June 2018
Homeplace & Community

34 Years of Iconic Stories

Sandra Taylor retires from government service after more than three decades of telling, preserving and cherishing some of our most seminal historical moments.

 

Sandy Taylor admires likenesses of civil rights marchers at an interpretive center in Lowndes County. Taylor has retired as superintendent of three important sites after a long career with the federal government.

Federal workers at times find themselves putting up with snide remarks from those who denigrate their efforts.

Sandra Taylor hasn’t had that problem because her administrative abilities and big smile made her a hit wherever she went during a circuitous career that led to important promotions around the country.

Those days are behind her now because she has retired after 34 years with the federal government, working her way up the ladder from a student co-op intern in 1984 to positions with the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service and the Grand Canyon National Park.

Taylor has overseen operations at federal facilities dealing with backgrounds on civil rights and voting rights histories in Alabama’s Black Belt region.

During her "twilight" years as a Park Service official, she was the superintendent at historic facilities involving Tuskegee Institute, the Tuskegee Airmen and the Selma to Montgomery Trail.

One of her most memorable assignments was overseeing development, construction and opening of Hangar 2 at the Tuskegee National Historic Site.

Each assignment involved important responsibilities, and she handled all three of her duties with aplomb.

If her job wasn’t a tourism whirlwind, it was something akin to it because it seemed the world was always watching Alabama.

One of the biggest events during her years in Alabama occurred in downtown Selma when then-President Barack Obama arrived to help mark the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery march.

A photo of a disabled civil rights activist who walked the entire 54 miles of the march.

 

A crowd, estimated at over 100,000, clogged the streets in little Selma where spectators roared each time someone of importance got up and moved to the podium to make speeches.

"We were way, way back in the crowd when he (Obama) arrived," Taylor said. "It was amazing to see all the celebrities around us. It must have been like what my parents felt in the famous 1963 march on Washington."

Taylor is a history buff and familiar with events in a state that always seems to be involved in something interesting or politically controversial.

Her supervisory tenure in the region only lasted eight years, but it was filled with interesting developments.

"I always seemed to feel as if I was at a circus, but I turned out to be a part of it – not somebody in the stands watching," she said, as she broke into a big grin.

Her job was far from cushy because at any time her every move could come under scrutiny from upper-level bureaucrats. The pressure had to have taken its toll whenever Selma was in the spotlight.

Taylor, 65, was born in Erie, a little town in western Pennsylvania where a famous canal was its calling card … much like a certain bridge in Selma.

She earned two bachelor’s degrees and had a desire to do something important. She got her wish and became involved in a lot of interesting moments.

"It seemed the universe unfolded itself to me," she said. "I have been in places I never would have been able to be. I just showed up at the right time. At least it seemed that way."

It was obvious she did a lot more than just "show up" because important federal jobs aren’t handed out like popcorn. Applicants have got to have something special.

"Government employees realize they don’t make a lot of money, so they do all they can to help people," Taylor explained. "What we often get in return from visitors are ‘thanks’ for what we do. That is something we really appreciate."

 

This sign at the White Hall Interpretive Center describes the distance between Selma and Montgomery.

Economic development has always been an important part of telling Alabama’s story to the world. It hasn’t always been favorable because of past problems, but today’s Alabama is a far cry from the 1960s, a dark period in our history.

Instead of cotton and civil rights issues, Alabama has been known as the "Detroit of the South" for many years as a result of new vehicles that roll off assembly lines by the thousands each day.

Agriculture hasn’t been forgotten, either. Joe Turnham, director of the Macon County Economic Development Authority, sees farming as an important, continuous part of Alabama’s future.

Turnham is no stranger to organic farming and agriculture in general but hasn’t overlooked Alabama’s proud past in many areas, including tourism.

He has praised Taylor’s importance in promoting Alabama’s history, especially when it comes to Macon County where Tuskegee continues to draw tourists from around the world.

Turnham said the Park Service that oversees the region’s many historic facilities has become a "community partner" in the development of the area.

In that regard, he has special praise for Taylor and her leadership.

"She has played an important part in the development of this part of Alabama," he said.

"When it comes to economic development, Sandy has been as good as anybody in the country during the years she has been the leader of the National Park Service’s programs here."

The federal agency manages all national parks, monuments, and other conservation and historical properties in America.

The Park Service employs about 27,000 workers who oversee 417 units. Of that number, 60 have been designated as national parks.

The glittering history of the Tuskegee Airmen, especially during World War II, has become a tourist magnet in past decades and Turnham hasn’t overlooked its importance.

As Taylor’s years with the Park Service entered their final stages, she could sit back, relax and count her blessings for having landed some of America’s most important federal leadership positions.

"I feel I have learned so much of American history in the special places that iconic stories are told, cherished and preserved," Taylor said.

Her years with the Park Service left her and her husband with many happy memories in Tuskegee, so much so that they fell in love with the area and have bought a house there.

At last report, they are becoming accustomed to life in the slow lane.

 

 

Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.