- Three African American farm owners along the mile route offered their properties as campsites.
- Those campsites are at risk of destruction or irreparable damage.
- Inclusion in the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list could be a gamechanger.
The 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery was a watershed moment in the fight for Black Americans’ voting rights, but wouldn’t have been possible without a few helping hands along the way.
Three African American farm owners along the 54-mile route offered their properties as campsites for the marchers on the four-day trek, housing iconic civil rights activists including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King and John Lewis.
Fifty-six years later, those campsites are at risk of destruction or irreparable damage, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and have been named as one of America’s most endangered historic places in 2021.
The stories from these campsites “haven’t been widely told,” Katherine Malone-France, Chief Preservation Officer of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, told USA TODAY. “I think that it’s important that we tell these stories, and it’s important that through historic places that we tell the full, true history of our country. When we do that, historic preservation is a powerful tool for advancing justice and equity.”
An image of the David Hall Home, located along the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail in Alabama. (Photo: Phillip Howard)
Transforming the campsites
Three of the campsites along the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail are owned by the same families, including the Rosie Steele Farm, David Hall Farm and Robert Gardner Farm. The fourth site is the City of St. Jude, a Roman Catholic complex.
Phillip Howard, a Birmingham-area consultant working on the project with The Conservation Fund, is working on preservation plans for historic homes on the Hall and Gardner farms. He said the homes are in disrepair, with everything from the flooring to the roof in need of a touch-up.
The initial goal is to stabilize the two buildings – Howard estimates that could cost anywhere between $300,000 and $400,000 – before moving on to extensive renovations and turning the two sites into educational venues.
The families are “willing and ready to tell the story of these campsites in a way they’ve never done before,” Howard said. “They want to preserve the homes, preserve the properties, have people visit, educational tours – any number of things to tell the story.”
He hopes the homes can be restored by 2025, the 60th anniversary of the march that helped lead to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
“(This is a story of) Americans wanting to have an impact and do something at great peril to themselves and their family,” Howard said. “It’s a story of people who loved America when America didn’t necessarily love them, but they wanted (more rights) for their children.”
Howard is in the process of looking for funding to preserve the homes. Their inclusion in the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list could be a gamechanger for their efforts; Malone-France said since the nonprofit’s first list came out more than 30 years ago, they have lost less than 5 percent of the more than 300 endangered places named since.
History of the Selma-to-Montgomery march
The Selma-to-Montgomery March began two weeks after Alabama state troopers beat marchers attempting to leave Selma on a day that came to be called “Bloody Sunday.” Sites in Selma and the route to Montgomery are now part of the Selma-to-Montgomery National Historic Trail.
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Under the watch of members of the Alabama National Guard, marchers first stopped about 7 miles east of Selma at land owned by David Hall, a Black farmer who risked harassment from white neighbors upset about the march. A photo of marchers showed them gathered around a fire built in an old metal drum for warmth, and Hall’s granddaughter Davine Hall said visitors still stop by.
“Sometimes we come outside and there’s a whole yard of bike riders, people who stopped by and want a tour,” said Hall, who splits time between the family land and California. “Sometimes they actually ask if they can spend the night.”
The next rainy night they stayed on the property of Rosie Steele, followed by a stay on land owned by Robert Gardner, where Tuskegee University students supplied dinner and marchers slept on donated swimming pool air mattresses, many of which deflated overnight. Gardner’s daughter, Cheryl Gardner Davis, was 4 at the time and still remembers the crowds and noise.
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A white neighbor threatened her father for welcoming the marchers, she said, and for years the family kept quiet about the experience.
“I remember my father telling us that we couldn’t go anywhere by ourselves, that we always had to have an adult with us. He said if we saw a car along the road that was the FBI watching over us,” said Davis. “It was a little scary.”
Cheryl Gardner-Davis, left; Elizabeth Steele-Davis, middle; and Mary Hall-Mcguire, right, stand in front of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. The photo shows the members of the three families that housed people on their campsites as they marched from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. (Photo: Phillip Howard)
Dozens of marchers spent the night along the way, and their numbers grew exponentially by the time the march reached downtown Montgomery.
On the final night of the march, about 3 miles from Alabama’s Capitol, demonstrators camping at the City of St. Jude were entertained by stars including Harry Belafonte; Tony Bennett; Peter, Paul and Mary; Sammy Davis Jr. and Joan Baez before the final leg of the journey. The chapel there remains much as it was then.
Today near the Capitol, a stone historical marker recounts the events of 1965, when King addressed an estimated 25,000 people at the end of the march. Plain steel signs identify the campsites used by the marchers along the way, but there’s little else to signify their importance.
America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places for 2021
Other sites on National Trust for Historic Preservation‘s 2021 endangered historic places list include:
- Trujillo Adobe, the remains of an early Latino settlement dating back nearly 160 years in Riverside, California.
- Summit Tunnels 6 & 7 and Summit Camp Site in Truckee, California, which tell the story of Chinese railroad workers who built the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s.
- Georgia B. Williams Nursing Home in Camilla, Georgia, once the state’s only Black-owned birthing place for African American women.
- Boston Harbor Islands, archaeological and historic sites on 34 islands just off the coast of Boston.
- Morningstar Tabernacle No. 88 Order of Moses Cemetery and Hall, a historic Black settlement dating to the late 1800s in Cabin John, Maryland.
- Home of Sarah Elizabeth Ray, a Black woman and activist who launched a legal fight after being denied entry to a segregated ferry in Detroit in 1945.
- The Riverside Hotel, which housed Black blues musicians and others during the Jim Crow era in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
- Pine Grove Elementary Schoo l, built for Black children by philanthropist Julius Rosenwald in 1917 in Cumberland, Maryland.
- Threatt Filling Station, which catered to Black travelers on Route 66, and family farm in Luther, Oklahoma.
- Oljato Trading Post, built in 1921 and one of the few Navajo trading posts remaining in the region around San Juan County, Utah.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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