Anniston officials on Friday were awaiting word from the National Park Service as to how the city’s new Freedom Riders National Park will take shape.
President Barack Obama announced Thursday that he’d established the former bus station on Gurnee Avenue and the site on Alabama 202 where the Freedom Riders’ bus was firebombed as a national monument.
Also on Thursday the National Park Service announced that Anniston was awarded a $496,375 grant to restore the former bus station to appear as it did in 1961.
“I’ve been up all night long,” said Bill Harbour, a Freedom Rider from Piedmont speaking by phone Friday from his Atlanta home. Harbour rode on a bus after the group who came through anniston was firebombed. The excitement of Thursday’s news made sleep Thursday evening difficult, he said.
Kent Davis, city manager, said he was uncertain Friday on the details of how the park will proceed, but that city officials and National Park Service staff will discuss the future of the project next week.
Saudia Muwwakkil, spokeswoman for the National Park Service’s Southeast region, in a message to The Star on Friday wrote that the department’s first priorities include meeting with community partners to discuss next steps, planning a public event to mark the park’s establishment and identifying a physical location for visitors to access National Park Service information.
“Open houses and public meetings will be held to discuss the management plan and invite the public to share ideas for the future of the monument,” Muwwakkil wrote. “Our goal throughout this process will be to ensure the preservation of historic resources and places associated with the nationally significant story of the Freedom Riders.”
The National Park Service will work with partners to repair and restore the Greyhound Bus Station, Muwwakkil wrote, and “the bus burning site would also be protected and interpreted in an appropriate manner, as determined by future management plans.”
Pete Conroy, co-chairman of the Freedom Rider Park committee, described Anniston’s national monument as a “baby born yesterday” and that it still needs support of the local community as it takes shape.
Conroy said that while visiting the bus station on Gurnee on Friday morning he met a group of national park enthusiasts from Arizona who detoured to Anniston while on a trip to the Little River Canyon National Preserve.
“They said they wanted to be the first to see the Freedom Riders National Monument,” Conroy said, adding that the group told him they expect thousands of national park fans to follow them to Anniston in the coming months.
Plans for what will become of the bus-burning site on 202 weren’t yet known, Conroy said, but he was certain the federal agency would work with the community and the park committee, which already has a set of park plans for the site.
Conroy said the committee is also working to develop a civil rights education and tourism roundtable, which he hopes will help spread the word about Anniston’s offerings. He’s already contacted the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Jacksonville State University, Auburn University, the University of Alabama and other organizations asking for their participation in the roundtable.
Anniston’s national monument will be included in the popular National Park Service passport stamps program, Conroy said, which lets visitors have their park service-supplied “passports” stamped showing they’ve visited one of the 417 national parks in the program.
Brian Henderson, operator of Howell Signs, which has operated for years in the former bus station building, said Friday that he’ll take a couple weeks off until he’s able to set up his equipment in a new shop. He’s storing it all away in the meantime, he said, but he’ll stay in business.
Henderson has worked in the sign shop since the 1970s with his friend and the company’s founder, Ben Howell, who died in 2014. Howell signs moved into the former bus station in 1994 after operating at 727 Noble St. for more than 40 years, according to Star archives.
Henderson said the federal government sent him a letter on about Dec. 16 asking him to vacate within 30 days.
“I wasn’t going to move anything until it happened,” Henderson said, but he’s always been supportive of the building becoming a national monument, he said.
“We’ve had people visiting for years,” Henderson said, especially since 2011, when a mural depicting the Greyhound bus was plastered onto the building next door, facing the old bus station. “And right now, I’m their only greeter. It needs more than people standing on private property looking at mural.”
With Thursday’s announcement, even more will make their way to Gurnee Avenue, Henderson said. He’s sure of it.