By Renée S. Gordon
“…still here was this young woman going for an upset price of $610, but no one would bid, and the auctioneer, after vain attempts to raise the price and excite competition, said, “Not sold to-day, Sally; you may get down”
W. H. Russell, Esq., London Times Correspondent.
The state of Alabama took its name from the Alibamu Indians who settled the region around 10,000 years ago and established two villages, Ikanatchati and Towasa, on the site that is now Montgomery. Spanish explorers led by Hernando De Soto made first contact in 1540. Nearly two centuries later, in 1716, James McQueen became the first resident of the area. Two groups founded towns, East Alabama and Philadelphia, around 1817. The two towns merged in December 1819 and took the name of Revolutionary War General Richard Montgomery. That same month Alabama gained statehood and in 1846 Montgomery became the capital of the state.
The Montgomery region was a natural crossroads and a Native American trade route crossed the area for many years prior to European incursion. In the 19th-century, trade continued and Montgomery became an important shipping port and center of the lucrative cotton and slave trades.
By 1819, slaves accounted for more than 30 percent of Alabama’s approximately 128,000 inhabitants and the slave population more than doubled during the 1820s and again during the 1830s. When Alabama seceded from the Union in 1861 the state’s 435,080 slaves made up 45 percent of the total population making Alabama the state with the fourth largest number of enslaved individuals. The black population had swelled 939 percent in 40 years.
Montgomery served as the first Confederate capital for a brief period of time and it was there that a Secession Convention was held on January 6, 1861 and voted to secede on January 11th. Jefferson Davis was selected to serve as President of the Confederacy. The capital was relocated to Richmond to be nearer to the initial battles. Union troops marched into Montgomery, led by Gen. James Wilson, in April 1865.
Visitors can trace the American story from the Civil War to Civil Rights in a variety of ways throughout the city. The opening act of the war occurred here, the Selma to Montgomery March ended at the steps of the State Capital and it is widely held that the march led directly to President Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act, a watershed event in Civil Rights history. There are numerous sites in Montgomery that must be seen and I strongly suggest that you plan to spend several days. www.visitingmontgomery.com
After the US banned the transatlantic slave trade in 1807 the internal slave trade became increasingly important and Montgomery became a major market for slaves being sold south. Initially they walked but by the mid-1800s slaves were moved by rail and steamboat and marched along Commerce and Market Streets to be sold by the more than 160 slave traders located in the immediate area. (Market Street was renamed Dexter Avenue.) Slaves were held in “depots” until they were auctioned in Court Square and auctions were held as late as 1864.
Four historic markers document Montgomery’s role in the slave trade. A sign, on the exterior of Union Station at 300 Water St., relates information on transporting slaves by ship and rail. A slave warehouse was located at 122 Commerce St. and a plaque there interprets the site. The third marker, Monroe and Lawrence Sts., details the number and use of depots along Market Street.
Court Square, the location of the fourth marker, is an excellent place to obtain a crash course on Montgomery’s role in national history. The square was the primary slave market and regular auctions were held there. Directly across the street is the site of the former telegram office from which Confederate Secretary of War Leroy Pope Walker sent the message to Charleston authorizing the attack on Fort Sumter, beginning the Civil War. City Council placed a fountain over the artesian well in the square in 1885. The fountain’s focal point is a statue of Hebe, the Cupbearer of the Gods.
On another corner of the square is a marker denoting the stop where Rosa Parks boarded the bus on December 1, 1955 to go home to her Cleveland Court apartment, now on Rosa Parks Avenue. Although she was not the first woman to be arrested for refusing to give up her seat, she would serve as the match that ignited freedom’s fire.
Parks, the youth leader of the local NAACP, worked as a seamstress in the Montgomery Fair Department Store. She boarded the bus after work and took a seat. The first 10 rows were reserved for white passengers, the last 10 for blacks and the 16 in the center were available to all unless whites overflowed the first 10 rows. Rosa took a seat in the middle and two blocks later, in front of the Empire Theatre, she refused to yield her seat to a white male passenger and was arrested.
Twenty-four hours later E. D. Nixon, NAACP president, Clifford Durr, a white lawyer and his wife Virginia, bailed her out and she agreed to become the test case to challenge the constitutionality of legalized segregation. Her 30-minute trial on December 5th resulted in $14.00 in fines and court costs. She also lost her appeal. The Montgomery Bus Boycott began the day of her trial.
The Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was formed and a young pastor, Dr. Martin Luther King, was selected to serve as president. They made only three demands, that the drivers be courteous to blacks, that seating be on a first come first served basis and that black drivers be hired to service black neighborhoods. The boycott lasted a total of 381 days, until December 20, 1956, with a huge economic impact. The bus company lost approximately $3,000 daily because 75 percent of the riders were African American amounting to 30-40,000 black passengers daily.
The boycott ended when the US Supreme Court ruled, in Browder v. Gayle, that Alabama’s laws mandating segregated buses were not constitutional. The ruling went into effect on December 20, 1956. Segregationists continued to fight and on January 1, 1959 Montgomery closed 13 public parks rather than integrate them.
Troy University’s Rosa Parks Library & Museum is located on the site of the Empire Theater. The museum features 55,000-sq, ft. of exhibit space and a theater. Tours begin with an orientation and a multi-media production that immerses you in 1955 Montgomery. You then proceed to the corner where Rosa Parks boards the bus while you look on. The tour then proceeds chronologically through the boycott. Highlights of the exhibitions are life-sized dioramas that depict important events and the displayed documents, all of which are original. “The Victory Ride,” a recreation of the first bus ride taken by the leaders of the movement is particularly poignant. Prior to exiting visitors should have their photo taken with a sculpture of a seated Rosa Parks in a nearby gallery. Rosa Parks was inducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame in 2008.
In 2006 a children’s wing was added adjacent to the main museum to provide the historic context that younger people need to understand the significance of the boycott. Visitors board the Cleveland Avenue Time Machine and encounter Jim Crow, Dred Scott and Harriet Tubman. This is a creative and informative experience for all ages. www.trojan.troy.edu/community/rosa-parks-museum/index
Reverend King assumed the pastorate of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in September 1954. He and his family would live there in the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church Parsonage until February of 1960. The parsonage was constructed in 1912 and became home to the church’s ministers in 1919. Dr. Vernon Johns, the previous activist minister, lived there from 1947 to 1952.
The parsonage was bombed at 9 PM on January 31, 1956 while King was out and Coretta and their 10-month old daughter were at home. Visual remnants of the bombing can be seen on the right side of the porch. After the bombing King spoke to a crowd of African Americans who had gathered outside, requesting calm and assuring them that the struggle would continue even if he should die. A little over a year later the parsonage was bombed a second time, destroying the front of the residence. Seven white men were arrested, two confessed, all were found not guilty at trial.
Tours of the one-story house begin in the visitor’s center with a film and a conversation with a church member who shares memories and personal photos of Dr. King. Guests then proceed to the house. The residence is outfitted with some of the family’s personal belongings and highlights include his office and personal record collection.
On January 27, 1956, King received a threatening phone call. The call was so vitriolic that it gave him pause. He went into the kitchen and prayed and experienced an epiphany. An inner voice eradicated his doubts and from that moment on his path was set. The kitchen in which he prayed is the most moving part of the tour. www.dexterkingmemorial.org
Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church was established in 1877 in what had been a slave warehouse. The land was purchased for $250 and black builder William Watkins erected the structure using bricks that remained from an 1883 street paving. The church was designed with a bell tower and loving arms staircase. Dexter Ave Baptist served as the base for the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 and 1956. Tours of the church are regularly scheduled and include the original pews and the Bible and pulpit used by Rev. King. On the lower lever a mural depicts important scenes from King’s life. The church is a 1974 National Historic Landmark. www.dexterkingmemorial.org
From the front of the church you are only a short walk to the capital and directly across the street from the Alabama State Supreme Court where many Civil Rights cases were heard.
The Montgomery Greyhound Bus Station burst onto the national scene on May 20, 1961 at 10:23 AM when 21 freedom riders, none older than 22, arrived at this bus station. Their goal was to protest discriminatory interstate transit practices. The rides began in early May but the level of violence was so great that US Attorney General Robert Kennedy sent an assistant, John Seigenthaler, to Birmingham. Only one group continued on and the riders were attacked and viciously beaten by a white mob, including Seigenthaler, who was shadowing the bus by car and reporters. The attack was so horrifying that it caused the federal Interstate Commerce Commission to mandate that all interstate bus stations be integrated on September 22, 1961. The Montgomery Station is a National Historic Site and houses a museum that interprets the experiences of the integrated groups of Freedom Riders. www.preserveala.org/greyhoundstation.aspx
Beulah Baptist Church, 3703 Rosa Parks Ave., was incorporated in 1919. The church was the setting for meetings during the boycott and this was the church that the family of Nathaniel Adams Coles attended and his mother was the choir’s pianist.
The Cole-Sanford House, the single-story childhood home of Nat King Cole still stands at 1524 St. John Street. In 1956 Cole became the first African American to host a weekly national network program. That same year during an appearance at Boutwell Auditorium in Birmingham Cole was beaten by a white mob while on stage. He died of cancer in 1965 but in 1985 he was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. His brother accepted the award for him in a ceremony in Boutwell Auditorium. The house is a private residence.
Remember, the African American story is everyone’s story. Plan a trip to Alabama. www.alabama.travel
“If we are wrong justice is a lie.” M. L. King, Jr. December 5, 1955
I wish you smooth travels!
On January 16, 2014 bipartisan Congressional lawmakers reacted to the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder. The decision radically altered the 1965 Voting Rights Act and both houses have introduced bills to repair the damage. The battle continues.
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