. Younge joined the U.S. Navy when he graduated from Tuskegee Institute High School. After a discharge for medical issues, he enrolled as a Political Science major at the Tuskegee Institute where he became involved in the civil rights movements through groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He routinely promoted voter registration, participated in marches like the Selma to Montgomery in 1965 and gained a reputation for his activism. Yet, his activism would ultimately cost him his life. Remembering people like Sammy Younge, Jr., could change future generations of Alabamians and Americans.
Hidden in Alabama’s history is the story of an entrepreneur named Benjamin Russell. Alexander City attracted the Russell family as merchants in the early 1880s, proving just prosperous enough to send Benjamin Russell to the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1899 with a degree in law and practiced in Birmingham for a few months before returning to Alex City in 1900 to take over the family business after his father suffered a stroke. Here, young Benjamin acquired his first taste in the business world and founded the Citizen’s Bank of Alexander City, known today as the Valley Bank System. In 1902, Russell undertook two major projects. His first consisted of the area’s first telephone service, a construction running from Sylacauga to Dadeville, all operated by a switchboard in the basement of the Citizen’s Bank. Russell later sold the company to Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph for $15,250 in 1904. The boost in income from the deal fueled the expansion of his second project known as Russell Mills, a soon-to-be bustling apparel company. Benjamin Russell’s trailblazing spirit would prove instrumental in shaping the lives of local families and private sector of the entire state.
When people think of Tuskegee, Alabama they might think of Tuskegee University, a historically black college founded by Booker T. Washington. They might also remember George Washington Carver (“The Peanut Man”) teaching agriculture at the same university. Yet, many people do not know of the disturbing forty-year medical study in Tuskegee, Alabama. The 1932 study is considered the longest nontherapeutic experiment on humans in the U.S. The study, originally named “The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male,” involved six hundred African American male participants who were promised free treatment for their “bad blood” or illnesses such as sickle cell disease, malaise, and syphilis. During this time, Alabama researchers falsely believed syphilis caused more neurological problems in white men and more cardiovascular issues in black men. The U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) intended to use the men to study the effects of syphilis on the body and compare those effects to what they already knew about white men with the infection. The covert and unethical study resulted in unnecessary deaths and health issues in many African American Tuskegee families as well as long lasting distrust in the government’s health system.
Joe Louis Barrow, born in Chambers County, Alabama, on May 15, 1911, became known as the Brown Bomber, for his remarkable boxing career. His fascination for boxing began when a friend introduced him to the gym at the age of 16. He would use money given to him for violin lessons by his mother to pay for use of the gym. Louis's boxing career proved to be impressive due to the few boxers who would be able to get close to his achievements. Besides facing his opponents in the ring, Louis would also be fighting against the prevailing racial prejudices felt by African Americans of the time.
Alabama has a long and rich gay history. The Alabama equality movement for gay rights, spanning decades, is a modern effort in Alabama history for legal rights and recognition. According to the Movement Advancement Project, an estimated 150,000 Alabamians identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Birmingham’s first Gay Pride March on June 24, 1989, proved to be the first time in Alabama history where a public march organized to protest discrimination against same-sex individuals and allies. While gains today have been made on a state and national level, many LGBTQ+ Alabamians continue to be stonewalled for recognition and equality.
Many Alabamians would be surprised to know the Missile Defense Agency’s headquarter building in Huntsville, the Von Braun III, holds “the largest concentration of missile defense engineers in the world” (Hawkins). The Missile Defense Agency is an organization focused on the research, acquisition, and development of missiles to protect United States civilians, troops, and allies. Its predecessor became established in 1983 to protect the United States against the threat of missile attacks during the Cold War with the Communist controlled USSR. The lack of technology capable to prevent deadly bombings also prompted MDA’s creation. To form a more cohesive agency, multiple programs were consolidated. In 2002, the organization became known as the Missile Defense Agency. Since its creation, MDA has produced satellites, radars, and numerous missiles to ease the constant threat of missile attacks against the U.S. The Base Realignment and Closure Decision of 2005 moved a significant portion of MDA’s operations to Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. MDA’s presence made a dramatic impact on Huntsville’s economy and industry.
Alabama Heritage BLOG
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