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Black History Month: A Place of Hope

Black History Month: A Place of Hope

Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us. — Romans 5:5 NKJV

Dating back to its earliest days, Madison Park’s most prominent feature was the absence of white faces. It was built by the hands of people seeking not just a sense of community but a safe haven — free from the perils of their recent enslavement.

When President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, approximately three million men and women were set free, at least in theory — the Proclamation immediately affected only twenty thousand to fifty thousand slaves where the Union Army had taken control. It wasn’t until two years later, when the Civil War ended, that the Proclamation systematically freed thousands of men and women, with nearly all liberated by July 1865. With almost nothing more than the clothes on their backs, a little farming knowledge, and an extraordinary capacity for resilience, they moved their families to find land they could work — land that for the first time would yield profit and prosperity for them and not a master.

But freedom didn’t come without fear.

Former slaves were ignorant of legal constraints and general business practices — ironic given that they had been legally constrained all their lives. Most couldn’t write their names — and some had only one name until they chose a second. Their perspective and understanding of how the world worked was based on what they’d overheard and seen from their masters’ conversations and transactions. Could they succeed on their own? Would they become victims of carpetbaggers and scalawags who migrated south to take advantage of the social turmoil caused by the onset of Reconstruction? Would their freedom be short-lived? What if resentful plantation owners, angry over the loss of their “property,” chose to retaliate?

As unequal as their lot in life had been to that point, they cherished a conviction that they were the equals of any other person, blessed by their Creator with inalienable rights. To paraphrase Civil Rights leader Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, who spoke about our enslaved ancestors’ appetite to be free, a “fire got started deep in their souls, and it could not be put out.”

What little is known about Madison Park’s origins is due to the efforts of African American historian Dr. Gwen Patton and her research among the “Madison Family Papers,” housed at Trenholm State Technical College, in Montgomery, Alabama. Eli Madison, the patriarch of the community bearing his name, was born in Alabama in 1839. According to the stories passed down, he was both physically and intellectually a strong man, with an indestructible sense of self-respect. Dr. Patton notes that his “slave-master trusted him, yet feared him.” In 1865, after the conclusion of the Civil War, Madison set out with his half-brother Killis Marshall and close friend Gadson Draw, along with their wives, to establish what would become one of the state’s first free African American communities. Soon other families from Autauga County, about twenty miles north of Montgomery, joined the pioneers in Hunter Station, five miles down the road. Next Madison moved the families to King Hill, thirteen miles away. They were closer to the city but still deep enough in the country to secure the amount of arable land they needed for the settlement they envisioned.

Within a few years the families had accumulated enough capital to buy a substantial plot. Only modest-sized properties were available in King Hill, but Flatbush, which is near Wetumpka to the northeast, had a number of plantations for sale, land that belonged to financially ruined white Southerners. So, the families pooled their resources in 1880 and made a down payment on the May Plantation. Within two years, Madison paid James and Molly May $2,380 in exchange for the deed to 560 acres, becoming the only recorded group of freed slaves in Alabama to purchase an entire estate.

Madison and his group trusted the Lord’s promise to supply their needs. Settling their families on the plantation, they cleared brush, tilled the sandy fields, and planted trees, including oaks, whose height and grandeur now reign as testaments to their industriousness, even while shading what would become their graves. Later they established a sawmill and gristmill and bought a cotton gin.

Unincorporated, without a mayor or town council, the community was organized around the common good. Within the framework of national and state laws, residents made the rules, governed and cared for one another, and meted out whatever discipline and correction a situation required. It was a community where, when a black person spoke, black people listened. The one thing the town fathers hadn’t done was to give their community a name.

One night the train that regularly passed along the edge of the hamlet derailed. The booming noise as the railroad cars exploded could be heard for miles, rousing the men from their beds. Madison and the others struggled to put out the spreading fire, or at least to contain it, tend to the injured train crew, and keep watch over the debris scattered in the surrounding field along the tracks. They didn’t care that it was white people’s property. They prized their community’s integrity too much to tarnish it by looting. At daybreak, when officials arrived from Montgomery to investigate and secure the cargo, the all-white posse was surprised to find order, an outcome they’d deemed impossible among African Americans. When the story reached the rest of Montgomery’s citizenry, Madison’s community was held up as a model for black people. From that day on it was called Madison’s Park, and, gradually, Madison Park. The name was not merely an honor bestowed on the founder, it spoke to the unifying sentiment that we were Madison’s children.

Despite their lack of formal education, these pioneers took concrete steps to care for their souls, minds, and bodies. They desired freedom not only from slavery but from poverty.

Realizing their need to remain spiritually liberated, sometime in 1881 they established a church in the Methodist tradition, an unsurprising choice given Methodist founder John Wesley’s outspoken opposition to slavery. The church met first under bush trees before moving into a log cabin that protected them from the wintry winds. Two years later Kate and Killis Marshall donated the land on Old Wetumpka Highway on which today’s church, which Eli Madison named the Union Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ) Church, still sits.

A few years later the founding families cleared twenty-five more acres to create a park. Shaded by oak trees that lined its perimeter, the land was a vast green lawn broken up with gravel sidewalks, play areas for children, and a central pavilion. The park doubled as a meeting place and vacation spot, since most residents couldn’t afford to travel.

I don’t know the story of my great-great grandfather John Motley Sr.’s enslavement — whether he worked in the plantation house or the cotton fields and how his owners treated him. But I do know that he was one of the freedmen who left Autauga County to join Eli Madison just before sunrise one summer morning in 1880. Upon arriving, he and his group of former slaves gathered in an open-air temple of arched trees to make a promise under God’s heaven and on the altar of God’s green earth to start their own community, take responsibility for one another, and make a success of their lives. Later, he was among the pioneers who moved the stones to build the foundation of Union Chapel Church.

This Is My Community

Madison Park does not exist on the radar of many navigational systems or printed maps. Except for those who work in the municipal government and public schools of Montgomery, or who know of people or know the story of our community, Madison Park no doubt is invisible. An invisible Madison Park is an incredible idea for me, because to those who hail from the place, Madison Park is as much an idea as it is a living, breathing organism. To those who have never heard of our little community, it may not exist, but to the founders who bought the land, cleared the brush, and laid the cornerstones, and to their descendants who still care for it — whether they live there or not — it is as large as America.

The seeds of America were planted and nurtured in the hearts and minds of Madison Park’s citizens over 135 years ago, and the people there have been trying ever since to make America work for them, the same as people do in the less obscure places where lights shine bright and all the roads are paved. Eli Madison’s vision of a self-reliant and sustaining community where people could come and work to improve their state of life remains the vision of its inhabitants today. Over the last decade, as I have publicly shared the story of Madison Park at Washington dinner parties, Rotary meetings, church, work, and with friends, others have affirmed that they too once lived in a similar place, so in many ways Madison Park has become a metaphor of places that can seem invisible or nonexistent. These places still exist, but are their days numbered? Are they at risk of becoming extinct in the face of increasing atomization? I can only hope not.

Despite the changing landscape and encroaching city, the same strong pride and commitment to community remains among the people of Madison Park. It is planted deep in the earth, carefully and powerfully cultivated by my great-great-grandfather and the freed slaves who began the community and gave it its name. The history of Madison Park is tied inextricably to my sense of who I am. It is a spiritual locus that continues to offer inner refuge, solace, instruction, and most importantly, meaning in the ever changing flux of daily existence. Wherever I go, Madison Park goes with me.

When I reflect on the roadblocks that I faced, I’m so grateful for the Madison Park community. They set me on a different path than the external features in my life — my race, relative poverty, rural Southern roots, and the absence of biological parents — would seem to predict. The people of Madison Park bestowed their gift of grace, which I can never repay. Life is like that.

Blessings come at us so relentlessly; we are forever in a deficit position.

We never get all of the thank-yous or goodbyes properly said, which leaves us, each one, living with a burden of gratitude.

Adapted with permission from Madison Park: A Place of Hope by Eric L. Motley.

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Your Turn

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