Career of USA Writer-in-Residence Frye Gaillard Defined by Race Relations
Posted on October 9, 2015
Mobile native Frye Gaillard grew up with the Civil Rights movement, absorbing its courageous and bloody history the way fellow Baby Boomers soaked up television’s “Leave it to Beaver” or Bill Haley’s ground-breaking anthem “Rock Around the Clock.”
Gaillard was 9 years old in December 1955 when Montgomery resident Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man hurled civil rights into the national stratosphere overnight, turning the South into a battleground for racial equality.
“I came of age during that time, and I remember conversations at the dinner table about the Montgomery bus boycott that followed Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat,” Gaillard recalled. “Those days were a part of my own identity gelling and my coming to the conclusion that while I was coming of age in an area I loved very much, it was also a place that was deeply flawed.”
Gaillard, writer-in-residence at the University of South Alabama and author or editor of more than 20 books, including the acclaimed “Cradle of Freedom: Alabama and the Movement that Changed America,” recalls that time as crucial to his career as a journalist, editor and writer. “It was a subject that grabbed me in college, that I wrote about as a news reporter and it continued to grab me after I left the news business,” he said.
In 2005, “Cradle of Freedom” won the Lillian Smith Book Award, and the Alabama Library Association selected it for “Book of the Year.” “Cradle of Freedom” is this semester’s choice for the University’s Common Read Program, something that has pleased Gaillard because of a new generation’s interest.
Today, Gaillard works out of an office inside the department of communications. Books, mostly about the South, history and politics, line his shelves. Next to his desk, the waste basket overflows with printed pages, the rejected bits and pieces of his next book. Much of Gaillard’s thinking, remembering and writing is done here or at his home, located south of Mobile. The thoughts and ideas vary, yet racial justice is always prominent.
“The story resonates today because the issue of race is still prevalent in our society. How do you live in peace and mutual respect with people who aren’t exactly like you? That is the American story in many ways. Europeans moved to a continent already inhabited by a group of people, and our ancestors brought in slaves that set this country on a certain path,” Gaillard said. “And, I think it’s going to be our story far into the future. I think it’s a mistake in this country to even conceive of the day that there will ever be a day this won’t be an issue, but for better or worse, it’s our story.”
The years have brought Gaillard full circle, despite the long trip he took to get to USA. He grew up in Mobile’s Springhill neighborhood on Old Shell Road in a little house next door to his grandfather and across from Spring Hill College. In the summers, he played city league softball. Gaillard attended Vanderbilt University, majoring in history, but kept one foot in the Port City by working summers as a news intern at the Mobile Press Register. He joined the staff as a full-time reporter following graduation in 1968, but soon he moved to Nashville to report for the Associated Press. A stint with the Ford Foundation magazine “The Race Relations Reporter” followed before he landed at the Charlotte Observer.
As the Old South of the Lost Cause gave way to the New South of the Sunbelt, Gaillard covered the changes, including Charlotte’s landmark school desegregation controversy, the rise and fall of televangelist Jim Bakker, the funeral of Elvis Presley and the presidency of Jimmy Carter. He witnessed so much of the South’s changes that he eventually acquired the newspaper’s title of Southern editor.
“I’ve always written about race relations, including some of the things that happened in Alabama in the late 1960s,” Gaillard said. “When I moved from newspaper work and then put on the historian’s hat, it wasn’t that different. You know, journalists take the first cut of history.”
A respected editor, he left daily newspapers in 1990 while he was still in his 40s.
“Newspapers were changing. It was becoming harder and harder to do the in-depth reporting that I valued so much, and I was tired of the daily deadline grind,” he said.
For 10 years, he and his wife, Nancy, continued to live on their five-acre farm with horses outside Charlotte while he wrote a column for an alternative newspaper and worked on books. Gaillard admits he’d never considered returning to Mobile to live until 2004 when he faced two situations common to his generation – an aging parent and the challenge of a new career.
“I’m an only child, and my mother had just turned 90,” he said. “The other thing was I’d met Dr. Clarence Mohr, head of the history department, and he offered me a job to teach one course per semester, to interact with students, do public outreach and to generate public discussion about things that mattered. I actually jumped at the opportunity, and I had a good sense that good things were happening at South Alabama.”
As writer-in-residence, Gaillard teaches classes across a variety of disciplines, focusing on history, writing and southern politics. Recently, he was named to the interdisciplinary faculty of the University’s Center for the Study of War and Memory. The one-of-a-kind center studies the collective memory of war and its impact on society, both in the United States and abroad.
The Gaillards own a house on Fowl River, which he considers his backyard. They often fish and birdwatch from their 17-foot boat powered by an outboard motor. When the couple’s blended family joins them, there’s two daughters, a son and four grandkids sharing their slice of heaven.
Now 68, Gaillard enjoys “telling people that you can teach an old dog new tricks.” Besides his writing and teaching, he has branched out into songwriting and participated in a documentary based on his book “In the Path of the Storm,” which won a regional Emmy for its look at how Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Deep Water Horizon oil spill in 2010 devastated the fishing village of Bayou La Batre.
“I love Bayou La Batre because it’s multi-ethnic with black, white and Asian residents, and they have, by and large, made their different cultures work – not by sitting down and singing ‘Kumbaya” – but because their work ethic is what ties them together,” he said. “I was happy to have the opportunity to write about it.”
Next year, his first novel, “Go South to Freedom,” will be published by New South Books of Montgomery.
“It’s a historical novel for children based on a piece of oral history told to me by an elderly African-American friend of mine whose slave ancestors ran away south instead of north,” Gaillard explained. “I felt it was a chance to put a face on history for children.”
When the novel is published, there will be travel for book signings, interviews and speeches to various civic groups, but afterward Gaillard will return home to Mobile to remember, to write and, hopefully, to contribute to future positive changes.
“I think the city has changed for the better by a large margin, and I’m always pleased to be back here,” he said. “I often think how the University of South Alabama has put tens of thousands of well-educated people into the life here over the years. I believe we as educators have a role to nudge people to look honestly at the problems that we’ve had as a city, state and region. If we do that, and if we make a difference, then all that we’ve done feels real meaningful.”
To learn more about Frye Gaillard, his books and other projects, visit http://fryegaillard.blogspot.com/
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