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Listen to the Stories of Alabama’s Civil Rights Sites

A new interactive project seeks to preserve oral testimonies connected to 20 historic locations

(William Abranowicz)
smithsonian.com

Valda Harris Montgomery can still remember the Freedom Riders staying at her childhood home. It was May 1961, and the group of African-American activists had ridden into a segregated bus station in Montgomery, Alabama—a direct challenge to racist policies in the South. They were harassed and attacked, and eventually transported by the National Guard to the home of Richard H. Harris Jr., Montgomery’s father, whose residence served as a hub for Civil Rights campaigners. Sheltered there, the Freedom Riders made plans for continuing their protest.

“You knew that there were here and you spoke to them because they were friends of your parents, but not realizing just what an important impact they made,” Montgomery says.

The Dr. Richard Harris House is now among 20 locations featured in “Voices of Alabama,” a new interactive project that seeks to preserve the histories of Alabama sites with important links to the Civil Rights movement. The initiative stems from a collaboration between the World Monuments Fund (WMF), the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI), and the Alabama African-American Civil Rights Heritage Sites Consortium (AAACRHSC).

In 2018, the 20 historic sites were added to the WMF’s World Monuments Watch, a list of threatened cultural sites. But the consortium, which is “comprised of dedicated site stewards,” recognized that it was not only the physical structures that were at risk; the stories behind them were also in danger of being lost. “Voices of Alabama” thus focuses on collecting oral histories, which are told in videos connected to each location.

“The Civil Rights generation is aged and dying,” Priscilla Hancock Cooper, project director of the AAACRHSC, tells Nancy Kenney of the Art Newspaper. “[T]he hope is getting a new generation engaged.”

Visitors to the “Voices of Alabama” website will hear from the likes of Sherri Lynn Taylor, who attended kindergarten at the Jackson Community House, where the Montgomery City Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs ran programs for youths and adults. The Women’s Political Council, which helped organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott, met there, and the city’s first library accessible to African-Americans got its start in the building in 1948. Nelson Malden recalls cutting Martin Luther King Jr.’s hair at his barbershop in the Ben Moore Hotel, which was open to African-Americans and became an important meeting point during the Civil Rights era. Joyce O’Neal remembers being inside Selma’s Brown Chapel AME Church on “Bloody Sunday,” when some 600 Civil Rights activists set out from the church and were quickly beaten back by the authorities.

“[W]e were sitting in the church and heard the screams,” O’Neal says. “So we ran outside to see what was going on, and that’s when we saw the carnage that had followed the people back to the church—people with gashes in their heads. Some of my classmates were in the streets trying to pull their clothing off because it was so full of tear gas.”

Many of the featured sites reached their peak activity during the Civil Rights era, but some have histories stretching back to the 19th century—like Selma’s First “Colored” Baptist Church, which was organized in the 1840s by Samuel Phillips who had been freed from slavery. The First Baptist Church in Montgomery was founded in 1867, during the post-slavery Reconstruction period, and soon became one of the largest black churches in the South.

“What makes the 20 sites of the Alabama African-American Civil Rights Heritage Sites Consortium so remarkable are the world-changing events that happened within their walls,” says Bénédicte de Montlaur, CEO-elect of the WMF. “Preservation of both these places and their stories is crucial so that people around the world can continue to learn from the acts of courage that took place during the African-American fight for freedom.”

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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