When an African-American 1st-grader brought home a letter from his teacher reporting that he had been moved from the Rabbits to the Turtles reading group, family and friends in Madison Park, Alabama, didn’t resign themselves to the demotion. Instead, they sprang into action.
Today, Eric Motley is executive vice president of the Aspen Institute, but in the 1970s his future did not appear guaranteed. The teacher’s letter spurred his Aunt Shine to stage an extraordinary community intervention that rallied friends and neighbors to support him at every stage of his learning process and help him to excel academically.
Madison Park was founded in 1880 by freed slaves. In his new memoir Madison Park: A Place for Hope, Motley looks back fondly on the close-knit community in which he was reared. “Learning was taken seriously in Madison Park,” he writes. “Too many older citizens had been denied the advantage of a formal education and exposure to the arts and ideas.” Perfect attendance was expected.
Aunt Shine and other Madison Park elders were uncertain about the Supreme Court’s unanimous 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that racially separate schools were inherently unequal. They feared that forced integration would destroy their model of community-based education, which ensured that every student was taught by someone who knew his or her background, parents, and family situation. They also feared that if this spirit of community was lost, the children would be failed by a system based on statistics instead of relationships.
In this excerpt from A Place of Hope, Motley’s description of the extraordinarily thick culture of Madison Park is singular in its beauty and striking in how rare this is today.
Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture founder James Davison Hunter writes: “This is not to say that we have seen the last of character or of the moral qualities of which it is made. It will be found, here and there, in pockets of social life—within families and communities that still, somehow, embody a moral vision. Needless to say, it will manifest itself culturally in various and particular ways.”
Motley provides a beautiful glimpse into one such “pocket of social life” where care for others and commitment to learning was woven into the very fabric of the community.
Motley’s book, Madison Park: A Place to Hope, will introduce you to the people who shaped this extraordinary place.
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