Sandra L. Taylor took her current job in Alabama because she got a bigger office – one with a view. Here in Alabama, her workplace with the National Park Service (NPS) spans more than 90 miles from the National Historic Sites of the Tuskegee Airmen and Tuskegee Institute to Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge and many historic points in between.
Taylor came to Alabama in 2009, initially on an interim appointment, but in March 2010, she was asked to become the permanent superintendent over the Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site and the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site in Tuskegee, as well as the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail (NHT) in Selma and all associated properties. We met up with Taylor one Wednesday morning, as she gathered her core team to discuss current activities.
To see Taylor and her colleagues in their Park Ranger uniforms, complete with Smokey Bear hats, you’d expect to see them working in a forest, but the Park Service has domain over many historic properties and even much of the intellectual property contained within. Park properties in the area have been going through major transitions, with construction at the Tuskegee Airmen site, the Selma Interpretive Center and the acquisition of the Lowndes County Interpretive Center from the State of Alabama. One of Taylor’s first tasks was to select the site of the third interpretive center along the Selma to Montgomery NHT, the Montgomery Interpretive Center. She chose Alabama State University’s campus, because the site will offer the best educational opportunities and appreciation for the stories of this historic movement.
When Taylor first arrived in Alabama, it was the stories from the individuals who had lived through this period that really moved her. “The great stories of these national treasures express a special capacity to endure and to succeed,” Taylor said. “These are very inspirational places. The personal sacrifices and contributions of the people involved in their history continue to highlight the greatness of America’s legacy.”
Taylor’s own story began in 1954 when she was born in Erie, Penn. – just as campaigns of civil resistance and acts of nonviolent protest began to break out down South. In Pennsylvania, where schools had been desegregated since 1881, Taylor attended an integrated Catholic, all-girls school and ultimately graduated in business and communications from Erie’s Mercyhurst College. As a newly registered 18-year-old voter and member of the Young Republicans, Taylor was tapped by Senator Hugh Scott (R-Pa.) to serve as a delegate to the Republican National Convention in Miami. Shortly thereafter, she went to work on Capitol Hill for Senator Scott. She worked there for four years, but opted to leave Washington after the Watergate Hearings soured her aspirations for a career in politics.
Upon returning to Erie in 1978, she met her future husband, a handsome Naval officer named Harvey Mattox, who currently also works with the National Park Service as the Repair/Rehabilitation Program Coordinator for the Southeast Region in Atlanta. The couple shares two homes – one in Opelika, Ala., and another in Atlanta – alternating weekends between them. Since joining the Park Service in 1993, Taylor has enjoyed posts at Grand Canyon National Park and Virgin Islands National Park on St. Thomas and Hassel Island. Just prior to coming to Alabama, Taylor was program manager for supervision, management and leadership in Washington, D.C., where she designed and implemented leadership and employee-development programs, including the recent superintendent academy. She was just the right fit for the job, given the growth and changes anticipated for the three historic sites, so she accepted the permanent role last March.
Taylor’s administrative headquarters are adjacent to the Tuskegee University campus, offering proximity to the Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site, which was created by Congress in 1974 to protect and interpret the founding and development of Tuskegee Institute and present-day Tuskegee University. The challenge for Taylor is finding new ways to tell the story of the school’s struggle and survival without overshadowing its history and importance with its two most famous historic figures. Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, the accomplished scientist and educator hired by Washington to help lead the institute to its world-renowned status, are at least as well known as the institution.
The Historical Site includes The Oaks – Home of Booker T. Washington, which was designed by Robert R. Taylor, the first African-American graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was architect for most of the historic buildings at Tuskegee. The 1899 Victorian house was the first in Macon County to have steam heat, electricity and indoor plumbing. Washington’s mandate to “do common things uncommonly well” inspired Tuskegee students, who made the bricks for the house and much of its furniture and took great pride in maintaining it. Murals throughout the first floor were painted to remind Washington of the idyllic English countryside, where he had been traveling while the house was being built.
Across the street is the George Washington Carver Museum, which was established in 1938 while Carver was still living. His dear friend Henry Ford attended its dedication in 1941. Four years after Carver’s death in 1943, a fire damaged the museum and its collection, including most of Carver’s artwork. After it came under the control of the Park Service in 1974, the building and its exhibits were restored.
The Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site was established in 1998 to commemorate and interpret the heroic actions of the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II (See sidebar.). There are currently 10 separate structures at Moton Field, and visitors can see historic airplanes, learn to fold a parachute and tour multiple exhibits that capture the administrative offices, war room and even the tea room exactly as they would have looked in the early 1940s. There is current construction to enhance visitor parking, improve the roads around the site and add a picnic area.
The Civil Rights Movement was a worldwide political push for equality before the law, occurring from 1950 to 1980. The movement in the South, here in the U.S., was the most widely regarded of the era, and the events in Selma were perhaps the most symbolic.
Stretching 54 miles from the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma to the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery, The Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail was designated a national historic site in 1990 to commemorate the famous civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., which led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Three interpretive centers will be offered along the route. The first is the Selma Interpretive Center, housed in a former bank building at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Taylor and her colleague Dorothy Printup, a training manager in historical preservation from Maryland here on temporary assignment, visit the site frequently. It is currently in the final phase of construction. The center is expected to open in early March, just in time for the 46th annual Jubilee Celebration (see sidebar). As Taylor attends to the many details of creating the center, she stresses the importance of including the countless oral histories.
The Park Service has just acquired permission to exhibit many iconic images from noted photographer Dan Budnik, who created a long-term photo essay of the Selma marches for Life magazine. Taylor is even involved with such details as how the images will be mounted and hung. Budnik was even able to get into George C. Wallace’s office and take photographs, which will also be included in the exhibit when the Selma Interpretive Center opens.
The second stop, and midpoint, on the NHT is the Lowndes County Interpretive Center, built in 2006 on the site that was known as “Tent City” in White Hall, near the Rosie Steele Farm. Upon entering, visitors are greeted by a glass-paned ceiling inspired by the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The center serves as a rest area and welcome station for travelers, but also boasts a well-curated museum featuring robust exhibits that capture the march within the larger cultural context of the era. The Park Service has created a heartrending film, Never Lose Sight of Freedom, which presents a wealth of first-person accounts of the march and reactions from today’s youth. One young women avows through tears, “These people made sacrifices beyond belief. There’s no way I can’t vote.” Several female members of SNCC have contributed their stories to a book entitled Hands on the Freedom Plow and will sign copies at the center on the Saturday of Jubilee weekend. The Park Service will take over the center’s ownership and management from the State of Alabama in mid April, and Taylor must ensure that any building deficiencies are addressed before the Park Service assumes responsibility.
The third and final station along the route is the proposed Montgomery Interpretive Center, which will be housed on the campus of Alabama State University. Although other sites – including the City of St. Jude and Mt. Zion AME Zion Church – were considered, ASU was selected. The site is one mile off of the NHT, but many significant events took place on the ASU campus in the period leading up to and following the march, and many ASU students participated in it. Another connection to the era is alumnus Ralph Abernathy, a 1950 ASU graduate in mathematics, who founded the Montgomery Improvement Association along with Martin Luther King, Jr. “We anticipate that the Montgomery site will have the heaviest visitor traffic,” says Taylor. “ASU has offered 5 acres of its campus for the project, and they have assured us that the center will receive continuous financial support.” This is the first property that Taylor will have shepherded from conception through construction.
Taylor strongly believes in the National Park Service’s mission to “preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education and inspiration of this and future generations.” She feels a palpable burden of responsibility for protecting these hallowed properties, but she’s clearly delighted to have this enormous opportunity. “I feel it’s my chance to create something immortal – particularly with regard to gathering and chronicling the many personal stories from people who marched in Selma or pilots who were trained in Tuskegee. The people telling these stories won’t be here forever, but their stories will live on. It’s my job to preserve as much as I can of these national treasures.” The Park Service provides poignant personal accounts and other rich resources about all of these historic sites on its website, www.nps.gov.
When Taylor isn’t managing the East Central Alabama sector of the Park Service, she also enjoys interior design, decorating, gourmet cooking, searching out antiques, and coaching and mentoring others. She has been renovating her Atlanta home for the last several years and has even found a way to bring a small sense of one of her favorite national parks inside. “I just finished a room that recreates the feeling of being in a forest of Aspen trees, and I just love it.”
Mary Wood Littleton is a freelance writer from Auburn, Ala., and executive director of the Greater Peace Community Development Corporation in Opelika. She has been a corporate communications consultant for nearly 20 years, working with such companies as CNN/Turner Broadcasting, IBM, Earthlink, Burger King Corporation and the College Board in Atlanta, Miami and New York.