Sacred Selma

Pamela Brown-Peterside Uncategorized Leave a Comment


This past weekend, I had the privilege of visiting Selma. I’d seen the film and mulled over some of its history but wasn’t sure quite what to expect. My friend Linda and I traveled there by Greyhound from Montgomery in a white shuttle bus. Besides the female driver, there were only two other passengers (also women) with us. Apparently the station in Selma closed down seven years ago — all hints of the economic deprivation that we’d see more of — so the driver kindly dropped us off at the St. James Hotel, on Water Street, just beyond the Edmund Pettus bridge. We stayed in a suite on the 3rd (top) floor overlooking the Alabama River and the bridge. For the price of a modest hotel room in Manhattan, we were in the equivalent of a large 1 BR apt with a jacuzzi, bidet, walk-in closet, 4 poster bed, and a double sink. The hotel, built in 1837, abandoned in the 1890s and re-opened in the 1990s, had the feel of colonial Kenya: wrap-around porches with tall beams, dated furniture and decor, and a sleepy vibe.

I learned from the young man at the front desk, J, a Selma native, that slave owners brought African slaves along the river in tunnels. Structural damage beneath many of the waterfront properties remains. The next morning, as I sat watching the sun rise, I felt the presence of many who’d come before me in that place: the enslaved women & men who clung to their dignity, those who courageously walked over that bridge to Montgomery in 1965, those beaten and bloodied by the police, and those who played their part but remain unnamed and unrecognized in our history books. It was tempting to brood, but as I looked out over the river, Langston Hughes’ first published poem (1921) about rivers came to mind:

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

Deep in my soul, I sensed I was on holy ground. And yet the St James is struggling. Owned by the city, it’s operating at a significant loss  of more than a hundred thousand dollars and is more popular as a wedding-party space than as a place to stay. In our room, the fixture for one of the taps broke, as did a towel rail. White paint was peeling from the majestic columns out on the porch. Cobwebs were embedded in the wiry outdoor furniture. And there was no continental breakfast the next morning as the few staff they had were recovering from three events the day before. Besides one other group, we were the only guests staying in the 40 room hotel. Next to the St. James, was a boarded up building with a ‘for sale’ sign hanging on it. There were other abandoned buildings nearby.

But the people I met in Selma were passionate about their hometown. There was a lot of love there, notwithstanding the history of this place in the fabric of the civil rights movement. We met several women who take visitors on slave enactment journeys and got a small taste of two of them. They were powerful yet terrifying and gave me a renewed appreciation and sadness for how brutal and dehumanizing the middle passage must have been. We met K, who celebrates Jubilee every March, commemorating the march on Selma in 1965, who together with her young granddaughter has walked the 50 miles to Montgomery. We ate and laughed and sang and took photos, celebrating the joy of friendship. Though the history of Selma is a bloodied one, and the town is struggling to thrive, it’s also a place that is sacred and special.

edmund pettus bridge @ dusk cropped

Pamela Brown-PetersideSacred Selma

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