Reginald Tiller

Reginald Tiller, superintendent of the Freedom Riders National Monument, speaks about how the burning of a bus in Anniston in 1961 is a story that encourages "tough conversations about history." (Kirsten Fiscus/The Anniston Star)

Kirsten Fiscus

More often than not history is negative, but people want knowledge about something that is different from what they know, Reginald Tiller said on Tuesday.

“Have the tough conversations,” he said to Jacksonville State University students, teachers and staff. “It was a conversation that led a group of people to say the bus burning should be more than a footnote in someone’s dissertation. It’s more than something we read about when Black History Month rolls around again.”

Tiller, the superintendent of Anniston’s Freedom Riders National Monument and the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument, was the keynote speaker during a Black History Month event at JSU on Tuesday. During the speech, Tiller touched on his time within the National Park Service and how it’s grown to embrace African American culture and history.

“When I came into the Park Service there were 15 African American sites but only 12 African American superintendents,” he said. “I realized our organization doesn’t look like the United States.”

Since 2013, the National Park Service has established five new monuments tied to African American history, the superintendent said.

Tiller, who’s worked at several national parks during his career, said when he began at the George Washington Carver National Monument in Missouri the educational materials were not representative of Carver’s reality. Carver was a scientist, educator and humanitarian who encouraged crop rotation amongst farmers to avoid soil depletion, a practice still used.  

“We were telling visitors that George Washington Carver was different and wasn’t oppressed because he was so intelligent,” Tiller said. “He was the keynote speaker at a lot of universities just like me, but when he finished he had to go to the kitchen and eat with the help.”

On Mother’s Day in 1961 a bus carrying carrying black and white activists rolled into the bus station on Gurnee Avenue in Anniston, where a mob awaited them. The Freedom Riders, as they were known, were testing a U.S. Supreme Court decision forbidding racial segregation in interstate travel facilities.

The mob of locals slashed the bus’ tires and followed to where it broke down on Alabama 202, 6 miles west of the city. A firebomb was tossed into a window, but the riders managed to escape before flames destroyed the bus. In January 2017, President Barack Obama proclaimed both the former bus station and the site on Alabama 202 as a national monument.

Tiller applauded the community for accepting the harsh realities of the bus burning and wanting to keep the story alive.

“It’s the hard truths that need to be told and retold,” he said. “Black history is American history. Civil rights is American history. We’re embracing cultural events and recognizing them as such with monuments like the one in Anniston and Birmingham.”

While the Anniston monument is still being developed, Tiller said people from all over the United States have stopped in Anniston.

“These two stories are priceless,” he said. “They see the bus mural on the wall, sometimes they leave in tears. They heard about the burning bus but they didn’t know about how emotional it was. People want knowledge about something different.”

​Staff writer Kirsten Fiscus: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @kfiscus_star.