Redevelopment and loss top 2011 stories

Published 1:02 pm Sunday, January 1, 2012

The opening of Phoenix Park was just one example in 2011 of how Selma’s downtown saw new growth, new development and some fresh coats of paint. -- Tim Reeves

The past year could have been remembered for bad events. It could be remembered for things gone wrong or those things we wish would never happened.

But, those things did happen and there is nothing we can do about it.

What we can do is take a look back at some of the events that helped shaped 2011, those events that might not have been the best-selling or most read, but those events which had great impact on our community and our lives.

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No. 1: New Parks and renovations throughout downtown Selma

The unveiling of Selma’s Riverfront and Phoenix parks, and the opening of the Carneal ArtsRevive Building and Selma Interpretive Center in early 2011 marked the beginning of a transformed downtown Selma. Thanks to the help of Selma city officials and community organizers, the longtime vision to move the city forward is beginning to materialize.

Officials continued their discussion on the update and improvement of Riverfront Park, it’s planned amphitheatre expected to seat 600 and other developments such as a butterfly garden, playground, water feature and aquarium back in June.

Selma Mayor George Evans said the project would be a collaborative effort between local residents and city government.

“It’s going to take people working together,” Evans said. “It’s still a work in progress.”

Since that initial discussion, Alabama Power and the Selma-Dallas County Health Alliance have since provided lighting for the Riverfront Park’s walking trail, which was unveiled in late August. The trail, which covers 1.4 miles in length, was dedicated to longtime resident and former Selma City Council president Dr. Geraldine Allen, who died in April 2010.

The trail, Evans said, is just one small piece of the bigger picture for the city.

“I know we have other needs in our city … this is just one piece of the puzzle,” Evans said. “Please join me in making this successful.”

Council president Cecil Williamson said the unveiling of the trail was a special moment for Selma.

“I believe our city has a bright future,” Williamson said. “This is the first day of Selma’s future.”

In connection with first lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign to help combat childhood obesity across the nation, the first lady of Selma, Jeannie Evans, kicked off her own, “Let’s Move! Selma” campaign in late August.

Hundreds of adults and young people gathered inside Phoenix Park for a day of exercise and fun physical activity.

“We want to raise a healthier generation of children in Alabama,” Evans said. “This is a big kickoff for Selma.”

Downtown’s soft opening of the Selma Interpretive Center in March proved to be an exciting venture for many. It is one of three interpretive centers in the state, with large crowds nationwide having walked through its doors.

Civil rights icon the Rev. F. D. Reese, believes the additions to the area are a “good thing.”

“I think the update that is taking place now speaks of the type of future we hope Selma will experience — the advancement of Selma socially, economically as well as spiritually,” Reese said. “That all people from all denominations (and) economic statuses will come together for the advancement of the community.”

The center has seen more than 800 guests from 21 states and four countries. As part of the $35 million Water Avenue project that will encompass 20,000 square feet, the project still has three floors to be completed.

In partnership with BroadSouth Communications, the ArtsRevive sponsored StreetFest in May, offered locals and tourists fresh food and crafts from local vendors and music from the Alabama Symphony Orchestra.

ArtsRevive president Fran Pearce said the event offered something for everyone.

“We’re pleased to offer these musical performances to the public,” Pearce said. “The symphony appearance is made possible by a grant from the Alabama Department of Education … we hope this event will be the beginning of more successful events and a way to bring people back to historic downtown.”


No. 2: Kathryn Tucker Windham dies

In June, Selma and the literary world lost an icon when Kathryn Tucker Windham died. Just days before she died, Windham celebrated her 93rd birthday.

In addition to her written works, Windham was remembered for her love of the arts, especially the art of storytelling. She was credited with inspiring the creation of storytelling festivals throughout the area, including the one held annually in Selma.

Kathryn Tucker Windham

The annual Tale Tellin’ festival, held each October, was held in 2011 in honor of Windham as ArtsRevive took control of the event.

During a memorial service in late June, held at her church, Church Street United Methodist Church, Windham’s love for great story telling — and music — was shared.

During the service, fellow storyteller Donald Davis, who Windham asked to speak at her memorial service many years ago, said he would miss Windham, but was honored to have the chance to share his stories.

Davis said he always learned valuable life lessons from Windham. One of the most important, he said, was to always keep a good sense of humor.

“One of my learning experiences taught me that humor is the greatest source of power in life,” he said. “Things that cannot be overcome can be overcome with humor.”

Davis said Windham also taught him that this was only true if you could laugh at yourself first.

The lessons, Davis said, keep Windham’s memory alive.

“If we remember the things we learn then she is not lost to us,” he said. “She’s with us always.”


No. 3: Turmoil in Selma City Schools

While the final chapter of a combative year among the leadership of the Selma City School System remains to be written, 2011 provided plenty of fireworks that began with a tough financial battle over the building of a new high school and ended with a still unresolved court battle involving fired superintendent of education Dr. Donald Jefferson.

In October, a divided school board voted to terminate the contract of Jefferson, who later filed a lawsuit in Circuit Court, claiming the hearings and meetings that lead to his termination violated Alabama’s Open Meetings Act.

The case, which is set to be heard in a preliminary hearing later this month, could be dismissed or continued, which would tie up the school system legally for many more months.

In the interim, the board selected School of Discovery principal Gerald Shirley as acting superintendent and the later named him interim superintendent.

The timeline for the search for the next, full-time superintendent has not started, waiting on the resolution of the court case and rulings from the state Department of Education.


No. 4: Byrd and School of Discovery remain open

For children who will be attending Byrd Elementary, the School of Discovery or Phoenix School in 2013, class will be in session.

After months of talks by Selma City School officials of possible school closures in 2013, an attempt to consolidate and save money in the Selma City School System, members of the Selma City School Board voted in May to keep the schools opened. The vote went against the recommendation put forward by then Selma City superintendent of education Dr. Donald Jefferson.

Byrd Elementary School

Jefferson said his desire at the time wasn’t to close any school.

“I don’t want to close any school, but with the decline in student enrollment and proration for the past three years in a row, we don’t know what’s going to happen,” Jefferson said. “I want the board members to give respect to the process and vote their convictions.”

Throughout the ordeal, school board members Brenda R. Obomanu, Frank Chestnut Jr. and Holland Powell, were against the closings.

During several meetings, Chestnut requested Jefferson to present the board with figures on how the school system would be saving money if the schools closed.

“In my opinion, we just wouldn’t be saving money at all,” Chestnut said. “I want some real figures.”

Obomanu, who attended Knox Elementary in her youth, gave the suggestion of combining both Byrd and Knox.

“Mr. (J) Pope from Knox and Mrs. (Beth) Taylor from Byrd could work together at Byrd as co-principals, giving the school a new name that complements both schools,” Obomanu said. “Make the school a community school like SOD and Selma CHAT Academy.”

Obomanu also believed the School of Discovery is a staple for the Selma community and is a benefit to sixth graders.

“If we close that school, it would be an injustice to our boys and girls,” Obomanu said. “Closing the school would just make us go backwards as a city, we would regress.”


No 5: Selma installs traffic light cameras

Since the installation of three red light cameras in 2011, many residents have expressed their concerns about the lights — saying they were a way for the city to make more money.

Selma City Chief of Police William T. Riley said this wasn’t the case and believes the cameras will make a difference.

“The idea behind these cameras is to change the driving habits of drivers,” Riley said.

With cameras at the intersection of Dallas Avenue and Hooper Drive, another on Broad Street near the intersection of L.L. Anderson and the last on J. L. Chestnut Boulevard, located near the Franklin Street intersection, Selma City police began issuing citations in July. By October, the Selma Police Department recorded more than 1,400 violations.

Selma Police Department’s Sgt. Doug Stewart said most of the violations came from motorists not making complete stops at red lights before making a right turn. Stewart said cameras only take pictures and videos of a motorist’s vehicle if the motorist is beyond the white line when the light is red.

“If you cross the stop line and come to a complete stop, the camera will take your picture because of crossing the stop line,” Stewart said. “It (video) will be reviewed by members of American Traffic Solutions and after they see you did come to a complete stop, they will delete it out of their system.”

Stewart said images are also reviewed by Selma City Police. A notice of violation results in a $60 ticket.


No. 6: Alligator hunting season in August

Though the Black Belt has often been known as a deer hunters’ paradise, a new twist was added in August. Due to overpopulation, the state of Alabama instituted a two-weekend alligator season, issuing 50 tags to hunters from all over the state.

Locally, the team of Jamie Thomas, Tad Lightfoot, Brad Utsey and David Cothran cashed in in a big way, harvesting a 13-foot one-inch, 604-pound monster.

Cothran said it took a little scouting, but the crew was able to bring in the monster alligator.

“We had a good idea of where to go because they had been out the night before and we got to the spot early and just sat around waiting for 8 p.m. We spotted him earlier, but we had to wait until 8 p.m. to comply with the laws,” Cothran said. “Jamie snagged him on the first cast of the night and it was like nothing we had ever seen.”


No. 7: Voting Rights Museum director resigns

After serving one year as interim director for the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute, Olimatta Taal resigned her position in early April to pursue other endeavors.

Taal, who helped to obtain project-based federal grants to improve and update the museum’s exhibits, said her time at the museum had been a struggle.

“I was crucified, sabotaged and controlled trying to sustain the ideas of persons who founded this museum, the visionaries, and it’s unfortunate,” Taal said. “My heart has been broken into pieces and it’s painful. But, it is what it is.”

Taal, who said her future projects include traveling to Senegal to help raise funds for impoverished children and making movies, remains positive, bowing out gracefully.

“I can sleep at night knowing I’ve done what was right,” Taal said. “I’m a child of the movement and accountable to it.”

The institute’s current curator Kevin Hollis has replaced Taal as director until the museum can fill the position permanently.


No. 8: Civil Rights icon Amelia Boynton Robinson turns 100

Her name is synonymous with the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Civil rights activist Amelia Boynton Robinson was beaten by Alabama State Troopers and left for dead at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965, or “Bloody Sunday.”

Robinson turned 100 on Aug. 18 and celebrated the occasion with family, friends and celebrity guests in Atlanta, and later in her home in Tuskegee.

Known to many as the “mother of the voting rights movement,” Robinson was an advocate for voter education and was an original member of the “Courageous Eight.”

And while family and friends celebrated Robinson’s legacy, many mourned the death of Courageous Eight member Ernest Doyle, who died in 2011.

Also a member of the first integrated Selma City Council in 1972, fellow member F. D. Reese said Doyle’s legacy was that of “equality.”

“He fought very hard to bring about a type of equality among the races,” Reese said. “We participated in various meetings that dealt with the denial of voting rights for minorities and we were very instrumental in helping to bring about equality in our community for all people.”

Selma attorney Bruce Carver Boynton said his mother is “an icon in the civil rights struggle.”

“It’s difficult to say a role my mother played up against my father who spent his whole life here in Selma fighting for rights of blacks,” Robinson said. “She would continue what my father was doing. Nationally and internationally wise she’s known for what she’s done and applauded for it.”


No. 9: Bjelke wins special Selma City Council election

When Selma City Ward 3 councilwoman Dr. Monica Newton decided to leave her position on the council in January, many residents wondered who would run for her position.

Greg Bjelke

Out of eight candidates who sought the seat during July’s special election, Gwen Brown and Greg Bjelke gained the most votes, placing them in a run-off.

Bjelke won the seat with 528 votes, while Brown earned 250.

After being sworn-in in July, Bjelke quickly assumed his position as Ward 3’s representative.

“I am anxious to get started,” Bjelke said. “I want to thank everybody. From the start I got support from everybody and wishing me well. We have been positive from the start and are ready to get to work.”


No. 10: Dallas County Relay for Life shatters goal, raises nearly $110,000

After 46 Dallas County Relay for Life teams met to discuss their plans for the 2011 cancer research fundraising campaign, group organizers were floored by the amount of positive responses and monetary support.

As donations poured in, after the bank night’s final tally in May, the group raised nearly $110,000, shattering last year’s goal of $65,000.

Relay chair Tanya Miles said the experience was an eye-opener for all who were involved.

“We’ve set a record for this area — we’ve raised more than any other county,” Miles said. “My heart has just been overjoyed by all of the support and I’m thankful from the bottom of my heart.”

Miles said the group raised $300 at the gate during its annual Relay for Life at Memorial Stadium in April. Miles said local students and businesses were “relentless” and “energized” throughout the whole process.

The group plans to make the fundraising goal $100,000 in 2012.


And, if there were a No. 11: County-wide fireworks celebration

More than a thousand people across the area attended Selma’s Fourth of July Celebration at the newly renovated Memorial Stadium. With the fireworks sky show presented by Pyro Production Inc, Dallas County Probate Judge Kim Ballard said it took a collaborative effort to make the expensive show possible.

“Mayor Evans came to me and said we should do this as a joint effort,” Ballard said. “We could not have done this by ourselves … it shows when we all get together we can do things that we wouldn’t be able to do by ourselves.”

The collaborative effort included the Dallas County Commission, Selma-Dallas County Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Selma Association, Americorp, Selma High School cheerleaders, the city of Valley Grande, the town of Orrville and the city of Selma.