Lewis, a Los Angeles-based architect who serves as the president of the National Organization of Minority Architects, led a park-design charrette with members of the Freedom Riders Park Development Committee today. Lewis said it’s his aim to leave the two-day brainstorming session with more focused ideas on how the group can move forward with its decades-long plan to bring a park to the four acres on Alabama 202 at the spot where segregationists fire-bombed a bus carrying civil rights activists through the South in 1961.
“We want to create a road map,” Lewis said Monday at the McClellan Center at Jacksonville State University. “We want to have something that can be given to a professional developer as sort of a recipe of what they’d like to see.”
That’s in both physical terms, and more importantly, Lewis said, emotional and educational terms on how the committee hopes to present a dark chapter of Anniston’s history. On Monday, Lewis showed the group examples of “sites of memories” including the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C., and the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, Germany.
“I can look at this photo that many people in Anniston probably don’t want to look at, and try to squeeze something inspiring out of it,” said Lewis, showing a famous photograph of the 1961 firebombing. “It’s about how you symbolically represent this memory.”
But just getting anywhere with the project has proved to be a long endeavor. Committee member Georgia Calhoun said when she approached city leaders in the 1980s about a possible site to commemorate the Freedom Riders, she was shot down.
“I went to the Anniston City Council and they said, ‘We don’t care to remember that,’” Calhoun said. “It also wasn’t in Anniston, and they made sure to tell me that too.”
But state Rep. Barbara Boyd, who serves on the advisory committee for the Freedom Riders Park, said that attitude is slowly starting to change, and Boyd said she believes the site can be a powerful monument and educational tool in Anniston.
“We have just as much civil rights history as Birmingham or Montgomery, but until now we haven’t done enough to acknowledge that,” Boyd said. “This is a real opportunity for young people to come and learn about this. It’s taking a negative and turning it into a positive.”
Boyd said with the proper planning, the park could not only become a highlight for Calhoun County, but become an important historical marker on the statewide Civil Rights Trail.
The list of sponsors has grown since Calhoun County was able to take ownership of the four acres from the Alabama Department of Transportation in 2007. That list even includes now the city that Georgia Calhoun said was afraid to acknowledge the incident when she first tried to drum up support for a park in the 1980s.
“Even though we’re talking about a park outside of the city limits, it’s still part of the tourism mecca that’s being created here,” said Anniston City Planner Toby Bennington, who attended Monday’s charrette. “This is part of a bigger tourism picture.”
The design charrette is scheduled to continue Tuesday and run from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the McClellan Center at Jacksonville State University.
Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.