The museum’s exhibits explain what the White Alabamians who took up the cause of the Confederacy felt was on the line — Alabama was 10th of the then 33 states in the value of livestock, seventh in peas and beans, and second in cotton production. The only hope to save its economic position, the exhibit quotes a former state governor as saying, was for it to secede from the union, and though not mentioned directly, maintain the bondage of hundreds of thousands of Black Americans.
On a recent morning, there was just one visitor on the property and he didn’t enter the museum.
There are scattered mentions of slavery throughout the displays, but for the most part the museum focuses on the story of Confederate soldiers on the battlefield, mostly highlighting the bravery they displayed and the principles they were fighting for. The exhibit quotes Confederates like E.S. Dargan, who said: “If the relation of master and slave be dissolved, and our slaves turned loose amongst us without restraint, they would either be destroyed by our own hands — the hands to which they look with confidence, for protection — or we ourselves would become demoralized and degraded.”
Chappelle explained that the purpose of the museum was to tell the stories of Confederate soldiers; visitors who want a fuller picture of Alabama’s racial history — slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement — would have to go elsewhere.
There are a number of museums that tell those stories spread across Alabama, but the Confederate Memorial Park is different. It is the only museum in the state that has a dedicated revenue stream codified in the state’s constitution. So while other museums struggle to keep their doors open, search for grants for funding and depend on volunteer staff, the Confederate Memorial Park is flush with cash. In 2020 alone, the park received $670,000 in taxpayer dollars. That’s about $22 per visitor and more than five times the $4 admission price for adults.
Those are the kind of resources the volunteers at the Safe House Black History Museum in Greensboro, Ala., could only dream of. The small museum tells the little-known history of the rural grass-roots movement that paved the way for world-changing events like the 1963 March on Washington, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech.
The museum consists of two shotgun houses, one of which is where King sought refuge from the Ku Klux Klan in 1968, just two weeks before he was murdered in Memphis. The items on display include the rusted back of a pickup truck from which King once gave a speech after being unable to find a local church that would risk letting him speak in their building.
“We were invisible people,” Theresa Burroughs, the museum’s founder and a civil rights activist who received a Congressional Gold Medal for her participation in the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., says in a video that plays on a television in the museum.
The exhibits Burroughs crafted tell the stories of people in Alabama’s “Black Belt” who worked in the shadows to make the civil rights movement successful. But with limited funding, it’s hard for the museum to make the history of those “invisible people” known today. Confederate Memorial Park is open seven days a week. The Safe House museum can only open its doors by appointment.
“I need help in every area,” Theresa Davis, the museum’s unpaid executive director, said as she swept spiderwebs from the front porch with her hands. “I’m wearing a lot of hats and I get burnt out. It would be amazing if I could pay people to do some of this stuff.”
With an annual budget of $10,000, Davis is always on the hunt for money for things like the broken heater or to upgrade the Internet so the signal is strong enough for the entire building. Davis doesn’t recall the museum ever receiving a dime from the state. Instead the museum relies on small donations and grants, and what is raised from admissions fees and a small gift shop.
“I want to raise up the next person to do this work,” said Davis, a retired mental health professional. “But people need to be paid.”
Earlier this year, a pair of state senators, a Black Democrat and a White Republican, co-sponsored a bill that would have maintained funding for the Confederate Park, while providing the same amount to Black historical sites. The bill failed, but Sen. Clyde Chambliss Jr., its Republican sponsor, told the Montgomery Advertiser that he planned to reintroduce the legislation during a planned special session. The special session started Sept. 27, but there have been no signs that Chambliss will follow up on his pledge. Neither Chambliss nor his Democratic co-sponsor, Sen. Bobby D. Singleton, responded to requests for comment.
Chambliss had expressed confidence that the bill would win easy passage, but similar measures have failed in the past and there was vocal opposition to the effort from people like Patricia Godwin, a longtime member of the Selma chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
“I would never support that,” Godwin told the Alabama News Network. “Unless I see some balance and we see in April, Confederate history and heritage month in the school system and that that would be a part of the official Alabama state curriculum.” The Washington Post reached out to Godwin for an interview and got her answering machine, which had the message: “The war of Southern cultural genocide rages on, and we’re still on the battlefield so I’m sorry, we can’t take your call right now.” The message ends: “In spite of it all, we do hope that you're having a Dixie day.” She did not respond to a message seeking comment.
The fight over how to fund Alabama’s museums comes as state lawmakers debate what and whose history should be taught and promoted. In August, the Alabama State Board of Education passed a resolution that banned the teaching of critical race theory, an academic framework that examines the role of race and racism in the crafting of American laws and social norms.
The phrase has become a catchall term that conservatives have used to criticize a number of efforts they say constitute an attack on White Americans and culture. Alabama lawmakers have also introduced bills for the 2022 legislative session that seek to ban the teaching of “divisive concepts” that might make students uncomfortable because of their race or gender. Some have argued that teaching about slavery, racism and bigotry make White students — particularly males — feel bad or ashamed. In Alabama, museums are part of the fight over which telling of the state’s history will prevail.
Before the pandemic, Verdell Lett Dawson, a member of Tabernacle Baptist Church in Selma, said that she and other members of the congregation had been working to draw tourists to their church.
“We consider ourselves to be a treasure with an untold story,” she said. “But our pastor reminds us it’s not an untold story, it’s an unheard one.”
It was here, just down the road from the Edmund Pettus Bridge — which has been immortalized in films like the Oscar-nominated “Selma” — where the Selma Voting Rights Movement began. Louis Lloyd Anderson, then-pastor of Tabernacle, agreed to open the church’s doors for the movement’s first mass meeting. The movement eventually captured the nation’s attention after activists, including future congressman John Lewis, were beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. What happened in Selma paved the way for the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
During that first mass meeting, Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark brought a posse of White men to line the church’s walls and intimidate those in attendance. His officers wrote down the license plate numbers of the cars parked outside. Many of those in attendance were arrested, and others lost their jobs just for being at the meeting.
“The story of Selma is a story of courageousness to rise up against unfair forces no matter how powerful they are,” Dawson said. “It’s a message about overcoming for the underserved and underrepresented around the world. But it also has a message for people in power that they must learn to understand the people around them. And that they are not the only ones that have contributed to the greatness of this country.”
Since 2013, the church has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was recently added to the U.S. Civil Rights Trail. Still, Dawson said, it has never received funding from the state despite years of trying. Dawson said the church has been lucky to receive five grants from the National Park Service that together brought in more than $1 million over the years, but that money was used to cover critical needs, like the century-old building’s foundation and roof.
The church has turned to the Alabama Historical Commission for help, but has not found success. The commission is a state agency that runs Confederate Memorial Park along with other museums, including the Freedom Rides Museum, and is in charge of safeguarding the state's historical buildings and sites.
“We have never received anything from the Alabama Historical Commission,” Dawson said. “We have a grant application with them right now, and we’re just waiting to hear back on that. Maybe three times [is the] charm.”
Priscilla Hancock Cooper, director of the Alabama African American Civil Rights Heritage Sites Consortium, which works with a number of sites across the state including the Safe House museum in Greensboro and Tabernacle Baptist Church, said Dawson’s experience isn’t unusual.
“The needs at these sites are so great,” Hancock Cooper said. “But the big issue is the fact that for too long African American sites have not been involved in these conversations and have been undervalued.”
The consortium is working with 20 historical sites across the state, helping them build capacity and raise needed capital. Four years into the project, all of the consortium’s funding has come from out-of-state institutions, such as the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies organization.
The Alabama Historical Commission is the state’s main historical preservation office and has an annual budget of $12 million, funded mostly with state and federal dollars. Spokeswoman Wendi Lewis said the commission received grant applications totaling $4 million last year, but had funding to fulfill only $1.3 million of those requests, including money for “a significant number of African American projects.”
“Our approach with our historic sites is to concentrate on ALL Alabamians’ history, and that has not changed,” Lewis wrote in an email. “We have sites that deal with African American history, Native American history, and we tell all those stories.”
Dorothy Walker, a longtime employee of the Alabama Historical Commission and director of the Freedom Rides Museum in Montgomery, stands by the work that the commission has done over the years. Just before Walker joined the commission, it stepped in to stop the demolition of the old Montgomery Greyhound bus terminal that now serves as the site of the Freedom Rides Museum.
The museum tells the story of the groups of volunteers, the Freedom Riders, who rode buses throughout the South in 1961 to challenge segregation on public transportation. Riders were attacked throughout their journey from D.C. to New Orleans, but the most vicious attacks occurred outside of the Montgomery bus station where state officials stood by and let the mob have at the riders. The images out of Montgomery helped force President John F. Kennedy’s administration to step up its efforts to force the integration of interstate transportation in the South.
In the 1990s, the federal courthouse located next to the bus station wanted to tear down the building to expand its operations. The Alabama Historical Commission stood up to save it, Walker said.
“The state could have let this building come down. They didn't have to step in,” Walker said. “And the state is still putting resources in and paying us to stand there and tell people every day what the state of Alabama did not do to protect its people.
“What other state is doing that?” Walker asked. “So in that way, we are progressive.”
Louretta Wimberly, chair emeritus of the Alabama Historical Commission’s Black Heritage Council Board, understands why many are unhappy with the Confederate Memorial’s outsized financial endowment, but she said the problem lies with the legislature, not the historical commission.
The source of the memorial’s funding can be traced back to the state’s Jim Crow-era constitution. Carol Gundlach, a policy analyst at Alabama Arise, a statewide advocacy organization, said that lawmakers in 1901 were looking for a way to introduce new taxes in the conservative state and needed a sympathetic group to attach the tax increase to. Gundlach said they decided on Confederate veterans and their wives. Funds for Confederate veterans became part of a statewide 6.5 mill property tax — 3 mills for public schools, 2.5 mills for the state’s general operating budget and 1 mill for the veterans. That 1 mill provided for pensions for veterans and the construction of a home for indigent veterans in rural Chilton County. (A mill is a tenth of a cent.)
The home closed in 1934 after the last veteran died, but state lawmakers reopened the property as Confederate Memorial Park in 1964, during the height of the civil rights movement and around the 100th anniversary of the Civil War. The park now receives 1 percent of that original tax.
“This tax is really locked in because it is in the state constitution,” Gundlach said. “It’s a part of a bigger problem we have with our post-Reconstruction constitution passed by wealthy Whites when they took back the state government. It was about locking in their power and locking in the authority of the legislature. It contains quite a few of these segregationist and racist policies that we are just now beginning to get rid of.”