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The Place the Freed Slaves Made

A think-tank leader and former presidential aide shares his debt of gratitude to the people of Madison Park, Alabama.
The Place the Freed Slaves Made
Image: Wikicommons

Madison Park, a small community in Alabama not far from Montgomery, was founded in 1880 by a group of 14 freed slaves who wanted a place where they could live, work, and worship together while building a better life for their offspring. Among this community’s native sons is Eric Motley, executive vice president at the Aspen Institute and a former special assistant to President George W. Bush. In Madison Park: A Place of Hope, Motley shares stories from his upbringing in a community united by commitments to faith and education. John Van Sloten, a pastor, teacher, and author of Every Job a Parable: What Walmart Greeters, Nurses and Astronauts Tell Us about God, spoke with Motley about his memoir.

What made you want to write about growing up in Madison Park?

I wrote the book for a number of reasons. I wrote it as an expression of gratitude to a good number of people who helped me along the way, whose names would never see the light of day on the page of any book. I also wrote it because I came from a place—Madison Park—and it’s a beautiful place. It has a wonderful and inspiring history, and people need to be reminded of places like this, the places you can’t easily find on a map or a navigation system.

At a time when so many people are speaking about the things that divide and separate us, it’s good to be reminded of the blessed ties that bind us, the relationships that people enjoy within communities, and the sacrifices we make to supporting each other in all of our needs: spiritual, economic, whatever it might be. Madison Park is a voice in the wilderness that reminds us that we have more in common than not, and it points us to what can happen when people live together, work together, and support each other as neighbors.

Your love and respect for everyone in Madison Park comes through clearly. How have they helped you learn to better love and respect God—and others?

Madison Park, at the time of its founding, was built around two structures: a school to assure the liberty that only an education could provide, and a church to enable praise and thanks to God. Our common faith has held us tightly together and kept us responsible for one another.

I don’t think anyone in Madison Park, at church on Sundays or walking its streets during the week, can fail to be reminded of those who came before us, who made a promise to God that they would try to live out their lives in fulfillment of his will. Worshiping every Sunday with neighbors and seeing these shared values manifested in their thoughts, words, and deeds was very important to me at an early age. And this example has remained a guiding light throughout my life.

Just recently, I was talking to a friend, a lady from the Madison Park community who had very little materially but who had enormous faith. One day, as a small boy, that woman pulled me aside and said, “Motley, God has something he wants you to do. I don’t know entirely what it is, but I know he has something he wants you to do—and your job is to figure it out.” I think about those words often: God has not brought me this far without a purpose to live into. None of this is happenstance. None of this is mere coincidence. I think everything is unfolding just as it should, and my job is to listen and try to figure it out, to pursue God’s will as I understand it.

What lessons does Madison Park have for the church today—and for the wider society?

In Madison Park, every citizen knew the ministers of the three churches as leaders who spoke truth to power and challenged the moral complacency of a secular society. Where are those voices today? Where are the Reinhold Niebuhrs, Abraham Joshua Heschels, and Martin Luther King Jrs. of today? For me, in Madison Park, it was not hard to know what was right and what was wrong, because there were moral voices that were unafraid to challenge us, to hold our beliefs to the light, to see if we were truly living righteous and good lives.

Madison Park’s founders had a hope in something that transcended the chaos of everyday life: that there was a God who was ordering things and that things would unfold as they should. Mark Twain said that while history does not repeat itself, it rhymes. I think that today’s anger and polarization—our sense of rights being taken away or people being marginalized and forgotten—isn’t unlike the political climate those freed slaves were facing. If anything, we can be reminded that even as the institutions we’ve held onto are failing us, there are other institutions, like our religious communities, that can sustain us.

In the book you write, “Water can be thicker than blood.” How did being born to a teenaged single mom and then raised by her adoptive parents open you up to Madison Park’s communal influence?

When you’re adopted, you’re chosen. And it’s a beautiful thing to be chosen. My grandfather had three great desires for me. First, he wanted me to realize that I was created by God and that his creation was beautiful. Second, he wanted me to realize that I was a part of a community much larger than the Motley household. And third, he wanted me to realize the opportunity of enlightenment that only an education could provide. At a very early age, I understood the idea of community. I understood that nothing could be accomplished alone and that everything that had been accomplished in the founding of Madison Park, all the way up to my coming of age in the 1970s, had been done because neighbors and friends in the community were willing to support one another. Everything was a community project. I was no less!

My grandparents were not ashamed to ask neighbors to help them in my rearing. The lady who took care of me as a young boy, when my grandparents worked, ran the laundromat up the street, and she didn’t get any compensation. She wanted to be a part of helping care for this little boy. The lady who had trouble paying her utilities and put $3 in my hand on Sundays did so because she wanted to be a part of a community that was helping this young boy. When you live this way, you make yourself open to people helping you, and you seek support and help when you realize your own inabilities or deficiencies.

Now that you’ve found success in life and are arguably more independent, has your sense of dependence on community changed or diminished?

Not at all! I value and appreciate community now more than ever. We all desire community, and I try to cultivate it wherever I go, whether it’s relationships I formed in Scotland while I was studying at the University of St. Andrews, the people I got to know when I worked in the White House, the people I now work with here in Washington, DC, or the neighborhood where I now live in Georgetown. If you seek community, you shall find it.

Your love for the arts shines through in the book. You write about listening to Jessye Norman on your back porch and hearing Bach’s Goldberg Variations in a professor’s office. What have these experiences taught you about the nature of a creator God?

Beauty is all around us. As a small boy, I used to sing “This is my Father’s world and to my listening ears, / all nature sings and ‘round me rings the music of the spheres.” When I was listening to Jessye Norman, there was no shortage of woman in church who could sing, but I had never heard a human voice do vocal summersaults like that! That aria in the Goldberg Variations is so mathematically precise, the repetitions are so pronounced, and the phrasing so lovely. It makes you think, in the midst of all of the perceived randomness of life, that there is an underlying order, a formula to help us understand the nature of things.

The efforts of these great artists offer a wonderful reminder that there is no room for tiredness or, as my grandmother would say, half-stepping. You’ve got to be totally invested in all that you do and see the idea through.

George W. Bush personally thanked three of your mentors in the Oval Office. What did you think of that moment?

I try to live in gratitude, because I realize that my debt is so significant. It’s a debt of love I could never repay. We drink from wells we did not dig, and we sit under shade trees we did not plant. We offer God our gratitude, realizing that all the gifts we give to him are gifts he’s given to us. Our work and our efforts are just an expression of how much we owe him.

I owe a great deal to the people who settled Madison Park, to those freed slaves who had nothing but the clothes on their backs and their hopes and aspirations. They took a courageous risk. They made an enormous sacrifice!

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The Place the Freed Slaves Made