(I haven’t been posting here as much as I’d like because I’ve been working on a few other projects. Maybe you’ve seen this piece I did for It’s a Southern Thing on bean pie and how I learned there’s more to it than meets the eye … or mouth, as the case may be. Or maybe you read this piece I wrote on the Cuba 1 Stop in Cuba, Ala. It’s what I didn’t write about my trip to Cuba that I want to tell you about today.)
When you stand in the middle of downtown Cuba, Ala. at 1 o’clock on a bright fall Saturday afternoon, all you hear is birds. You don’t hear lawn mowers or leaf blowers. You don’t hear the distant hum of traffic. You don’t hear the faint cheers of football fans in their homes watching the Alabama or Auburn games. I didn’t even hear a dog bark.
You hear nothing. Nothing but the birds and maybe a faint rustling as the breeze blows up an anemic dirt devil and stirs a few dry leaves.
This is what I imagine a ghost town to be like. Quiet and deserted. But neat, as if a phantom caretaker haunts the streets with a broom and a rake and some shears.
From my vantage point where the main road crosses the railroad tracks, I can tell there was once a lively little town. On either side are a few old brick storefronts, there’s the post office, which seems closed but still in use, and I can see three antebellum homes that sit in three different quadrants like sentries guarding the ghosts.
I’m standing in the middle of downtown Cuba because I am looking for someone who could tell me just why the town has that unusual name. But I see no one.
My research had revealed that the first person to live in the area was a man named R.A. Clay who moved there with about 100 enslaved persons in 1852. I found out that the post office had been active prior to 1850. But it was only after Clay moved there and donated the land to Southern Railroad to bring the train through that was it referred to as “Cuba Station.” And while Clay donated the land, it should be noted that the railroad was actually built and the tracks laid by the people he enslaved.
But I still didn’t know why Cuba was called Cuba.
That’s when I turned to a book called Place Names in Alabama by Virginia O. Foscue. She writes that the town was originally to be called Clay’s Station because Clay donated the land for the railroad. He objected, however, and suggested the town be named for a settlement just to the southwest that was called Cuba. Foscue writes that the original settlement was “probably … named for the Carribean island.”
Thanks for that insight, Virginia. But why Cuba?
Since what passes for downtown Cuba was devoid of any residents, I decided to drive around to see what else I could see. It doesn’t take me long because Cuba proper consists of only about a dozen square blocks split by the train tracks. I saw three churches and a volunteer fire station. I drove by the Cuba Museum (yes, they really do have a museum) but it was closed. I saw a fair number of neat, white frame houses all built in the Southern Vernacular style so typical of small town Alabama.
Cuba is the kind of place where even if you live in town, you might have a small horse pasture or a barn behind the house.
Just when I was about to decide that I was on some sort of deserted movie set and give up, I saw two men in a driveway talking around the tailgate of a pickup truck.
I pulled up and rolled down the window of my car.
“Mind if I ask y’all a question?”
I said I was researching a story I was writing and asked if they could tell me why Cuba was called Cuba.
The older man, who appeared to be around 60, had grey hair that was mostly cut short except for a long “rat tail” that came about halfway down his back. He was wearing those shiny, stretchy shorts typical of football coaches, a t-shirt, and flip flops. The younger man who was probably in his early 30s wore a ball cap, jeans and a t-shirt, and boots.
Rattail proceeded to say something about how the town was named for another Cuba Station and something about a Civil War battle where the people of Cuba (or maybe some regiment) fought the Yankees back from their beloved town.
Ballcap said his brother lived across the street right next door to their mama. “Lemme text him,” he said. “He runs the museum. He’ll know.” And with that, he pulled a phone out of his pocket.
Propping his flip flop foot up on the tailgate of the truck, Rattail asked me, “So what’s the story about?”
As I explained that I was writing a piece on the Cuba 1 Stop and how the food was so good for a gas station and how it seemed like the story was going in a different direction than I thought it would, I could see his face harden a little bit and his eyes narrow somewhat.
“I don’t support Indian-owned businesses,” Rattail says.
I sense that it’s probably time for me to go.
Looking up from his phone, Ballcap says, “Well, actually, they’re Yemeni. Not Indian.”
Rattail cuts his eyes over to Ballcap.
Ballcap stumbles on. “I mean, the burgers are good. Sometimes I get one. But I don’t eat it there. I take it to go…” He sort of trailed off as Rattail continued to stare at him.
“They come here and buy up our businesses and don’t pay any taxes,” Rattail went on. “I mean Mo [which is apparently what he calls Mohamed, the owner] is a nice guy and all but I don’t shop there.”
Rattail proceeded to tell me how “Mo” had taken in his sister-in-law and her five children after his brother died. How he took care of them in addition to his own wife, six children, and his elderly mother. How he’s a “really great guy” and how much respect he has for him as a family man.
Then he said, “But I would push my car past there before I’d buy a dollar’s worth of gas.”
I couldn’t resist. I asked him since there was no other place even near Cuba to get gas, where did he shop.
Mississippi. Rattail drives to Mississippi so he won’t have to shop with an “Indian” who is a mile down the road. Mississippi.
The last thing that Rattail said to me as Ballcap shuffled around uncomfortably looking at his phone was “I don’t mean to sound like a prejudiced redneck, but that’s what I am.”
Then he walked into his house.
And I drove away.
“I don’t mean to sound like a prejudiced redneck, but that’s what I am.” I can’t get that phrase out of my head. The acknowledgement of his racist feelings against someone he thinks is an otherwise stand-up guy. The feeble attempt to cushion it. The blatant acceptance of his racism as an integral part of his very being. The unwillingness to change.
“I don’t mean to sound like a prejudiced redneck, but that’s what I am.” Period. Hard stop.
Now that’s not the story I wanted to tell about Cuba. I wanted to tell a happy story about Cuba because it seemed like a happy place. And it is a happy place according to every other person I talked to — a place where everyone gets along and neighbors take care of neighbors.
Every other person except for Rattail.
But while this is not the story I wanted to tell, this is a story that I have to tell. I have to tell it because to not expose the ugly things that are said among white people is to silently agree. To silently condone. To silently excuse behavior and attitudes that are a cancer on our society.
Now am I, a lone woman in a deserted location, going to challenge a large man with a saucy hairstyle, shiny britches, and an ugly mouth? Nope. As much as I might have wanted to tell him how wrongheaded he is, what a hypocrite he is, and how he shouldn’t be so ignorant and hateful, I’m not stupid. And I’m not reckless.
But I do have a platform, and I have you to share this story. And these words that I wanted to say to him, but was too scared to, will hopefully have a much greater impact here than if I had wasted them on deaf ears in a suddenly dangerous, deserted place. The pen, dear friends, is mightier than the redneck.
So the next time you find yourself on I59/20 near Exit 1 at the Alabama/Mississippi state line, I want you to visit the Cuba 1 Stop, get you a dollar’s worth of gas (or 10 or 20) and a hamburger, and tell ‘em you’re happy to see them, because they’ll be happy to see you.
And in case you’re wondering, I still don’t know why Cuba is called Cuba.