Special Report: The Church Street Story

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - In this day and age, our busy lives and schedules don't always give us pause to think about the communities we live in or the ground we walk on, and who paved the way for us to be there.

At the corner of Church Street and Holmes Avenue, WHNT News 19 found a new home in 1987; but the history of these streets goes back decades.

They looked completely different not long ago. Without Church Street and Holmes Avenue and the community that first called them 'home,' Huntsville would not be the city it is today.

"It was an exciting time. Exciting vibe," remembers current Church Street business owner Hundley Batts.

In the 1960s it was "the place" to be and be seen, acting as the hub for the black community.

"It was such a thriving community," explained Olivia Brandon, a native Huntsvillian. "We were so connected to each other."

It may be hard to imagine how crowded it was at one time. Local musician and Huntsville native Ivy Joe Milan equated it to "ants on sweetbread." The community's epicenter was born out of oppression.

"It was the only place we had to go," said Milan.

But it became the center of a movement during the civil rights era. Sit-ins were held, protests were organized and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke here several times.

Church Street and Holmes Avenue was a special place for Huntsville's black community, until those who lived it say in one big push, "it disappeared."

The city was growing in the 1960s and as Huntsville and military leaders planned for that growth, it meant uprooting the very district where the black community shopped, prayed and shared fellowship.

"They didn't say we had to move at that time, but they did seize half of our property and the street was coming almost all the way to the door," said Mattie Thomas, a Phillips CME Chapel historian.

This "urban renewal" meant new homes and businesses. But that also meant tearing down the old, which would soon make Church Street unrecognizable.

"When I got out of the Army in 1970, they had just, they'd wiped Church Street out. There were no black businesses. They just scattered us all in different places," said Milan.

No longer confined to Church St., black families found new opportunities in other places around Huntsville. But many argue as they were scattered like seeds, the sense of community vanished. It affected the same community who sat in at local lunch counters.

"Because we'd simply just sit and watch the owners of the establishments and listen to the harsh words and read our Bible. And get up and leave quietly, silently," remembered Laura Clift a Huntsville native and member of Lakeside Methodist Church.

They integrated schools, picketed businesses which turned them away and eventually, accomplished a non-violent solution to a society that held them back.

Those who lived through it say thousands of black men and women found opportunity at Redstone Arsenal.  NASA and the arsenal needed workers, regardless of the color of their skin.

"They played the biggest role. I think that`s why things went so smoothly here," said Brandon.

The sun still shines on those who called church street 'home' back then.

You'll still find a few churches on church street today. Leaders at Cumberland Presbyterian finished construction on their brand new house of worship in 2018 and St. John's African Methodist Episcopal, maintain a steady presence there.

Others, like Phillips CME, had to get creative. They brought in a new pastor and a team of young masons to build the new church brick by brick.

"Our church was in need of repairs. we had to get out of there, we went to Davis Circle thinking, a new start. It was a sense of renewal, we marched from Church Street to Davis Circle, it was July 22, 1973. I remember vividly," recalled Thomas.

For that generation, the challenge now isn't as much about equality as it is teaching young people how it came about.

The spiritual bonds that held the community together still playing an important role, even if they are miles apart. The churches that moved, like First Missionary Baptist, are bringing pieces of the past with them.

"There were stained glass windows in that old building so we had the opportunity to buy some of those windows," said Rev. Julius Scruggs.

The physical reminders cannot always last so the pride and stories must.

"Not wanting to place blame, but when you consider in other communities iconic structures -- like say our Princess Theater -- I wish more could have been done to preserve that," said local historian William Hampton and the founder of 'Negro History of Huntsville-Madison County.' Hampton has been working for years to keep the memories alive and archive what is known about the Huntsville of the past so it can be remembered in the future.

"Seems like into the late 70s and 80s we became embarrassed of our histories. Enslavement, those who were domestics, those who were sharecroppers. It seemed that some of us had arrived and were embarrassed by that history and we didn`t share it with younger generations," he continued.

Whatever the reason, many resources are missing.

"Many of the things that we had collected in the past were not preserved, and so we just lost a lot of it," said Clift.

"Somewhere between all that, somebody needs to record it. And I realize there was not a full written record, there still isn't a full written record," explained Thomas.

Today, historic markers dot Huntsville's landscape acknowledging parts of that story. The markers include places like the birthplace of Dr. Joseph Lowery, a leader in the civil rights movement.

"I was very pleased to see the number of markers, and the quality of the markers and the content on them and the sites as well. So I actually was very pleasantly surprised," said Tiffany Tolbert, Senior Field Officer at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the Chicago Field Office.

But could there be more?  Hampton is hoping his recent involvement with the marker committee can help.

"Hopefully soon I can get some input because I was told about two years ago, that Huntsville has no more African American places of note that deserve a marker. And I beg to differ. Royal Funeral Home and We Up Radio, two businesses need historic markers for starters."

And time is running out on the greatest resource of all: "Talk to the old folks who are sharp, in their right minds, and they have stories to tell," encourages Hampton.

Leaders in the community say there has been a disconnect in the local preservation efforts.

"There are many organizations in Huntsville and Madison County who are doing things on African American heritage and African American history, but they don't talk to each other," said Dr. Joseph Lee, Executive Director of the AAMU Community Development Corporation.

"There's a disconnect right now but willing bodies are coming together and we're brainstorming to see how we can put our collective efforts to good use," explained Hampton.

Some Huntsvillians recognize ways to deepen our bond. "There is a better relationship between the African American and white congregations today I think. Our church and First Baptist Church on Governors have a 34-year-old historical relationship," said Scruggs.

After the journey of courage, strength, and triumph that began right on Church Street, they find hope in where we are today.

But they want us all to remember the story of this place, the foundation built here. And in our next struggle, draw upon the bravery they know it takes, to make a change.

Watch WHNT News 19 on February 16 at 6:30 PM for The Church Street Story. A documentary produced by WHNT in partnership with African Americans for Completing the Story in Huntsville-Madison County.

Share your family story and preserve our history.

Contact the committee to learn how.

African Americans for Completing the Story in Huntsville-Madison County.

www.completingthestory-al200.org

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