Steven Folks is determined to keep Anniston history alive and connected to the city’s youth.
Folks, Anniston’s city manager, was at the West Anniston Gateway Park Saturday morning alongside key figures from the city’s Black community. A film crew had set black and white rocking chairs on the concrete patio, where in a few moments Folks’ local icons would sit and be interviewed about growing up in west Anniston. Members of the group included Georgia Calhoun, Maddie Miller, Anna Washington, General Jackson, Nathaniel Davis, Jimmy Jackson and Debra Foster, all of whom played a part in West Anniston’s history.
The city will release a short film of interviews with the group in the next few weeks, shot by Potts Marketing and distributed online. Folks hopes to install speakers at the park where the interviews can be played back while visitors listen.
“Nobody can tell your history like you can tell your own,” Folks said, speaking to his assembled group. “I want to make sure we tell the story of what this was all about. This is not just Black history but American history.”
People far and wide are familiar with the worst of Anniston’s civil rights history, Folks said. The violence around integration that spilled over into a burning bus, beatings on the library steps and other unspeakable acts of terror are often the first narratives in summaries of the city’s past.
Saturday, Folks said he wanted residents — especially the city’s Black youth — to know more about the day-to-day life in Anniston’s “city within a city,” a name for the west Anniston community where Black residents, unwelcome in the rest of the city, had their own schools, businesses and churches.
The group represented a wide swath of cultural knowledge. Calhoun, Miller and Washington were all career educators, before and after integration. General Jackson is a business owner, Jimmy Jackson a pastor. Davis was one of the first black postmen working in the city, Folks said. Foster was a city councilwoman representing west Anniston in the 1990s. Folks himself is often spoken of as Anniston’s first black city manager, but he noted Saturday that he doesn’t think of himself in those terms.
“I’m just the next up,” Folks said, and deferred any recognition for racial progress instead to the people who had cleared the path ahead of him.
Each related stories of living in west Anniston in the community’s heyday. Among them was Miller’s recitation of the Cobb Elementary morning motto, that children at the then all-Black school repeated every day.
“I am somebody, I have a good mind and I can and will learn,” Miller began, reciting words memorized decades ago. The brief motto carries forward with the speaker insisting they will learn, read and grow.
“I am proud of my home, my school and my community. I am somebody,” Miller concluded.
She said she sees former students with their own children, who can still remember the motto. She was glad to have the opportunity to share her story, she said, and suggested that more education and outreach would need to take place with the city’s young people.
“We’re missing the mark. We need to let them know we love them, we care about them and we want them to succeed,” Miller said.