Walking in Alabama: Enclosure and In-Between-ness

This spring, I gave a paper at the British Women Writer’s Conference in Auburn, Alabama. Alabama has been in the news a lot lately, but I was there to think about women and legal rights in the nineteenth century, not the twenty-first. My paper was on walking in Anne Brontë’s 1848 novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. That sounds strange: to write about walking in a novel. Walking is just something people tend to do, on an everyday basis. But there is a lot of walking in that novel, and it seemed important to think about why. Walking is about getting from once space to another, but there is something else going on there; walking is  something else in a novel about a woman who flees her abusive husband and takes their child (against the laws of coverture, which would have considered them both be his property). It is also something else in a novel whose title features “tenant”: a reference to the idea that one is temporarily occupying a space owned by others. Movement matters here.

While in Auburn, I also did a lot of walking. While doing so, I’d sometimes forget to slip my name tag into my pocket, a lapse that reveals one to others as a temporary visitor, an outsider in town for just a few days. My name tag was created based on my registration form, and it was the first I’ve worn at a conference (thus far) that had us include our preferred pronouns. I had recently invited students to do this in a first-year class when providing me with written information on their own backgrounds. To some the question was secondhand; to others it was unexpected and even confusing.

We’re in that moment still of betweeness: the moment between idea and institutionalization, between push and expectedness, between “what is this?” and “why of course! How could it be otherwise?” (Though as we’ve seen in the past few years, “otherwise” has a way of making its way back to the surface.)

During one of my walks, I came across the sign marking the registration of Harold Franklin, the first African American man to attend Auburn in 1964. As someone who reads for a living, I was struck by the text on the sign, and took a picture of it so I could pull it up and think about it some more.

Franklin’s attempt to enroll in the school, as a graduate student, in 1963 was at first blocked; the president of the university relented only due to “court order.” As the sign notes, as an attempt to reduce the chance of violence, Franklin’s registration was scheduled for a Saturday and the campus was “closed to the public” for the event. What struck me most on the sign is the description of Franklin’s walk: “University officials and FBI agents met Franklin at the nearby Auburn Methodist Church to escort him to campus. State troopers sent by Governor George Wallace blocked their access, forcing Franklin to proceed alone and unprotected.” 

Those are the moments I keep coming back to: his walk. The moment he continued and met onlookers and protestors “alone and unprotected.”

The sign ends on an optimistic, perhaps pollyannaish note: “A century of institutional segregation ended that day.” Dig a little deeper and you’ll see that this, of course, is an oversimplification: after registering, Franklin was segregated from other white students in terms of his living quarters, and he ate alone. Institutionalized segregation occurs in all sorts of forms, long after laws declare it done.

And yet, I keep coming back to his willingness to keep walking, unprotected and vulnerable: that willingness made a difference, as other students of color noted at the 2015 ceremony marking the unveiling of the plaque. Now in his eighties, he stated in a 2013 interview that ““In those days … you were expected to do what you could in the struggle for civil rights, . . . I just happened to be one of the people who happened to be at the right place at the right time.” He went on to receive his M.A. at the University of Denver and teach and work in administration.

I’ve been thinking about that willingness to enter these spaces, forbidden to some, as you are, and insist that that space make room for you. And, I keep turning over the “in-between” space: the space between the moment when individuals first began sharing their pronoun preference and the automatic inclusion of pronoun preference on conference name tags. The space between Franklin and the registrar’s paperwork, between Franklin’s walk and the sign commemorating his enrollment fifty years later. That space looks like vulnerable individuals, again and again, being willing, and having the energy, to continue to insist, demand, explain, educate, and negotiate into the rights that others already hold.

That’s hard and tiring work. It’s not romantic. It’s exhausting, and the truth is, even after the unveiling of the sign commemorating the shift, or the newly designed name tags, the work doesn’t end. Organizing makes a difference: individuals become groups and groups are effective. Franklin was encouraged by a civil rights attorney to attempt to enroll, and such attempts were part of a larger movement led by the NAACP. Strategically, smart organizers often focus on finding ideal candidates in making legal arguments that will also serve as public litmus tests. But even in groups one cannot get around the vulnerability; one might be “walking” with others, or supported by others, but also and always groups are made up of individuals repeating physical and psychological vulnerability.

In my talk on The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, I suggested that walking is a sign of mobility that registers beyond something we might think of as independence. In her study of walking  Ann Wallace argues that in nineteenth-century literature, walking accrued new meanings during the period of widespread land enclosure. Enclosure was, quite literally, the act of closing off what had been large swaths of public land, land that had been open to farming and public walking. Enclosure involved consolidation of smaller farms into larger, privately controlled spaces. This moment also marks a shift away from small agrarian farming towards capitalist privatization. Small farmers and laborers did not benefit, and during the earlier decades of enclosure in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, some revolted and even rioted. Yet by the mid-nineteenth century, about fifty percent of England’s agricultural areas had been enclosed.

This too is a story about access, space, and walking, as enclosure cut off public footpaths, paths used by all, and especially necessary to those who might not be able to afford other means of transportation. Wallace points out, however, that “in the controversy over public rights of way through private lands that ensued, walking emerged as a possible mitigation of these ills, for English common law provides that public use itself creates public right of way. Thus walkers on a public footpath were, by means of walking itself, unenclosing that path, appropriating it to common use” (10).

I find Wallace’s point here to offer a compelling means of thinking about movement forward in what I have been thinking of as the “in- between” spaces. In Wallace’s description, the act of walking itself makes a claim on territory, and the walking is a transformative process. In other words, the act of walking into a space, and across it, starts to make that space one’s own. Walking functions as a catalyst: It unencloses. It begins to open space to the possibility of other walkers, “appropriating” a path “to common use.”

Harold Franklin, walking on campus in 1964 in Auburn, Alabama. These photos were taken after Governor Wallace blocked university officials and FBI agents from accompanying Franklin to his registration, and so he walks alone. Additional images can be found here.