Building added to national, state registers of historic places

Published 7:05 pm Wednesday, February 25, 2009

In the days when men hid behind white hoods and Jim Crow walked the streets of Selma, black citizens found a safe haven at 500 First Ave. Inside those walls, the Courageous Eight drafted a letter inviting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to enlist in the voting rights struggle. In the next room, George Wilson Sr., Selma’s first black contractor, drew blueprints.

George Wilson Jr. remembers those days. He would walk up the block from his house and find his father hunched over a large table with a pen in hand. He remembers the threatening phone calls late at night and the building’s faade riddled with bullet holes.

“About once a month they used to come by and shoot the building up,” he said.

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Outside, bullets flew and tires screeched in the night air, but those citizens did not move. Wilson, his wife Jewell and members of the Dallas County Voters League dug out the misshapen pieces of lead, patched the holes in the red brick with mortar, replaced the cracked panes of glass and went back to work. Despite the violence, the corner of First Avenue and Summerfield Road stood as the heartbeat of the community.

“At that point in time, just about every other corner had some kind of mom and pop store,” Wilson Jr. said. “You kind of took it for granted.”

Last August, Wilson Jr. tired of looking at the boarded-up windows and crumbling brickwork. He filled out the paperwork, and months later his building became eligible for both the National and Alabama Historic Registers. The Alabama Historical Commission determined the building was eligible based on ethnic heritage, social history and architecture.

“This is for them,” he said of his parents and the voters league. “They earned it.”

Wilson Jr.’s plans do not end with the listing. He said he would place a commemorative plaque in one of the old storefront windows and create an exhibit honoring his father in his former office.

Wilson Jr. has also contacted relatives of voters league members about the project. He plans to create a voters league exhibit in one storefront, too. The exhibits would include photographs and artifacts from the voting rights struggle. Wilson Jr. said he would like to include video and audio from his private collection of black motion pictures and historical events.

Local historian Alston Fitts said the voters league was the linchpin of the voting rights struggle.

“The Voters League certainly deserves to be commemorated,” he said.

Old Depot Museum curator Jean Martin said she was glad to hear another building in the same neighborhood as Selma University and the Boynton house was added to the register. Martin said she hopes the designation would help preserve and restore the building.

“Once it’s on the register, I think a lot of the damage would cease,” she said. “Maybe we can restore Selma one neighborhood at a time. Now wouldn’t that be nice?”