Market’s bench warmers a welcome sight

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 3, 2003

The red, wooden benches outside Selma’s Washington St. Supermarket gleam in the early afternoon sunlight. For the moment, the gathering spot is relatively quiet, the heat of a sultry June day probably keeping away some bench-sitting regulars.

It’s an unusual sight &045;&045; seeing the red of the benches, that is. Gregarious town folk &045;&045; mostly African-American &045;&045; usually hide much of that shiny surface, but today longtime Washington Street regular Woodrow Fletcher sits virtually alone.

Fletcher is the granddaddy of the Washington St. Supermarket faithful &045;&045; a group of mostly retired men and women who have been congregating on those red benches since the city of Selma was still segregated. And though times have changed, the repartee hasn’t, Fletcher says.

The husky 70-year-old has lived in Selma his whole life. He’s been a Washington St. Supermarket regular since the early 1980s, but has known about the market far longer. Fletcher &045;&045; a retired wholesale worker &045;&045; spends up to four hours a day, 365 days a year at the market, he says. He’s honed his congeniality to a fine edge &045;&045; neither blustery nor timid.

As shoppers enter and leave the store this day, Fletcher greets them with a wave and a hearty laugh &045;&045; his wisp of a mustache riding piggyback on his upper lip. Fletcher’s affability mimics that of the store he shadows.

The Washington St. Supermarket, after all, bills itself as &uot;The friendliest store in Selma,&uot; a moniker most who visit the place would probably embrace.

The benches simply add to the store’s appeal, says Susie Harrison, 49, who’s been a cashier at the market for nine years.

In fact, she says, they can be the panacea to a rotten morning.

The benches, though &045;&045; and the old-timers who’ve occupied them for so long &045;&045; also serve as a reminder of Selma’s past, when parts of the city were off-limits to blacks. As some in the Washington St. Supermarket crowd remember it, few grocery stores in Selma welcomed blacks during the Civil Rights Era and fewer still allowed them to congregate anywhere near.

So blacks gathered where they could, and do so yet today. The red benches are a safe haven of sorts to many who remember a segregated Selma.

But that won’t happen, says Washington St. Supermarket owner Charlie Ammons, who purchased the store in 1967.

And fine, too, for cap-wearing Amos Allen, Jr., who left Selma in 1957 and returned in 1993. The 62-year-old basks in the market’s outdoor and indoor ambiance.

And that’s saying something, considering Allen knows the names of only a few of his bench-dwelling buddies.

And more often than not, that niceness leads to new friendships &045;&045; and rekindles old ones, says Rosa Dillard, a Washington St. Supermarket cashier who’s been with the store for six years.

Where the red benches beckon …