Greensboro SafeHouse Gem

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Greensboro, Alabama is practically unknown to people outside of this part of Alabama. When you tell someone you are going to Greensboro—even people in Birmingham—they assume North Carolina. Nonetheless, Greensboro is worth a visit for the SafeHouse Black History Museum.

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I had called ahead over a week in advance. It took a little phone tag before I was able to confirm meeting up at 10:00 a.m. The volunteers who help Theresa Burroughs maintain the museum are a mix of locals and people who grew up in Greensboro, had careers in larger cities and other parts of the US and are now retired close enough to drive to Greensboro and open up the museum for 3 women from California.

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The museum is a gem. The Rural Studio helped to design the exhibits and this house museum hits above its weight. There is a video where Theresa Burroughs tells her story as an young woman drawn to activism. She marched, was arrested, and organized her community. In the 1960s, Greensboro was the home to a sewing factory in the black side of town and many more people lived in the community. The downtown business district was bustling and boycotts of businesses by the African American community struck an economic below and created fear amongst the white residents. The exhibits and talking to the docents really brings the sense of what it was like in a small rural town during the civil rights movement. The main focus of the museum is one particularly fraught incident involving Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Klu Klux Klan. I won’t give anything away except to say it is worth making the side trip.

Hooray for Small Towns!

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downtown Marion, AL

Driving through Alabama, I came to a renewed appreciation of small towns. So many of the town squares and courthouses reminded me of some of my favorite Iowa small towns. People who live in small towns are often underestimated or overlooked. The history of the civil rights movement has deep roots in rural places.

The March from Selma to Montgomery has its roots in Marion, Alabama. Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot in Marion by a state trooper during a peaceful protest for voter rights on February 18, 1965. This prompted the first attempt at a peaceful march from Selma to Montgomery on March 7, 1965. Reverend Hosea Williams and John Lewis stepped from the pulpit of Brown Chapel Church and led 600 marchers six blocks to the Edmund Pettus Bridge where the Sheriff and mounted deputies met them with nightsticks and tear gas. Known as “Bloody Sunday” it sparked the expanded civil rights movement in Alabama.

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Marion, AL courthouse

We drove to Marion, Alabama on beautiful country roads. Marion, the college city, is only 28 miles away and is the county seat for Perry County. As a Californian, it is odd to have so many small counties, each with their own courthouse on a square, although it is charming architecturally. We were visiting my friend Dr. John Dorsey in Greensboro, Alabama. We needed an accessible accommodation, so we reserved rooms at the Sleep Inn in Marion. Greensboro is so small the only sleep options are bed and breakfasts and AirBnB.

Marion is also the home of the Marion Military Institute and Judson College, so it is nicknamed, “College City.” The Marion Military Institute has been preparing young men for college and military service for over 165 years. Judson College was originally a “ladies college” or finishing school and has evolved into a liberal arts college. The town of Marion is a classic southern county seat with a courthouse in the middle of a gracious town square. Marion can also claim Coretta Scott King as one of their own.

 

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Awesome coffeehouse The Stable

It was a home game for Alabama so Greensboro had many people driving through from Mobile and stopping at the Pie Lab. My friend Dr. John Dorsey arrived in Greensboro 13 years ago and the downtown was almost empty. He came to serve as a psychiatrist in a rural community and try some ideas about affordable homes with supportive services in a lower cost area. Project Horseshoe Farm has grown and the 15 fellows that are living and working in the community, along with the Rural Studio students created an economic spark and now there is a gym, The Stable coffeehouse, Pie Lab, several retail shops, and more.

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Headquarters of Rural Studio

Hale County, just 10 miles down the road from Greensboro, is the home of Auburn University’s School of Architecture Rural Studio. The students are required to design, fundraise, and build their final project. Many of their projects are in Hale County or in Greensboro. It is world-renowned and a terrific resource in the Black Belt of Alabama.

 

Retracing the March in Selma

Selma is essential for any civil rights crawl.

Everything in Alabama is close-by. This is the beauty of planning a civil rights crawl. You can cram your day chock full of learning and eating with barely any time wasted in the car. It also means that you may try to do too much in one day. We found ourselves in this predicament as we drove from Montgomery to Tuskegee then back towards Selma then on to Marion with stops along the way. We did not have time to carefully follow the Selma-to-Montgomery National Historical Trail. We also arrived in Selma after the National Voting Rights Museum closed.

IMG_5505We were able to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and imagine what it must have been like to reach the peak of the bridge, high above the Alabama River, and face a sea of mounted police and police cars with blue lights flashing. I was energized by a group of high school students who started their walk with us but quickly outstripped us. We’d see them again at Brown Chapel. We also spoke with some fellow travelers—a group of friends from Texas and New York–who met up in Alabama. They recommended we also see the Old Live Oak Cemetery.

We took their advice and drove to the cemetery. It is spooky with ancient Live Oak trees dripping with Spanish moss. We all thought of Savannah, Georgia and the cemetery in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil movie. The Selma cemetery is well cared for and interesting. Thanks to our friends we knew to walk deeper through the plots to an area dedicated to the remembering the Confederacy. There were confederate flags on many of the graves, memorials to Jefferson Davis and General Nathan Bedford Forrest. The area is maintained by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Selma Chapter 53. It is also unsettling and helped us understand why Selma as a city has not been able to move on since the 1960s. It looks like it has been in a long state of decay since the Selma-to-Montgomery March. This is a community that has not made peace with its past.

IMG_5518The contrast of the large lawns and stately homes near the cemetery with the George Washington Carver apartment complex across the Brown Chapel AME Church is stark. We pulled up to the church as the high school students were leaving and Chantay spotted the church pastor. She spoke to him and enjoyed a tour of the sanctuary while Phyllis and I admired the Martin Luther King, Jr. monument. The pastor was very generous with his time and gave Chantay commemorative key chains to share with us.

We drove about 40 minutes through beautiful countryside to Marion, Alabama. The March really starts here. Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot by a state trooper during a peaceful protest for voter rights on February 18, 1965. This prompted a peaceful march from Selma to Montgomery on March 7, 1965. Reverend Hosea Williams and John Lewis stepped from the pulpit of Brown Chapel Church and led 600 marchers six blocks to the Edmund Pettus Bridge where the Sheriff and mounted deputies met them with nightsticks and tear gas. Known as “Bloody Sunday” it sparked the expanded civil rights movement in Alabama. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. came from Atlanta and helped to plan the Minister’s March and then the Selma-to-Montgomery March.

Insight into a Young Dr. King

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We rushed to arrive at the Dexter Parsonage Museum where Dr. Martin and Coretta Scott King lived while he served as pastor of the church. This is where he was elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association that organized the boycott and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The tours start on the hour and we knew the last tour would be at 3:00 p.m.

I was not sure what to expect when we entered the first house and into the gift shop where tickets are sold. Our lovely elderly tour guide, Mrs. Margeurite Foley, escorted us out to the front sidewalk and began sharing with us what it was like to live in the neighborhood in the 1950s. We saw where a bomb tore a hole in the porch (and fortunately no one was injured). Then we entered the living room and could easily imagine the family life and entertaining they might have done from their home. Some of the furniture is the same as Dr. King and his young family used.

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We realized when we got to the dining room that Mrs. Foley was a contemporary of the King family and knew him as her pastor. The quality of our questions and discussion changed and it was thrilling. I’ve visited famous people’s homes before—Frank Lloyd Wright for example—and none has moved me in the way this glimpse into the personal life of Martin Luther King Jr. did. Chantay was especially touched to see the photo of Ghandi on his desk in his study.

We drove around the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church on our way to the Parsonage. Martin Luther King, Jr. began his career as a minister and an activist at this church. The meeting to launch the Montgomery Bus Boycott was held in the basement of the church on December 2, 1955.

Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church  454 Dexter Avenue (a block west of the State Capitol), Montgomery, AL 36104  www.dexterkingmemorial.org

Dexter Parsonage Museum  303 S. Jackson Street (south of Monroe Street), Montgomery, AL 36104

Tour schedule: On the top of the hour Tuesday through Friday: 10:00a.m., 11:00a.m., 1p.m., 2p.m., 3p.m. and Saturday 10a.m., 11a.m., 12p.m., 1p.m.

The website recommends you contact them and make a reservation for your tour and this made sense once we arrived and realized the tours are powered by volunteers.

Moved Deeply at Civil Rights Memorial

The memorial designed by Maya Lin was closed for refurbishing when we visited in October, 2018. Even without this part of the experience, our visit to the Southern Poverty Law Center‘s Civil Rights Memorial was deeply moving. As you move through the first part you are invited to learn about 40 people who gave their lives for civil rights. Their stories were deeply moving.

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There is a small theater where a film about the civil rights movement plays at regular intervals. Then you move through a hallway with a timeline that records more recent hate crimes and people who have given their lives for our freedom.

Another area features quotes from leaders that prompt contemplation and reflection. This would naturally lead to the memorial itself. I look forward to visiting at a time in the future when this water feature is restored.

Just a short walk away is the Freedom Riders Museum. It is one of the places we did not have time to visit. We regretted this when we were in Birmingham and learned more about the brave Freedom Riders riding Greyhound buses to desegregate bus service in the South.

Remembering Tuskegee Airmen on Veteran’s Day

Tuskegee is famous for many things including the African American airmen who were trained as pilots and served in WWII. Tuskegee is about a 40-minute drive east of Montgomery and worth the effort. Our first stop was the Tuskegee University campus. We were trying to find the Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site and Google Maps was not able to provide directions beyond the University entrance. Twice we slowed to ask a college student for directions and twice she turned out to be a freshman from California and unable to help us. We finally parked by the chapel and started our own Tuskegee education at the monument honoring the Institute’s founder, a fierce statue of Booker T. Washington helping a former slave out of ignorance.

Many of the venues have similar names and it can be confusing. We were able to visit the Carver Museum, a short walk away from the Booker T. Washington monument. The Carver Museum’s exhibits, operated by the National Park Service, are a bit fusty. It is still worth watching the film about Carver’s brilliant science career. George W. Carver sought an education at great sacrifice and ultimately trained as a scientist specializing in developing agricultural crops. He published his research in easily understandable bulletins (a precursor to the USDA bulletins). We enjoy hundreds of foods and products because of his work, including popularizing the sweet potato. I dare you to be less than bowled over by his creativity, productivity and selflessness.

Afterward we drove to the outskirts of town to Moton Field where the Tuskegee Airmen trained. It is a beautiful airfield and still operates for private planes. The National Park Service has a few markers to help orientate you and to tell about the Tuskegee airmen. While we were there a group of US Airforce service people were wrapping up their visit. I was glad that we already knew that their brave and capable service helped to pave the way for desegregation of the armed forces. I was struck by how small the airfield was compared to the decommissioned Airforce bases in Sacramento (McClellan and Mather). Small but mighty.

Life Lesson You Don’t Have to Learn the Hard Way

I used the Alabama Civil Rights Trail brochure as my guide and did not go to the National Park’s website until after we returned home. And even then it wasn’t until I dug deeper that I discovered that we missed the Hangar #1 & Hangar #2 museums at Moton Field. They are currently open Monday- Saturday 9:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. CST, except Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day and Sundays.

 

 

Rosa Parks Still Inspires

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Phyllis and me at the site where Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus. It is adjacent to Troy University’s Rosa Parks Museum.

The historical marker on the spot where police boarded the city bus to arrest Rosa Parks for not giving up her seat for white passengers is also the site of the Rosa Parks Museum at Troy University. We bought our tickets and strolled the hallways looking at the Gees Bend quilts and other art until the tour started.

IMG_5410Our group was ushered in to the first room where we watched a video giving us more information about Rosa Parks. Many know her story in the most simplistic terms: woman is tired of the segregated city bus policies and one day refuses to give up her seat. The reaction from her community sparks the civil rights movement. This is true is in its essentials and glosses over a lot of important details. The video begins to redress the gaps. Our esteem of this diminutive hero increased.

The second room has an actual old city bus and a nifty multi-media reenactment. It is clever in relating the atmosphere and the details of the event. The doors then open to further exhibits that give more context of Rosa Parks’ brave action. It also tells the story of the year-long bus boycott and other details of Rosa’s life.

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While we were there, the museum curators were organizing a new exhibit that included artwork inspired by Parks and artifacts from her arrest. We would have lingered longer except we wanted to visit the Dexter Street Church Parsonage before it closed.

Rosa Parks Museum

252 Montgomery Street, Montgomery, AL 36104 (334) 241-8615

https://www.troy.edu/rosaparks/

Hours: Monday-Friday 9a.m.-5p.m.; Saturday 9a.m.-3p.m.; Closed Sundays and holidays

Ticket prices: 12 and under $5.50 per person; Over 12 $7.50 per person; various discounts available.