On the eve of the 50th anniversary of a milestone Ku Klux Klan church bombing, Steven Lewis (LF 2007) was in Alabama for 3 events that were sober reminders of the scars of civil rights conflicts and hopeful signals of change and the strength of good will.
A little over two weeks ago I was preparing to depart LA for a design charrette in Birmingham, Alabama, when I was reminded that my stay would include being there for the 50th anniversary of a dark day in our nation’s history – the day the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed by the racist Ku Klux Klan, resulting in the deaths of four little black girls. Our work as design professionals would take place on Friday and Saturday, but then there would be the chance to literally step into history on Sunday.
I arrived on a Thursday evening and was soon in the company of several good friends and colleagues who were assembling to support an effort by local real estate entrepreneur and community leader Cathy Sloss-Jones to develop alternatives for how best to expand her very successful Pepper Place Farmers Market. The two-day charrette involved some forty people working in five teams, consisting of a team leader, a couple of professionals (architects, planners, urban designers, and/or economists), and a group of students, which worked out to eight people per team. The problem issues, or challenges, were laid out by our host, Professor Cheryl Morgan, director of Auburn University’s Urban Studio, based in Birmingham. Armed with aerial photographs, parcel and topographic maps, and photographs of the area, the teams examined not only how the Farmers Market might grow and expand, but also how the broader neighborhood, known as Lakeview, might strengthen its connections to the so-called Pepper Place Design District.
Cathy, whom I met during our year together as Loeb Fellows, invited world-renowned landscape architect Walter Hood to lead one of the teams. Walter’s work is noted for mining in the "culture of place” and using landscape design in a narrative way to tell a story. Also there was Deborah Frieden, cultural district planner and project coordinator, another of our classmates from the Fellowship. Along with the other attendees, we worked intensely over the two day period, buoyed by lunches brought in by local restaurateurs that featured southern fried chicken and barbeque – bribery if ever there was such a thing! When we neared the end on Saturday, Cheryl decreed, "pencils down,” and the public was invited into the space. Our teams went around the room one-by-one and presented the work. Interestingly, and without prior coordination, each team’s work was presented by the student members, with the professionals simply sitting back and watching with pride and gratification, for what we accomplished in two days was nothing short of remarkable.
With the charrette now behind us, attention quickly turned to the planned events surrounding the 50th anniversary commemoration that would take place on Sunday. The South remains a very interesting place with respect to its Civil Rights past and its present day situation. As outsiders, we tend to view those horrific events that were emblazoned in our collective consciousness as pivotal in our country’s move toward justice and equality.
When the black and white TV broadcasts of the day revealed to an entire nation, and the world, the unacceptable social constructs that burdened the lives of African Americans, we were galvanized as a society to take a more idealistic path.
But for those who lived through the dark days – either as observers or participants – the constant reference to issues of race represent a past best left on the shelf to be forgotten. Nevertheless, when we entered the 16th Street Baptist Church on Sunday and became part of a united community from all walks of life, sharing in the spirit of hope, all doubts about the value of commemoration as a healthy way to move forward were removed. The choir repeatedly made a joyous noise to set the tone, while an array of noteworthy speakers made the occasion truly historic.
These complexities make my work in the South both challenging and interesting at the same time. I departed Birmingham on Sunday evening and drove about 70 miles east to Anniston, Alabama, where I would convene a charrette of a different nature with a group of local citizens committed to developing yet another "site of memory” at the location where, in 1961, a Greyhound bus carrying Freedom Riders was assaulted and burned just outside of town.
The Freedom Riders Park Association brought me to Anniston to help them imagine the possibilities of a memorial park. Specifically, a good friend, Pete Conroy, serves as director of the Jacksonville State University Environmental Policy and Information Center and co-chair of the Freedom Riders Park initiative. Pete hosted the charrette at JSU, where our group convened on Monday morning. My work with them was less as a designer and more as a facilitator of the process that they will need to go through to develop a clear program for the park, and then to solicit and select a designer, and ultimately a contractor to execute the project.
Present at the table was Dr. Bill Harbour, himself a Freedom Rider who happened to be riding the other bus that went to Montgomery at that same time. Also present was Edward Wood, a long-standing local civil rights activist and friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who happened upon the bus burning incident. Mr. Wood had clearly suffered the injustices of life as a Black man in the South during segregation, despite his distinguished service in the military, but was able to vanquish his hatred in pursuit of a harmonious society .
Mr. Bernard Emerson spoke to us about coming out of his house along the Old Birmingham Highway to see the bus set ablaze right outside of his front yard. His kind and gentle spirit reminded all at the table that the movement was made up of all kinds of people from all walks of life, and that love will always conquer hate.
At the end of our session, I was humbled when the Association asked me to provide an additional proposal for conceptual design services for the park project. I shall look forward to returning to Alabama to continue this important work, alongside those who are so heavily invested in turning a horrific event from another time into lessons that can serve to make us all better moving forward.