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The preserved interior of a ‘50s area barber shop in Alabama, including a bank of wooden chairs, a barber chair, and a photo collection lining the walls.
Malden Brother’s Barber Ship at the Ben Moore Hotel in Montgomery, Alabama, where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. got his hair cut, was a site of meetings between black and white leaders during the civil rights era.
William Abranowicz

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Voices of Alabama illuminates civil rights history sites with storytelling

Oral history project launches as civil rights tourism booms

Greensboro, Alabama, isn’t on the typical tourist itinerary. Located an hour from Selma and a few hours from Birmingham, it’s a rural community in an area known as the Black Belt, a poorer agricultural region of the South populated by descendants of slavery. But during the civil rights era, that remoteness was valued by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and other movement leaders, who would visit to escape and relax. One family, the Burroughs, even protected King and his supporters from a potential Ku Klux Klan ambush in 1968, earning their home the title of the Safe House, which has been turned into a small museum showcasing local civil rights history.

Now, a new project seeks to put similar social justice sites across the state on the tourism map, as more and more attention is paid to this important part of 20th century history.

Launched earlier this week, the Voices of Alabama project aims to illuminate the importance of lesser-known civil rights history sites in the state with a collection of first-person, oral history video interviews. A collaboration between the World Monuments Fund, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, and the Alabama African-American Civil Rights Heritage Sites Consortium, the initiative wants to broaden the nation’s understanding of civil rights history, focused on off-the-beaten-path sites. (On October 1, at TheTimesCenter in New York City, journalist Carol Jenkins, Alabama Congresswoman Terri Sewell, and others will hold an event discussing the importance of these historical sites.)

The Voices of Alabama program will feature a variety of new video, image, timeline, and map content, including video oral histories. These interviews will be played at each of 20 selected sites across the state, including places of worship, lodging, and civic engagement. The interviewees range from movement activists to residents who witnessed history, and their stories contain powerful narratives organizers hope will elevate the experience of visiting these important sites of historic preservation.

The announcement of the program contains summaries of some of these stories: Joyce O’Neal can still hear horses’ hooves on the steps of her church on Bloody Sunday; Nelson Malden recalls Martin Luther King Jr. stopping by his barbershop for a weekly haircut; and Valda Harris Montgomery remembers more than 30 beaten Freedom Riders finding sanctuary in her childhood home.

The interior of a church, with pastel stained glass windows and cushioned pews.
Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where then-pastor Dr. King and others helped steer the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
William Abranowicz

A new interest, and commitment, to telling stories of black history

Voices of Alabama is coming at a crucial, and exciting, juncture in how Americans experience, understand, and seek out information on this chapter in the nation’s history. A number of new museums and projects are putting the story of black Americans, including the civil rights movement, on a larger pedestal, from blockbuster new institutions such as the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Monument to Peace and Justice and the National Museum of African American History and Culture to scores of smaller museums and the roving Slave Dwelling Project. At the same time, the civil rights generation is getting older, and preserving the personal stories of those involved in this social justice movement has taken on a new urgency.

That’s giving new impetus to efforts, such as this one, to help smaller sites with preservation, presentation, staffing, and support, says Priscilla Hancock Cooper, project director of the Alabama African-American Civil Rights Heritage Sites Consortium.

“We realized there was the need to capture these stories, as we were losing members of the civil rights generation,” she says.

As if to underscore this urgency, Theresa Burroughs, the founder of the Safe House Museum who finished her interview for the Voices of Alabama project earlier this year, passed away in May.

“That was perhaps the last interview that she was able to do, so we feel very, very, fortunate to have recorded her,” says Cooper.

The exterior of a southern church, built in red brick with white trim.
Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, Alabama, was the headquarters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s 1965 Selma campaign, including the famous Bloody Sunday March.
William Abranowicz

Civil rights tourism is booming

The project also comes amid a growing market for what’s being called civil rights tourism. According the organizers behind the U.S. Civil Rights Trail, which connects sites in 14 states, an estimated 13 million visitors toured civil rights museums and sites last year, spending $1.62 billion on tickets, transportation, meals, lodging, and souvenirs.

Alabama, which is part of the trail, has benefitted from this emerging type of tourism, between the recently christened Civil Rights National Monument in Birmingham in 2017 and the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Monument to Peace and Justice, which opened last year in Montgomery. Between April and November last year, roughly 250,000 visited the EJI site.

Alabama state tourism director Lee Sentall told the Montgomery Advertiser that civil rights tourism has become one of the “hottest topics” among overseas tourists, and that the EJI site has “placed Montgomery on the map,” bringing thousands of new visitors to stay at city hotels.

“Civil rights tourism is definitely a growth industry,” says Cooper. “The consortium focus has been capacity building, and figuring out how to best serve the needs of a variety of sites has been interesting.”

A key benefit of the Voices project is to get visitors already coming to Alabama to witness history firsthand by broadening their itineraries beyond Salma, Montgomery, and Birmingham, and see the interconnected nature of the nation’s struggle for equal justice.

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