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Federal officials to visit Anniston, consider national monument distinction for Freedom Riders sites

Anniston officials on Thursday announced a visit to the city next week by federal officials to tour two sites tied to the Freedom Riders, who in 1961 risked their lives and freedom challenging segregation.

That visit Oct. 27 is to help those federal officials determine whether to ask President Barack Obama to designate the sites as a national monument. That designation won’t likely happen without the president’s direct action, city officials said Thursday.  

Sally Jewell, secretary of the Interior Department, and Jonathan Jarvis, director of the National Park Service, will tour the former Greyhound bus station on Gurnee Avenue and the site where a mob burned a bus on Alabama 202 west of Anniston.

Those officials will also hold a public meeting to hear from residents on the possible national monument designation. That meeting is to take place at the First United Methodist Church’s meeting facility, the Bridge, in Anniston from 12:30 p.m.-2p.m.

“The stars have lined up,” said Mayor Vaughn Stewart, speaking Thursday about the possibility of Anniston’s selection.

In a press release Thursday on next week’s visit, Stewart is quoted as saying that Anniston is known around the world as the place where a Freedom Riders bus was attacked and burned on Mother’s Day 1961.

“A most tragic event which inspired a nation to rally against the injustices of Jim Crow laws in the American South,” Stewart is quoted as saying. “The Anniston story is not only an integral part of the historic Freedom Rides and the greater Civil Rights Movement, but is also timely as President Obama pushes to ensure that the story of America’s history is as diverse as its people.”

Stewart said the best chance Anniston has of seeing that happen is for Obama to use the Antiquities Act of 1906 to designate the Anniston sites as a national monument.

The president has used that act — which gives him unilateral authority to protect federal lands — 23 times to establish national monuments, most recently in August when Obama created the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in Maine.

The National Park Service in July began a study of 4 acres on Alabama 202 west of Anniston where the firebombing of that bus took place.

It was on that trip that Stewart told the story to federal officials of the bus station and the mob’s first encounter there with the bus that was later burned, said Brian Johnson, city manager. Soon after, those officials expressed interest in also including the former bus station in the national monument plan.

The City Council on Monday agreed to purchase the former bus station building, which now houses a sign-making business, for $82,000.

Gone are the walls inside that once separated blacks from whites, and the separate doors that kept the two apart, Stewart said. An Anniston architect believes he knows exactly where those walls once stood, Stewart said. They’ll be raised once more as a physical reminder of segregation.   

Johnson said Thursday that it would cost around $500,000 to restore the building to its 1961 state. He noted the city’s application to a new federal grant program that could help pay for that work.

The council on Oct. 3 agreed to apply for that $500,000 African American Civil Rights grant, funded by the Historic Preservation Fund and administered by the National Park Service.

The project could also include installation of a permanent 1960s-era Greyhound bus in the alley outside, Johnson said, which would allow visitors to climb inside, see biographies on seatbacks of the Freedom Riders attacked in Anniston and provide an immersive experience of what it would have been like to ride alongside them.

“I believe this presents a unique opportunity to preserve a valuable piece of history,” state Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, was quoted in the release Thursday as saying. A National Park Service designation “would provide a lasting historic and educational tribute to the men and women who took part in the Freedom Riders movement.”

Pete Conroy, co-chairman of the Freedom Riders Park committee, said by phone Thursday that “this is at about the five-yard line,” and it’s those last few yards that will make the difference.

“The public hearing on Thursday will be very important,” Conroy said, to ensure visiting officials understand the importance area residents place on saving the city’s history.  

Anniston’s Ward 3 Councilman Seyram Selase  said by phone Thursday that Thursday’s visit is the culmination of four years of hard work.

“It’s all about preserving the history and the legacy of the people who were willing to put it all on the line for freedom,” Selase said.  

The last two surviving Freedom Riders from that firebombed bus — Hank Thomas and Charles Person — will attend Thursday’s event in Anniston, as will Freedom Rider and Piedmont native Bill Harbour.

Joining those civil rights pioneers in Anniston on Thursday will be Janie McKinney, who was 12 when she took water to the victims outside the burning bus in 1961.

Person, 74, said from his Atlanta home on Thursday that Freedom Riders “a lot of times get lost in the black ink” of history. Those rides happened early on in the civil rights movement, he said, and were eclipsed by other deadly encounters in Birmingham, Selma and elsewhere.   

Person said he hopes Obama acts quickly and designates the Anniston sites as a national monument while he can still see it.

“We’re getting older,” Person said. “It will be epic if he does. It will be a nice way to close off his administration.”  

Harbour, 74, speaking from his home in Atlanta, said in his youth he’d often ride the bus from Piedmont to the Anniston bus station on Gurnee Avenue, where years later Freedom Riders in that first wave were attacked.

Harbour joined the movement after the attack in Anniston, was arrested twice and spent 30 days in jail for trying to desegregate buses.

Harbour can’t believe that the bus station he used to travel to as a child, the building that separated him from the white children so long ago, where activists like him were attacked years later for trying to change that, might become a national monument.  

“That’s big,” Harbour said.

Staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @Burkhalter_Star.

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