Monday, August 07, 2017

Home Sweet Home Alabama

Back in Germany for three weeks now I treasure some memories of my stay in Greensboro. Jessie Lavon's painting has found its place among my precious Dorothea Lange prints. The gift of the Alabama cutting board has been placed in the kitchen and the magnet – bought on the last trip to Alabama in 2013 – still sits on the fridge door.

Thursday, July 13, 2017


Before going home I have to still post one major item I encountered in Alabama: Kudzu. Kudzu is an invasive plant brought to the US from Southeast Asia in 1876 for the Philadelphia Continental Exposition as an ornamental plant and shade producer.

In the 1930s it was planted to reduce soil erosion in the US South. After the era of cotton ran out and people moved North, kudzu plants were left unattended and thrived. In 1953 kudzu was removed from the list of useful plants and was eventually added to the Federal Noxious Weed List.

It spreads very rapidly, takes over plants, ravines, trees, power lines, and even houses and has no use in the US today. In Asian countries the roots are used for medicine, and flowers are used for a sweet jelly.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Greensboro Opera House

On my last full day in Greensboro I was able to get a private showing of the inside of the Greensboro Opera House. In the late 19th and early 20th century opera houses were constructed throughout the rural south as cultural centers for passing theater groups, dances, town hall meetings, and the like. The first floor was usually used as retail space, the auditorium with a stage and a balcony was situated on the second and third floors (for my German readers: the first floor in the US is the ground floor, the second floor is the German first floor).

An old picture of the Greensboro Opera House.
The store to the right burnt down on new years eve in the late 1980s.

With the decline of the rural south these opera houses were abandoned, in many towns they were torn down after being left empty for decades. The Greensboro Opera House was built in 1903 to replace its precursor that had been built in 1890 and had burnt down. When movies started, the Greensboro Opera House was the first movie theater in town before a building solely for this purpose was built on Main Street. When Walker Evans and James Agee came to Greensboro in the summer of 1936 the Opera House must have still been used. Supposedly Walker Evans took a picture of two men in front of the Greensboro Opera House. Shortly after it was abandoned and probably closed on the eve of World War II.

Walker Evans: probably photographed in front of the Greensboro
Opera House. I could not locate this picture in the yet,
therefore I cannot provide full credit. Will try to provide this later.

Walker Evans: [Untitled photo, possibly related to: Movie poster,
vicinity of Moundville, Alabama], courtesy Maybe films were
advertised just like this in Greensboro.

The Greensboro Opera House was left unused for decades. However, before being closed completely, stores occupied the first floor. When the space was opened to fit a single retailer, separating walls were removed and the stairs, that used to be accessible directly from the sidewalk to go upstairs without entering the stores, was removed and boarded. The upstairs halls were left empty without the possibility to enter them (except for youths who would climb up the neighboring roofs and enter the second floor through the windows until they were boarded). It is unknown if the Hitler-graffiti really dates to 1945 or if it was put up later.

Thus the upstairs venue fell into a deep sleep and survived without being vandalized. In 2003 people of Greensboro started an initiative to rehabilitate and revitalize the building. They bought it and started fundraising which eventually led to the current state: The first floor has been rehabilitated and a new staircase has been put in.

The second floor will be restored eventually just as the balcony which was removed when the retail stores downstairs wanted to put business signs on the facade. When the auditorium was remodeled to fit film projection (or when sound film was introduced) the tin ceiling reflected the sound in an unwanted manner. It was covered with cut-up cotton sacks therefore it is very well preserved today.


Upstairs many things were found: old signs, some of the original chairs, the original chandelier, the old coal stoves, old movie programs, and more. Even the old metal rails of the balcony survived there.


Next year the state of Alabama will celebrate its bicentennial. On this occasion composer Joseph Landers was commissioned to create an opera which will be Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Hopefully there will be a preview held in the Greensboro Opera House although the auditorium will probably not be finished.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Civil Rights in Rural Alabama II

Many people know about the Voting Rights March from Selma to Montgomery, especially since the movie Selma came out in 2014. But I didn't know that it were events in the Alabama Black Belt that led to eventually three marches in March 1965.

The Selma voting rights campaign had started in early January led by Martin Luther King and other activists. It also extended into neighboring counties such as Perry with Marion as the county seat. Marion is about 20 miles (30 km) east of Greensboro.

On February 18 a march was led from the Zion United Methodist Church in Marion – across the street from the county courthouse –  to the county jail that was situated just a block down the street to protest the arrest of James Orange, one of the activists. However, when the protesters exited the church, officials blacked out all city lights in the area and Alabama state troopers started to attack the crowd with clubs.

Seeing the original locations in Marion I was surprised to find all the sites gathered around the courthouse building on just one block directly in the center.

The young deacon Jimmie Lee Jackson with his mother and his grandfather fled to a café behind the church. But police entered the café and started beating people there. Jackson tried to protect his mother from police brutality and was shot from short range. He died a week later in a Selma hospital.

At his funeral another activist, James Bevel, suggested to march from Selma to Montgomery to protest Jackson's death and press the Alabama governor to support voting rights for African Americans.

On March 7, 1965 around 600 people gathered at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma and marched toward and across the Edmund Pettus Bridge across the Alabama River. Once they reached the other side and crossing the county line protesters were met by state troopers and county police who violently dispersed the crowd, using clubs, tear gas, dogs, and officers on horseback. This became to be known as the Bloody Sunday. Pictures went global and are still well known today.

Shocked by the violence many people around the US came to Selma for a second march held on March 9. This march became to be known as "Turnaround Tuesday" as the crowd, led by Martin Luther King, walked across the bridge, knelt down and returned back to the church without crossing the county line. That same evening the KKK attacked white participants of the march, one of them died to days later.

The third march, that started on March 21, after a federal judge ruled that the activists had the right to protest, and arrived at the state capitol in Montgomery on March 24.

The Pettus Bridge in Selma is very famous. But I never read anything about the bridge's name being a statement in itself. Edmund Pettus, a confederate general during the Civil War, was named Grand Dragon of the KKK in 1877, the final year of reconstruction.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Civil Rights in Rural Alabama I

Until learning more about the Civil Rights Movement in rural Alabama I only knew about the events in Birmingham, the March from Selma to Montgomery, and other activities in larger cities. However, the Civil Rights Movement had a strong presence in smaller towns and communities in the Alabama Black Belt.

In 1965 there was a protest march in Greensboro when the African American community demanded the right to register to vote and marched from St. Matthew Church on Morse Street to the Greensboro Courthouse. They were not admitted in and the police demanded that they go home. Eventually the gathering was dispersed, there are differing accounts whether violence was used.

The white people of Greensboro watched and most of them were indignant about this event.

The African American community would ask for permission to march again on Main Street, but permission was denied. A barrier was set up at the corner of Morse and Main Street as not to permit the gathering to proceed on Main Street.

The African American community and some white activists from the North gathered at the barrier for a few days. There were always people at the barrier. After watching on for a while the police asked for support from Selma and one day buses arrived to arrest all the protesters and bring them to jail.

Accounts say that some were brought to jail in Selma but as there were too many people some were held in Greensboro and some close to Uniontown in a structure that was usually used for chain-gangs of prisoners who worked on the highway. Before being carted off they were given white sheets of paper to write down their name, date of  birth, and where they were from. They were photographed holding those papers.

Theresa Burroughs with sign,

I learned about these events on my visit to the Greensboro Safe House Black History Museum, a small museum run by the former Civil Rights activist Theresa Burroughs.

The museum is located in two shotgun houses that have special meaning to the African American community as it was here where Martin Luther King was kept safe after delivering a speech to the Greensboro community in 1968. The Ku Klux Klan threatened to kill him once he tried to leave the city and drove around armed in their pickup trucks. Two churches burnt that night that were located in direction where Mr. King might have been able to leave Greensboro. But as that seemed impossible Theresa Burroughs and her family hid him in their house. This was two weeks before Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.

Dr. King arrives, photo by Theresa Burroughs,

With the help of the rural Studio the two houses were converted into a museum – connected by a glass hallway – displaying many items linked to the history of African Americans in rural Alabama.