What's changed in Lowndes County, Alabama—and what hasn't

The SSZ. Photo by Tony Bingham.

Black folk of a certain age, with left-of political leanings, respond in specific ways to mention of Lowndes County, Alabama. There’s the slow knowing nod, the lean-forward, the sudden exclamation, as though I’d brought an old friend into the room.

Even if they never drove the green stretch of U.S. Highway 80 between Montgomery and Selma, or stood on thick Black Belt soil, their eyes warm with the idea of the place, of what was made possible there.

Fifty one years after the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) came together with Black Lowndes County residents in armed rebellion to form the Lowndes County Freedom Organization—the first Black Panther Party—the place retains an almost mythical (albeit time-frozen) space in Black folk's imaginations.

Reverent recognition is followed by curiosity.

"What’s going on there now?”

Torkwase and I left the West End community on a hot cloudy Tuesday morning in August, in a 3/4 ton pick up truck with Studio South Zero (SSZ) hitched to the back. Omega and Brenda Wilson woke up early to see us off—they prayed over us in a circle by the Mebane First Presbyterian Church.

After a quick side trip to Lowe’s for the hitch pin we lost somewhere—the Wilsons drove us there and back in their Subaru—we hauled SSZ off the gravel path of the church, onto the narrow-paved street, past the Mebane city limit, and onto I-85 South.

Ten hours later, after a few tanks of diesel, several tiny house inquiries, and a rush-hour traffic jam in Atlanta, we arrived near Montgomery, Alabama in the dark, surrounded by sprawling concrete thoroughfares and glowing fast food and hotel signs—all competing for the highest airspace.

The next afternoon, we drove 45 minutes West on U.S. Hwy 80 (a.k.a. Jefferson Davis Highway), where the only signs were for churches, historic markers, and the occasional gas station. All around us were green hills, growing fields, and forest—the sky bent towards us, concave.

White Hall is a Black town incorporated in 1979 on an old plantation in Lowndes County. Back when the town was a cluster of unincorporated communities—including White Hall, Trickem, and Hicks Hill—it was one of the major hubs of Black political resistance in the county, in large part because it was one of two Black landowning enclaves. Unlike Black sharecroppers, Black landowners weren’t beholden to White planters—though behaving too “free” was still dangerous.

In March 1965, just after ‘Bloody Sunday,’ when 600 voting rights demonstrators were beaten across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma by Alabama state troopers, a group of Black Lowndes County residents gathered in White Hall to form the Lowndes County Christian Movement for Human Rights (LCCMHR). They were led by John Hulett, a landowner and former member of the Birmingham chapter of the NAACP; along with local storeowner William Cosby; landowner Elzie Lee McGill; and his daughter Lillian McGill, college-educated and a participant in the Montgomery bus boycott ten years earlier. Lowndes County was 80% Black, but not a single Black person could register to vote. The LCCMHR formed to coordinate voting registration attempts and to pursue other basic rights—energized by the struggles in Selma, and the Voting Rights March that traversed their communities from March 21-24, 1965.

The Edmund Pettus Bridge, in Selma, Alabama. Photo by Tony Bingham.

Ruby Rudolph was a young child when the March came to White Hall. Her grandparents and great grandparents owned a filling station and two grocery stores in the community, and her great-grandmother, Rosie Steele, owned a large plot of land across the street from the stores.

"[My great grandmother] was the one who let the marchers stay on her land the second night [of the march], Rudolph said. “Martin Luther King helicoptered down, I’ll never forget it. Brought into the center of the field right there and let him out there that night. A lot of people was hungry. We fed ‘em. We fed ‘em from each store, until our stores was empty.”

(The march was guarded by U.S. Army helicopters, and King had to leave the group briefly that evening for a speech commitment.) Afterwards, Rudolph's family kept the stores open, but the food deliveries never arrived.

"Some of the merchants that would come to bring groceries to our store—many of them was White at the time—some of 'em stopped coming," Rudolph said. "Everyone stopped coming but the milkman. My granddaddy would have to go either to Montgomery or Selma to pick up supplies for the store. He did that for a couple months, until finally [the merchants] started coming back when they found out that we wasn't just gonna roll over and die."

A while later, someone broke into Rosie Steele's store—where she also lived—and set fire to the curtains. She lost everything, and could not get a bank to loan her money to build a new house. So she turned to community.

"She got Mr. Frank Jackson [of White Hall]...and they rebuilt the house. And it’s there now, across the road from my house. The brick house, my cousin lives in it now. We don't know who...but they burned her store because she let the marchers stay on her land," Rudolph said.

A historic marker, installed by the U.S. Park Service, now identifies Steele's land as integral to the March. On the opposite side of U.S. Highway 80—this stretch of road is now called the Selma to Montgomery Historic National Trail—sit the remnants of Rudolph's grandparents' filling station. Their store was shuttered and destroyed for the construction of the highway a few years after the March.

The marker on the site of Rosie Steele's farm. Photo by Danielle Purifoy.

Less than a mile away, a large building interrupts the lush landscape, announcing the White Hall Entertainment Center, which houses a large electronic bingo hall, restaurant, and bar. Next door, there is a Piggly Wiggly Express and three empty store fronts.

John Jackson, the former and longest serving mayor of White Hall—and Frank Jackson's nephew—meets me and Torkwase in front of the Piggly Wiggly Express, which he owns. He drives up in an old black police car—the rear passenger doors open only from the outside—and directs us to unhitch SSZ in the parking lot. In his soft, raspy voice, he offers us an empty, air conditioned storefront to use for our interviews, and suggests he may be too busy to be interviewed himself. He tells us to call if we need anything, and drives away.

As mayor, Jackson was responsible for bringing the gaming industry to White Hall, over the objections of the state government. People needed jobs, the community needed investment—infrastructure, business, recreation. The new industry helped to pay for the Jackson-Steele Recreation Center on Freedom Road, where children play and the community hosts events. Despite being a legally incorporated town, White Hall faces similar infrastructure challenges to the unincorporated communities outside of Mebane. Many of its residents lack access to adequate wastewater sanitation services, and public funding—often in the form of loans—is slow moving and cost-prohibitive with such a small tax base.

Thirty-eight years after incorporation, White Hall is a mostly quiet, green place where doors can still be left unlocked. Governance is a different manner. Jackson's ouster from office in 2011— based on a misdemeanor conviction—generated a power battle that stirred the town, raising questions about the future of community cohesion.

Cloud formations about the Piggly Wiggly. Photo by Danielle Purifoy.

"Our town has been torn down by wanna be in power. And it shouldn’t be about power—it should be about helping people," Rudolph said. Though she is optimistic about the town's future, Rudolph longs for the community ethics of the past, for the informal public services like those of her family's stores, which routinely fed hungry people, even strangers just passing through.

"I don’t know about other towns, but this town was thriving at one time when we had people who wanted to do things, and did it gracefully and we didn’t have a lot of money to do stuff with. But you gotta be together, you gotta be united, you gotta join together, you gotta band together, and stick together. And that’s how so many things has happened here in Lowndes County."

In the next dispatch, we'll tell the story of how the community of White Hall became the Town of White Hall, and the [false] promises of Black incorporation.

For more on the history of Lowndes County, see Hasan K. Jeffries book Bloody Lowndes: Civil rights and Black Power in Alabama's Black Belt. NYU Press (2010).