Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Formerly segregationist publisher played key role in resurrecting ferry to help black community

Half a century ago in Gee's Bend, Ala., African Americans were fighting for the right to vote. Even after Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, barriers still existed. As protests grew in 1962, the Alabama River ferry from Gee's Bend to the Wilcox County seat of Camden was taken out of service, which increased the isolation of the Gee's Bend community, mostly black.

Without the ferry, it was very difficult for people living in Gee's Bend to get into town to shop, see a doctor or cast their votes. Most did not have a car to travel 40 miles by road to Camden. "Whites who held power said the old flat-bottom boat simply wasn't up to the task anymore," Clyde Haberman writes for The New York Times, in a story pegged to the current observances of the 50th anniversary of the voting-rights march from nearby Selma to the state capital of Montgomery.

Hollis Curl,  publisher of the The Progressive Era
Hollis Curl, a strong segregationist when he bought The Progressive Era weekly newspaper in Camden in 1969, played an instrumental role in estblishing a new ferry in 2006. He died in 2010.

"Hollis grew up a segregationist, and, in the end, no one fought harder for the rights of all the people in Wilcox County than Hollis did," said Brad English of the Alabama Press Association. Curl felt a "call to atone for his bigotry," so fighting for the restoration of the ferry was part of his change of heart, Haberman reports.

The people in Gee's Bend are still poor, though the area has become famous for its colorful quilts, and racial divides still exist. "It's two societies in one location," said Jo Celeste Pettway, a District Court judge from a Gee's Bend family. "Separate and still unequal." (Read more)

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