Alabama – Selma: Looking for Light

What were the city leaders thinking when they named their fledgling city Selma?  Had any of them read the namesake poem “Songs of Selma,” the 13th century epic filled with lament, death and destruction?  A store-front sized park, set where the Edmund Pettus Bridge crosses the Alabama River, even celebrates the poem’s title. 

Driving the streets of Selma today, we saw little need for many of the stop lights where we sat waiting for them to change to green without another car in sight.  The city’s population hovers around 20,000 residents with eighty percent African-American inhabitants.   It has been the capital of Dallas County since 1825, so it has the obligatory court house, related offices and a seemingly healthy supply of legal offices.  

On the main street the storefronts look much as they did in black and white photos from the 1960s. The pecans sign above the now-closed Holley Hardware store speaks of times past as do the closed and crumbling warehouses and rusting railroad tracks.

Two events that took place one hundred years apart frame the town’s history.  The April 2, 1865, Battle of Selma took place in the last days of the Civil War.   It ended when Union Army troops broke through the lines and looted and burned much of the downtown (more about this later).  The 1965 Voting Rights Marches are the second traumatic event in Selma’s history.  The first phase took place on March 7, 1965, and is remembered as “Bloody Sunday” after 600 marchers moved across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and were beaten back by Alabama state troopers blocking the road.  The second march was called off because the participants had no legal protection against the brutal actions of the police.  Finally, on March 21, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led about 4,000 marchers across the bridge and out of Selma under the protection of federalized Alabama National Guard, FBI Agents and Federal Marshals.  By the time King traveled the fifty-four miles to reach Montgomery on March 25, the number of marchers had grown to 25,000 people. 

“Confrontation of good and evil compressed in the tiny community of Selma generated the massive power to turn the whole nation to a new course.” Martin Luther King, Jr., March 25, 1965.

 The impact of the March was swift and on August 6, 1966, President Lynden Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act.  In Dallas County, the newly registered voters showed their muscle by voting Sheriff Jim Clark out of office in the 1966 elections.  Clark was the man who had organized and perpetuated grievous and brutal actions against so many blacks and civil rights workers.

These two historic events continue to be recognized each year with the annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee in March and a reenactment of the Battle of Selma in April. 

After absorbing the heaviness of this history and the depressed state in which we found the city of Selma, Don I set off looking for points of light to brighten our bleak first impressions.  We didn’t have many touring tips or travel brochures so we went to the Visitors’ Center, which was supposed to be in Selma’s Carnegie Library.   

When I entered, I couldn’t find an obvious display of brochures, so I waited for a chance to speak with the librarian at the circulation desk.  He was a young black man who was in conversation with a white woman who had just checked out an armful of books.  From their friendly banter, it appeared that they had gone to colleges with long-time rival football teams and that the upcoming season would hold more of the same. 

My question gave the fellow a pause…then he suggested I follow him to a nearby side room.  He explained that there used to be more of an established information center, but there was only a remnant of brochures left in a counter-top rack.  He apologized for the paucity of information and offered to help if I needed assistance with historical research.  I found a couple of brochures and thanked him for his assistance.  It didn’t appear that Selma was exactly a hotbed for tourism, but I was impressed with the helpful young man and his charming attitude.  I can only imagine the positive impact he is having on the library patrons, young and old, who ask him questions.  

Our next stop was a visit to the Old Depot Museum, which stands where the Selma Ordinance and Navy Foundry had been before it was destroyed in the last days of the Civil War.  Prior to the war, Selma had been a trade center, shipping cotton and other agricultural products down the Alabama River to larger markets.  In 1862, Selma was pressed into becoming a Confederate weapons manufacturing center, and by the height of the war was second only to Richmond.  The Selma Navy Yard and Ordinance Works produced everything from shot, shells and gun powder up to some of the largest muzzle-loading cannons ever made in this country.  The navy yard they even produced ships, including some of the ironclad vessels that took part in the Battle of Mobile Harbor.

Federal troops unsuccessfully attacked Selma three times earlier in the war but it took Major General James H. Wilson’s leadership and 13,500 men in three divisions of the Union Army to defeat Confederate General Nathan B. Forest’s 2,000 soldiers in the battle that took place just a week before General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox on April 9, 1865.   About two-thirds of the city was destroyed in battle and the invading troops looted and burned almost all of the central business district and 150 homes (“Battle of Selma Trail Guide”).

In 1891, a railroad depot was built on the site of the former foundry and today it houses the Old Depot Museum.  We were lucky to encounter curator Beth Spivey and talk with her about the collection, which is organized into rooms covering different eras of Selma’s history.  Be sure to note the size of the cannon in the photo of the Civil War room.  At the other end of the size scale is an extremely rare derringer pistol that was made in Selma by local gunsmith Casper Suter (1796-1895).  Outside in the former rail yard, there are boxcars and a separate building housing a steam-powered fire pump, vintage truck and other fire-related equipment. 

We also learned that we were too early for the museum’s annual “Low Country Boil,” a fund raiser where they bring in musicians and hundreds of pounds of fresh crayfish from the Gulf Coast.  The rail yard is strung with lights and becomes a festive gathering place in a community that doesn’t have a lot of happy history to celebrate. 

Just two blocks down from the museum and also built on the bank of the Alabama River is the St. James Hotel, one of the buildings that was not destroyed in the war.  During the war it was the quarters for Confederate officers, and after winning the Battle of Selma, General Wilson took up lodging in the hotel.  It had been built in 1837 and at the time of the war.  The hotel and livery stable were managed by the Benjamin Sterling Turner, a slave and entrepreneur who owned property and had profited during the booming years of Selma’s industrial wartime economy.  Turner’s presence helped spare the hotel from destruction. 

After the war, Turner’s role as community leader increased and in 1870 he became the first African-American ever elected to the United States Congress.  He was elected to the Selma City Council in 1895 and later left politics and turned to agricultural pursuits. 

The infamous Frank and Jesse James are alleged to have stayed at the St. James, in later years, but there is little evidence to support this rumor.  The post-war years were hard for Selma and the St. James.  The hotel closed in 1892 and was used for the next hundred years as a warehouse and commercial property.  It underwent an expensive restoration in 1997 and reopened as a hotel, but it was boarded up again in 2017.  At this time it is once again undergoing restoration and slated to open as a boutique Hilton property. 

Tucked between the hotel entrance and the river is the Bridge keeper’s house, which is now a private residence.  The first bridge was opened in 1885 and its center span was capable of turning to allow for river traffic.  Tolls were collected from pedestrians, horsemen, peddlers, buggies and wagons until 1900 when it was purchased by Dallas County and became free for all.  In 1940 the Edmond Pettus Bridge opened a block away (Pettus had been a Confederate brigadier general and U.S. Senator).  The bridge keeper’s house and the landing stones are the only remaining signs of the original bridge.

Across the street from the hotel another Civil War era building is being restored.  It houses an antique shop called GAW Treasures. If you are thinking of making it a stop when you visit Selma, you are advised to make an appointment since reconstruction is ongoing.   

We discovered Gordon’s Antiques in a rather unlikely setting on the edge of Selma’s historic residential area.Although the exterior is not overly impressive, this shop holds a bounty of fine furniture, art, rugs and more.   Gordon is a very well regarded dealer and restorer and a friendly fellow who brings a lifetime of local history to his profession.

Right across the street is Sturdivant Hall, a restored 1853 antebellum mansion, which reflects the South’s golden age.  The home is now a city-owned museum that boasts beautiful period antiques, a significant antique doll collection and a lovely rose garden with a coy pond.

Another interesting museum in this area is the Vaughn-Smitherman Museum.  This c. 1847 three-story Greek revival structure has had a colorful past, serving as a Masonic school, a confederate hospital, a military school and a courthouse.  The museum holds an extensive collection of Civil War memorabilia and historic papers, Victorian furniture and an art collection.  During our visit, we chanced upon an extraordinary display of color in the museum’s garden.  There we saw a dozen or more girls dressed in festive gowns with full hoop skirts and moving about like beautiful butterflies.

There are more than 1,200 historic structures in Selma’s Old Town Historic District, the largest historic district in Alabama.  The annual March “Historic Selma Pilgrimage” is an excellent time to enjoy seeing these homes and churches.  It is an opportunity to walk the streets with their moss-draped trees and blooming gardens and to take guided tours of homes, many of them are only open during this annual event.  

Another historic place you may want to tour is historic Old Live Oak Cemetery with its grand moss-draped trees and a great number of notable Confederate graves, including the grave of Mrs. Elodie Todd Dawson, a staunch Confederate supporter, wife of Confederate officer and sister-in-law of Abraham Lincoln.

Although Selma is still suffering under the burden of its Civil War and Civil Rights history, the city is showing the glimmer of progress with the restoration projects and the apparent determination of its residents to move into a happier and more robust future.  A little park across from the St. James Hotel features a colorful symbol of that momentum. 

Selma is not necessarily a fun place to visit, but it has a history we can learn from.  This visit peaked our curiosity and pushed us to do more research on the Civil War, the Civil Right Movement and the impact of the Reconstruction Era.  We are now awaiting the reopening of the St. James and would like to plan a return visit to Selma in time to join in the fun at the Low Country Boil at the Depot Museum.

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