On December 17th, 2016, President-Elect Donald J. Trump visited Mobile, Alabama — the last stop on his Thank You tour. After landing at the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport in Downtown Mobile, President-Elect Trump was greeted by six pastel ruffly dressed young women: the Mobile Azalea Trail Maids.
Jonathan Lemire, a national reporter for The Associated Press, tweeted a photo of Mobile’s famous Azalea Trail Maids greeting President-Elect Trump when he exited the plane. The tweet soon received hundreds of replies, some positive, most negative, and a portion downright nasty.
Seeing all of the backlash on twitter for the Maids, including comments calling them “disgusting, ugly, and embarrassing,” my heart was hurt, and I decided that it was time to let the nation know what the Mobile Azalea Trail Maids are all about. In order to do this, I must begin with a little history…
The Mobile Azalea Trail began in 1929, when Sam Lackland brought the idea before the Mobile Jaycees to plant Azalea bushes along well-traveled routes in Mobile as a beautification project. (The Jaycees, or Junior Chamber of Commerce, are active and in charge of three local programs that occur each year: The Greater Gulf State Fair, which began in 1955 and today attracts more than 100,000 people in its ten-day-run; The Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo, the largest fishing rodeo in the world; and the Mobile Azalea Trail, which encompasses both the Maids and the physical Trail, established in 1929.) Soon, Azaleas were planted, and they attracted spectators from all over the country. Today, there are three official trails that run through the city of Mobile, marked by newly purchased signs — the old marking was a single, solid pink line that ran down the side of the road. The very first Azalea Fest was held the following year, in 1930, and began a tradition that continues today.
Local debutants began to meet during the festival, serving as ambassadors for the city and welcoming all visitors from around the state and around the country. The first official Azalea Trail Court was introduced in 1935, and it consisted of ten young women. The program, however, became more and more popular each year, and at one point, the court was comprised of girls who lived more than three hundred miles apart. Gathering the full court became quite a hassle, so it was decided that revisions were needed. In 1957, the court was reduced to fifty high school senior girls from Mobile County, Alabama, who were chosen to serve year-round as the official ambassadors of the City of Mobile.
(Another program was introduced in 1958, the America’s Junior Miss Program, to reward high school senior girls from across the country, and to further them in their pursuit of higher education by rewarding them with scholarships. The program has since been renamed, it is now called Distinguished Young Women, and it is the oldest scholarship program in America of its kind; it focuses on scholarship, leadership, and talent.)
To become an Azalea Trail Maid, high school seniors from Mobile County who wish to participate go through a rigorous two-round interview process, held at school and county levels, where they must be prepared to answer questions concerning the history of Mobile, Mardi Gras, and the Azalea Trail. They must be knowledgeable of local history and attractions, local, state, and national leaders, and various current events. In addition, they must maintain exceptionally high GPAs, and have highly refined conversational and interview skills.
At the school level, over one thousand girls try out. Each high school within Mobile County is allocated a certain number of maids, based on student population, and the purpose of the first interview is to narrow down the amount of girls to only one hundred. The top one hundred go to county interviews, where the group is split into top and bottom half by combined interview and scholarship (GPA) scores, and only the top fifty make it to be Azalea Trail Maids. The county level also allocates three girls as Second Lady in Waiting, First Lady in Waiting, and Queen.
The Queen wears a pink dress, and all other colors are decided by the council that comes together after the interviewers (who come from out of town each year, to prevent bias) have chosen the final fifty. Girls are allowed to number their top three choices, from blue, green, lavender, yellow, and peach, but the council has the final say.
Even though the colorful antebellum dresses are a major part of the Mobile Azalea Trail Maid program, it was not until 1950 that they began wearing them. Each dress is specifically designed by the girl who wears it, and no two are exactly alike. The young ladies who make the court hire professional dressmakers, and the process takes around four months to complete.
The court is comprised of girls who have a passion for their city, who love its present and believe in its future, and who want to give back to it. The city of Mobile is a special place to all of them, and they spend months learning about its interesting history: it was first settled in 1702, it is the home of Mardi Gras (which began in 1711), and has many nicknames, including the Port City, the Azalea City, and Mobtown. It is home to the world’s largest public tennis facility, and to the world’s largest fishing rodeo, The Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo (hosted also by the Mobile Jaycees). Five members of the Baseball Hall of Fame are from Mobile, and Mobile has hosted a variety of actors, singers, and politicians, including six U.S. Presidents — Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — who all visited Mobile while they were in office. It has been sung about by various artists such as Bob Dylan, Cher, Dolly Parton, Robert Palmer, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams Jr., Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Jerry Reed. It is mentioned in numerous books and movies, and it boasts some of the best food in the south. Did I mention that the West Indies salad was created in the heart of the City of Mobile?
Even though its history may be a little obscure (what with mosquitos being the reason for the city’s relocation, the one-eyed man beginning the tradition of parading, and the revival of Mardi Gras coming because of a fake indian chief on a one-man goat cart), it it something that Mobilians take great pride in. We love telling and retelling our stories, and we will repeat them for anyone who is willing to listen. The Mobile Azalea Trail Maids are a part of that story, and they will continue to be for a very long time.
Azalea Trail Maids travel, telling Mobile’s story both locally and nationally, and they represent the city that they love so dearly. They have been featured at the “internationally televised Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, the nationally televised Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City, Disney's Easter Parade in Orlando, Florida, the Philadelphia Thanksgiving Day Parade, the Chicago Christmas Parade, the Indianapolis 500 parade, the Presidential Inaugural Parade, plus annual appearances at the nation's largest 4th of July parade in Atlanta, Georgia.”
The Inaugural Parade? Yes! In 2009, the Maids were invited to march in the Inaugural Parade of then President-Elect Barack Obama. One of the “embarrased,” tweeters, who hails from Birmingham, cited controversy in 2009, in which Edward Vaughn, President of the Alabama Chapter of the NAACP, first stated what many of her (as well as others’) tweets echo.
“These are not regular costumes,” Vaughn said. “These are the costumes that remind someone of the plantation in Gone With the Wind.” In an article published by WSFA 12 in 2009, it says that he went on further to call the Azalea Trail Maids the “laughing-stock,” of Alabama. Vaughn soon retracted his comments, and apologized to the Maids, the Mayor of Mobile, and the State of Alabama as a whole for his rude and unnecessary comments concerning the Maids. Nonetheless, the Maids travelled to Washington, D.C., and made their appearance as Alabama’s representatives in this nationally televised, and historically groundbreaking, parade.
The dresses themselves are not symbols of slavery, nor are they meant to be; they are symbols of southern tradition, hospitality, and the beauty of the blooming azaleas.
I was a Mobile Azalea Trail Maid for the year 2015-2016, and I had the opportunity to travel to Philadelphia for the Fourth of July Celebration, to Chicago for the McDonald’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and to Disney for the Annual Easter Parade. Trail, as we call it for short, is a family. It’s built on loving relationships and trust among the girls and their advisors. It is the experience of a lifetime, and it has forever changed me and shaped me into the young landy that I am, and the woman that I am becoming. Mobile Azalea Trail was one of the greatest experiences of my life, and I would not trade it for anything.
I am not sure if I have proper enough words for the joy and success that Mobile Azalea Trail has brought me. I am now filled with confidence, I attain conversational and public speaking skills, I enter interviews with ease, and I become overjoyed when someone asks me a question about my home.
Mobile Azalea Trail is more than a program — it’s more than a dress — it is a family, filled with loving and incredible individuals who never fail to impress me and challenge me both professionally and intellectually. The young women who participate are beautiful, intelligent, and hard-working.
To attack the Trail Maids is to attack the City of Mobile, itself: its history, its traditions, and its citizens.
Even though controversy arises once every few years, and hate is spewed in our direction, the Azalea Trail Maids do not react with haste, anger, or malice; however, we stand poised and smiling, knowing that the roots of love for one another grow within our hearts and no one can take that away from us. So, let the angry tweets come, but let their authors be informed, educated, and understanding of what all that Trail has done for us; what all it has made us to be.
And with that, we curtsy.
If you would like to learn more about the Mobile Azalea Trail Maids, there are many websites which you can visit to do so. I would be happy to answer any questions, if you would email me personally.