TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – In the past, when people uttered Thomas Wolfe's famous line, "You can't go home again," I always disagreed, arguing that you can — just don't stay too long. Now, I am not sure about even short visits. On this trip home, I did something I'd never done since leaving in the mid-1960s. I didn't drive past the old Druid High School, my alma mater, or McKenzie Court, my public housing project.
I have a good reason for not visiting my old stomping grounds — they no longer exist. In the name of progress, they've been demolished. Years ago, they tore down 2715 15th St., the shotgun house that held my earliest memories. They destroyed Big Mama's house, three doors to the west, where I was born on Feb. 23, 1947.
Given the age of those old shacks, demolition may have been an improvement, although a few of them are still standing. Instead of replacing houses in "The Bottom," as it was called for good reason, they razed the houses to make way for a new, arched highway on 15th Street. Sound familiar?
But it was McKenzie Court that held my fondest memories. We lived in 5-D, 75-A and 52-B. Unlike in the North, there was no stigma attached to living in a housing project. They were built with brick, unlike most of the housing on the Black side of town, and they resembled town houses more than the towering, crammed structures on Chicago's State Street, for example. For a poor family, it didn't get any better than living in McKenzie Court.
My Big Mama, Sylvia Harris, and Percy, one of her sons, lived in 23-A. I would eat twice on Sundays, once at home and once with Big Mama. I was the first grandson, so I'll let others draw their own conclusions about our relationship. Let me put it this way: There was Mama and there was Big Mama. Of course, Big Mama was the equivalent of the Supreme Court. She was the only person who could reverse lower court rulings.
When we first moved into 5-D — when I was in elementary school — Mama could usually find me at Miss Dot's house because she was one of the few people who had a telephone and a TV set; we had neither. As I grew older, I spent more time on the basketball court, talking to Robert L. Glynn, the manager of the projects, and visiting my friends. Back then, everyone knew every family in the projects and adults made sure we didn't get too far out of line.
Late last year, they leveled McKenzie Courts, again in the name of progress. They define progress as building new low-income units to replace the projects. It was done under a federal housing program called Hope VI. That's a good name, for we can only hope that most of the displaced people get one of the new units.
The final straw was the decision to demolish Druid High School. Unlike the "separate but equal" schools in the South, Druid really was equal in one respect. The same architectural plans used to build Tuscaloosa High, the White school across town, were used to construct the block-long Druid High School. It was a great building, with two libraries, and even greater teachers and administrators. In the name of integration — and to destroy all symbols of the previous era — it was renamed Central High, but to former students, it was and always will be Druid.
Now, whatever you call it — Druid or Central — has been leveled and is to be replaced with a middle school. They've also demolished the old Tuscaloosa High, but have already replaced it with a gorgeous new structure and allowed it to remain a high school.
On this trip home, I just couldn't stomach driving by McKenzie Court or Druid High and not see those structures that meant so much to me growing up. When I went to visit a couple of family friends — Miss Dot and Miss Julia (even though both are married, in the South we still call everyone "Miss") — I took circuitous routes so that I could avoid seeing what they had done to my high school and housing project.
I look around and notice that all of the old plantations from the Civil War have been neatly preserved. Why couldn't they rehab Druid High School and McKenzie Court? Are they any less important than monuments to a lost cause? I know that one day I'll have to go back to my old neighborhood and see what they call progress. But for now, I prefer not to see the destruction and cherish the memories.
George E. Curry is editor-in-chief of the NNPA News Service and BlackPressUSA.com.