picture of downtown durant

The City of Durant: Beyond the Casino

Durant, a small town just north of the Texas-Oklahoma border, is known by most as the place of Choctaw Casino & Resort. One of the main casinos in Oklahoma, people come here from all places in hopes of winning big. But did you know that Durant is also home to other places of significance, such as the headquarters of the Choctaw Nation? Over this past long weekend, I decided to pay a visit to this town of over 17,000 to see what was there besides the casino.

After a one and a half hour drive up from Dallas, my first stop was at the Bryan County Courthouse, in the heart of downtown. Built in 1917, this three-story building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.

image of bryan county courthouse
The Bryan County Courthouse.

Like most courthouses in the south, this one had a military memorial, as well as a Confederate statue on its front lawn.

bryan county courthouse military memorial
The military memorial.

Down the road from the courthouse was the Durant City Hall. Normally there isn’t much to see at a city hall(unless it’s the one in Addison, Texas), but a rather interesting display sat outside. It was none other than the world’s largest peanut!

surant city hall
The Durant City Hall.

Well, not quite. After doing some research, it turned out that this peanut isn’t the world’s largest anymore, but was at the time it was built. In fact, Oklahoma is nowhere near the top when it comes to states that have a peanut harvest. Kind of a nutty deal, but nevertheless it was a neat little attraction.

Since I was already in downtown, I decided to stroll down one of the main streets. Like many of the town squares I’ve seen in Texas small towns, this area was dead quiet. As I recall, there weren’t too many vacant buildings, but most of the stores were closed due to Columbus Day.

picture of downtown durant
Downtown Durant.

From there, it was off to the Southeastern Oklahoma State University, located about five minutes away. I had heard about SEOSU in the past due to their aviation program, but never really looked much into it. Thus, when I was doing my planning for this trip, I was surprised to find this university so close to the Texas-Oklahoma border.

The buildings consisted of a mixture between old and new.

southeastern oklahoma state university

southeastern oklahoma state university

While this university is quite small, some of its buildings don’t look bad at all! The library had a fairly grand look to it, and the Greek-style design made it fit into the campus environment well.

southeastern oklahoma state university

Walking in these buildings, however, I have to say that there wasn’t anything notable about the interior design. The various hallways and classrooms were quite dated, and had somewhat of a high school-like feeling to them.

southeastern oklahoma state university

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Being that this university is located in Oklahoma, there was a connection to Native Americans. I passed by this building, which housed the Native American Institute. Here, there are a multitude of programs centered around Native American education.

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Speaking of Native Americans, the Choctaw Nation Headquarters was my next stop.

image of the choctaw nation headquarters
The Choctaw Nation Headquarters.

This new building, opened in 2018, houses the various offices of the nation’s third-largest Indian tribe. From member registration to the legal department, pretty much everything is combined under one roof. Although no one was available to give me a tour, the first and second floors were open to the public. While the second floor had nothing but offices, there was some stuff on the first floor, such as the Hall of Chiefs and Tribal Council displays.

Choctaw Nation Headquarters

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The Constitution of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.
The Constitution of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.

The Chief’s office was also located on the first floor, and I got to tour his office, thanks to his friendly receptionist. It was pretty neat seeing the room in which the leader works out of.

Choctaw Nation Chief's Office
Chief Gary Batton’s office.
Choctaw Nation Chief's Office
The waiting area outside Chief Batton’s office.

In the lobby, there were some display cases containing Choctaw Nation artwork. If you want to take some Choctaw merchandise home, a gift shop sells t-shirts, artifacts, and more.

Choctaw Nation Headquarters

Being that this was the heart of Choctaw country, many of the signs had Choctaw language on them.

Choctaw Nation Headquarters

As I walked down one of the hallways, a display talking about domestic violence caught my eye. Domestic violence is still an issue within the Native American community, with 64% of Indian women being assaulted in their lifetime, according to the Choctaw Nation. There are facilities here where tribal members can seek help.

Choctaw Nation Headquarters

After all this sightseeing, I was ready for lunch. I decided to eat at Roots Cafe, an office building-like cafeteria attached to the headquarters.

Choctaw Nation Headquarters roots cafe
Roots Cafe.

Usually, I would expect the food of a place like this to be quite bland, but the Fettuccine Alfredo and green beans I got were actually pretty delicious!

picture of a meal at roots cafe in durant
Surprisingly delicious!

After lunch, I had to start heading back to Texas. I found it pretty cool to see the Durant most folks aren’t privy to, as well as learning more about the Choctaw Nation. If you happen to be passing by Durant on Highway 75 and have some time to spare, I would suggest a detour, even if it’s just to see the world’s largest peanut and visit the “White House” of the Choctaw Nation!

 

Birmingham

Alabama’s Magic City – One Day in Birmingham

After a whole day of exploring Atlanta, I was ready to go do the other half of my trip bright and early the next morning: the State of Alabama. I chose to visit its most populous city, Birmingham. The combination of history and it being the most populated city in the state made it a no-brainer when it came to selecting a place to visit.

picture of a man standing by Alabama welcome sign
First time in Alabama! While here, I looked at my phone and was a bit surprised at first that the time had moved back one hour since we were on central time now. Unexpected, but welcome!

Coming from ATL, Google Maps said it would take me around two hours. Driving west on I-20 went pretty smoothly except for a few construction spots here and there. I entered the city limits two hours later, ahead of schedule and ready to explore everything Birmingham had to offer.

The first stop was the Thomas Jefferson Tower, a formerly abandoned hotel turned luxury apartments. Built in 1929, this 19-story building was considered to be one of the best hotels in Alabama. Famous people like Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover stayed here, and it made a name for itself until its doors were shut in 1983 amid a decline in business. After sitting abandoned for many years, it was finally renovated in 2015 and made into apartments.

picture of the thomas jefferson tower
The Thomas Jefferson Tower.

One super cool thing about this place is an airship mounting mast on the roof! Something that is almost never seen these days, it was put there during the days of the hotel, when airships were thought to be the future of travel.

airship mounting mast
The airship mounting mast on the building’s roof.

Ashley Brannen with the management office was gracious enough to show me around. We first toured a vacant unit, and I could tell the construction folks did a great job of renovating this place. They kept the original flooring and windows, while adding modern-day features such as fire protection and high-speed internet wall jacks.

Vacant apartment in thomas jefferson tower

old window chain inside apartment building
This antique window chain caught my attention.

Many of the doors in the hallways were original to the hotel as well.

old hotel door
It’s nice they kept the doors thru the renovation.

On the second floor, Ashley showed me the ballroom, which served the same purpose back when the hotel was open. Weddings and parties are held here, and it provided for a great community space.

thomas jefferson hotel ballroom

Wrapping things up in the lobby, I couldn’t help but notice the grandeur of the interior fixtures spared from removal. I especially loved the antique mail drop!

mail drop

ceiling design of Thomas Jefferson building
The lobby ceiling had some impressive decorative features to it. Considering this building sat abandoned for years, it doesn’t look bad at all.

Old, historic structures are always a favorite of mine to explore, and this was one well-preserved building saved from the wrecking ball. Speaking of history, my next stop dealt with the dark side of this town: racial discrimination and violence. The 16th Street Baptist Church, a predominantly African-American church a few miles away, was the site of a horrific bombing in 1963 that killed 4 young girls and injured many more.

16th street baptist church
The 16th Street Baptist Church.

Both the downstairs basement area and the sanctuary were open for the public to see. The basement contained various artifacts belonging to the church, and also pictures that depicted the time of segregation in Birmingham.

16th street church

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Upstairs, I got a glimpse into the place where service has been held for decades and decades. Their sanctuary was well-designed, and featured a big pipe organ and numerous stained glass windows.

16th street church

16th street church

On the side of the building outside was a memorial to the four girls killed. It was located in the exact spot where the bombing took place.

16th street church memorial
One dark day in Birmingham’s history.

The bombing of this church was just one of many sad days in the struggle for equality between races. After lunch, I further continued on my exploration of civil rights history with a visit to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

Founded in 1992, this museum is right next to the 16th Street Baptist Church. Rooms and rooms of artifacts and tangible exhibits clearly give the visitor an idea of the struggles faced by African-Americans back in the day.

Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
Life in America back in the days of segregation.
Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
A typical classroom for a black student.

Additionally, plenty of photos provided great insight into these ugly years in our nation’s history. Here, I also learned why Birmingham was labeled “Bombingham” for so long.

Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

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Must-see things here include fragments from the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, the jail cell in which MLK penned his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, and a replica bus that was used in the Freedom Rides.

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After spending over two hours here taking in everything, it was off to Kelly Ingram Park, right across the street. Not just any ordinary green space, this was the park where many marches were conducted during the Civil Rights Movement.

picture of a stone entrance with words "Kelly Ingram Park"
The entrance to Kelly Ingram Park.

It was here that policemen armed with fire hoses and attack dogs mowed down children protesting for equal rights, and statues spread out across the park depict that.

Kelly Ingram Park

Kelly Ingram Park

These days, it is a pretty peaceful park where people can come to see these and other statues, hang out, and learn about the role this place had in history. One thing to watch out for though – there are some loiters here. None of the ones that approached me were aggressive, but do keep an eye out.

Kelly Ingram Park
“I ain’t afraid of your jail” – words. Some pretty powerful sculptures here.

Seeing the jail cell at the Civil Rights Institute made me wonder – was that Birmingham police station where MLK was taken to still open? I knew that there was a historical marker of some sort there, and thus swung by the Birmingham City Jail to take a look.

There wasn’t much to see here. Yes, there indeed was a plaque, but the building where Dr. King was held has since been closed. The present-day jail sat right next door. Peering into the old lobby, it was run down and abandoned. Weeds were all around the doorway, signs of a building falling into decay.

Birmingham Police Department
The abandoned lobby of the old Birmingham Police Department building.

After all this exploring, I was about ready to have dinner! Being that I was in Alabama, I just had to devour some good ole’ country cooking. Upon the recommendation from someone at a local hotel, I went to Niki’s West, a restaurant serving predominately steak and seafood.

Niki's West

As a vegetarian, there were many sides I could get from the cafeteria line. I opted for mashed potatoes, corn, and yams, with cornbread on the side.

Niki's West
The serving line. Meats, veggies, desserts, it can all be found here.
Niki's West
My meal here. Great stuff.

Those veggies were delicious! They weren’t too salty, all the while still having noticeable flavor. Just some nice comfort food. Manager Dianne provided some insight into the history of this place. Niki’s West opened in 1957 as a truck stop-type joint, serving barbeque and the currently offered cuisine. As business grew, the restaurant expanded to its current size, and today has a steady stream of customers of all ages coming to enjoy a good meal!

Niki's West
Vintage decorations dot the restaurant, such as this antique cash register.

The last place I saw in the Yellowhammer State after dinner was the University of Alabama-Birmingham. A four-year state institution, it is located right next to the city’s hospital district. The campus reminded me of UT Arlington, as both of these schools are set within an urban environment, and have buildings lining major streets.

University of Alabama at Birmingham

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I walked thru both their business and engineering school buildings, and it looked to be on the older side of things. There was a new business building that was under construction, but the current facility looked pretty dated.

University of Alabama at Birmingham
Walking down the hallway of the business school.
University of Alabama at Birmingham
While parts of UAB are more modern than others, as a whole the buildings are pretty old.

They do have a cool mascot though!

University of Alabama at Birmingham

A few sculptures dotted the lawn as I trekked thru campus. I guess this would be a wheel, outside the engineering building.

University of Alabama at Birmingham
A wheel outside the Engineering building makes sense.

I only saw about half of the school, since the clouds were beginning to darken and I could smell moisture in the air. This brought an end to a whole day’s worth of exploring Alabama, a state that I thoroughly enjoyed seeing.

In conclusion, although negative stereotypes are heard whenever this state’s name is mentioned, the people here have been very friendly and helpful. This falls in line with the hospitality the south is known for. America is so expansive, containing many regions and cultures, that it would be worth your time to explore this Deep South state and see all that it has to offer. I know that I will be back in Alabama sometime to explore another town!

Birmingham
Despite what you may have heard about Birmingham and Alabama, these days it is just another American city.