In 1965, civil rights activists made history by marching from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, overcoming vicious attacks by police and winning voting rights for Black citizens throughout the South. The route they walked is now a national park site, but the rural camps where marchers found shelter are not — and they’re falling into disrepair. Can these lesser-known pieces of history be saved?
In the 1950s and ’60s, Alabama was a battleground for voting equality. White elected officials had long denied Black citizens their constitutional right to vote, and thousands of activists faced violent opposition from white residents and officials. In 1965, the Selma to Montgomery march made history, galvanizing the nation and leading to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, which finally allowed millions of disenfranchised Black citizens to cast ballots.
The march route is preserved in the National Park System. But event wouldn’t have been possible without private landowners along the route who risked their lives and jobs to allow hundreds of participants to camp on their properties. Now these campsites are falling into disrepair — and conservationists are carefully considering how to save this history before it’s lost.
This episode, host Jennifer Errick speaks with preservationist and film producer Phillip Howard of the Conservation Fund; DaVine Hall McGuire, granddaughter of David Hall, owner of the first campsite along the march route; and Cheryl Gardner Davis, daughter of Robert and Mary Gardner, owners of the third campsite along the march route.
The Secret Lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association.
Episode 26, Stamped in the Soil, was produced by Jennifer Errick with help from Todd Christopher, Bev Stanton and Linda Coutant.
Special thanks to Eboni Preston, acting director of NPCA’s Southeast Region.
Original theme music by Chad Fischer. Learn more about the film “54 Miles to Home” at vimeo.com/591288364 and southernexposurefilms.org
Learn more about this podcast and listen to the rest of our stories at thesecretlivesofparks.org
For more than a century, the National Parks Conservation Association has been protecting and enhancing America's national parks for present and future generations. With more than 1.6 million members and supporters, NPCA is the nation's only independent, nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to protecting national parks.
Learn more and join us at npca.org
Stamped in the Soil
Jennifer Errick: In 1965, civil rights activists made history by marching from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, overcoming vicious attacks by police and winning voting rights for Black citizens throughout the South.
The trail they walked is now a national park site, but the rural camps where marchers found shelter are not — and they’re falling into disrepair. Can these lesser-known pieces of history be saved?
I’m Jennifer Errick, and this is The Secret Lives of Parks.
This episode contains descriptions of violence and racism. Please take care.
Soon after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. moved to Alabama in 1954, he galvanized people across the South in the fight for civil rights. Nonviolent protests he led in Montgomery and Birmingham won major victories that helped end desegregation and reduce discrimination. But one of the most severe challenges that he and other members of the civil rights movement faced was central to American democracy — voting.
White elected officials in the South continued to deny Black citizens their right to vote well into the 1960s. Nearly, a century after the 15th Amendment to the constitution guaranteed this right to Black men, and more than four decades after the 19th Amendment guaranteed it to all women regardless of race. Alabama became a central battleground in the fight for voting equality.
Phillip Howard: You have these events that, when you look at what they're responsible for, they are responsible for changing the lives of every African American that was living then and every African American that will come after. That's what these events changed. That's what happened here.
Jennifer Errick: That's Phillip Howard, a proud Alabama resident who manages the Civil Rights People and Places program for the Conservation Fund. He's passionate about the history of the Alabama Black Belt, particularly during this period in the 1950s and '60s.
Phillip Howard: African Americans couldn't vote. We had no say over anything dealing with public life. We were intimidated, we were brutalized. All of it was remnants of a time long gone by that people were still holding on to, and these African Americans in the Black Belt in Alabama stood up and fought and said, no more.
Jennifer Errick: Thousands of activists demonstrated throughout the South organizing drives to register Black voters. They faced violent opposition from white residents and officials, and protestors were routinely arrested, beaten, and brutalized by police. In February 1965, the activist Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot twice by a state trooper at a protest for voting rights in Marion, Alabama while trying to shield his mother from a police beating. He died from his wounds eight days later. Jackson was just 26 years old.
Activists channeled their outrage at the murder into a new plan to gain national attention. They organized a march from Selma to Montgomery the following month to demand justice from the governor.
[Sound of marchers chanting]
Jennifer Errick: But when about 600 protesters tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, one of the first stops along the march route, a wall of state troopers armed with tear gas and nightsticks viciously beat the participants. The event now known as Bloody Sunday forced the marchers to turn around. But television coverage of the violence fueled horror and sympathy across the country.
Two weeks later, the marchers regrouped, and Dr. King and the Reverend Ralph Abernathy led protestors the full 54 miles to Montgomery with protection from the National Guard. Months later, Congress overwhelmingly passed the Voting Rights Act, which would allow millions of disenfranchised Black citizens across the South to vote. Here again is Phillip Howard.
Phillip Howard: This was a continual struggle that climaxed with this modern Civil Rights Movement from 1955 to 1965. The ultimate zenith of that was the Voting Rights Act. When that happened, it broke the back of Jim Crow. The segregation laws in the South, all of that began to shift.
Jennifer Errick: The marchers played a pivotal role in that shift, but they couldn't have made it through those five days in rural Alabama without allies in these remote communities.
Phillip Howard: This was not a, you come and march and you go home and you go back to your life. This was, if you participate, you can be killed. If you participate, you could lose your livelihood. You're targeted, you're fired from your employment. Any number of things can happen if you just participated.
Jennifer Errick: Howard gives some additional context to what it was like to live in the South at that time.
Phillip Howard: This goes back to the summer of 1955, the death of Emmett Till. Think about that timeframe, where it was okay for two drunk men to come to a home in the middle of the night in Mississippi, take a little boy out of his home, mutilate him, kill him, torture him, shoot him, wrap him in barbed wire and throw him in a river. The two men who did it admitted to doing it, and they still never served a day in jail. So, that was the environment that African Americans were operating in — that level of fear.
Jennifer Errick: The marchers overcame this fear with a vision for justice, but the march was more than a vision. It was a physical act that required preparations for hundreds of people. This wasn't Chicago or New York with restaurants and grocery stores and hotels on every corner. This was a wooded, sparsely populated landscape deep in the heart of the countryside.
Phillip Howard: The logistics of getting these people from Selma to Montgomery, 54 miles — they could not stay on the side of the road. If they didn't have places to stay for the night, they would not have been able to do the march.
Jennifer Errick: For the event to take place, three private landowners opened their homes and fields for the marchers to camp in. Their names were David Hall, Rosie Steele, and Robert and Mary Gardner. Marchers also camped at a Catholic school campus in Montgomery on the fourth and final evening before proceeding to the state capitol.
Phillip Howard: It was freezing cold. They slept in barns, they slept in tents. Not an easy march at all. Very cold weather. Raining. But they did it anyway. The campsite families, if it were not for their actions, this march would not have happened, because the marchers would not have had a place to stay along the route.
Jennifer Errick: Though much of the collective memory of the march is centered around Bloody Sunday — for good reason — the violence marchers encountered on their first trip to the bridge was one part of a much longer and larger journey.
DaVine Hall McGuire: It is of the utmost importance for me and my family to make sure that the world knows this didn't just happen from you just walking across the street.
Jennifer Errick: DaVine Hall McGuire is the youngest granddaughter of David Hall who hosted the marchers on their first night together about seven miles outside of Selma.
DaVine Hall McGuire: This took a lot of work and the people who own those homes, the campsites, you risk your life, you could lose it all. You risk everything. It's important that this story is told.
Jennifer Errick: Hall was a hardworking man who spent his entire life in the community.
DaVine Hall McGuire: David Hall was a maintenance man at the George Washington Carver Housing Authority and a farmer. He had 80 acres of land, which he purchased with his wife, Cheney, in 1940. He farmed and worked six, I would even say eight days a week, he worked so hard.
Jennifer Errick: Hall's maintenance work meant he was privy to many of the conversations around town and in the know about what was happening day to day in his neighborhood. In 1965, he was in the right place at the right time to learn about the march.
DaVine Hall McGuire: It's never been proven exactly who he spoke to and how it came about, but he was in that area and working daily in and out of the homes. He came across someone who told him that they needed a place to camp out overnight in their 54-mile trek from Selma to Montgomery. So, my grandfather, having that property, offered for the marchers to come there and stay there overnight so that they could be protected.
Jennifer Errick: Hall opened his home understanding the risks involved.
DaVine Hall McGuire: In 1965, people of color were not seen as 100% human. I'll say it in that way. If you were an African American man, you could have lost your land, you could have lost your job, you could have lost your life. Things were taken, and it was like you never had it. He gave up a lot to allow everyday people to have rights, and he never even got to vote. But he did all he could, so we could have just freedoms, just be free to make choices.
Jennifer Errick: Hall faced physical threats and financial repercussions for his choice to help the marchers.
DaVine Hall McGuire: He would tell my mom and my aunts that people would come out to the property on horseback. So, we can only imagine who they were, if they were on horseback and they would be out in the front yard and ride on horseback to try and threaten him. We don't know what he had to endure on a daily basis, but he kept his job. We know that there were people who would not give him loans and didn't want him to be able to do his banking and things as far as that. But because he had already seen his children to be adults and he knew how to farm and he knew how to work — that's the one thing he did know — he was able to sustain his property and his home.
Jennifer Errick: McGuire and her family are determined to preserve her grandfather's property in a way that honors him. She wants more people to know his role in the story of the march.
DaVine Hall McGuire: I just think, wow, what a brave man. What a smart man.
Jennifer Errick: McGuire has already taken steps to keep the existing property in good condition. Much of the land is actively used and farmed by members of her family. Though some of the structures from 1965 no longer exist or have fallen into disrepair.
DaVine Hall McGuire: The home itself needs a lot of care. The foundations are still there as far as the barn, the outhouse. There was a chicken house, a smokehouse, and the foundation to the house that was next door. Then the house itself, it needs a lot of care. I have tried to wrap it and keep it wrapped so that it's not weathering. Also, some of the windows have broken out, so we have been able to salvage windows from other structures that are of that time period, and I have them stored there, and I've just tried to keep it in a state that it could be preserved.
Jennifer Errick: McGuire's family has also worked to maintain trails that look much the same as they did when civil rights leaders walked through her grandfather's yard nearly 60 years ago. McGuire wants visitors to someday feel the same inspiration on those trails that she does.
DaVine Hall McGuire: It is a feeling that is unbelievable. When I walk through those trees, I feel the spirit of all of the foot soldiers and all of the people who put their lives on the line. I stand there sometimes and look up, and I can imagine that Dr. King or Ralph Abernathy or John Lewis or Miss JoAnne Bland would've been there. There are so many people who would've been going through there, and their spirit is stamped in that soil.
Jennifer Errick: Though Hall passed away before McGuire was born, her family's memory of him is strong, and she embraces the values of the simple life her grandfather lived. Values that are still part of the region's rural farming culture. Sometimes when she's stuck on a problem, she says, she asks herself what her grandfather would've done, and she tries to picture what the march must have felt like for him.
DaVine Hall McGuire: There's many days I stand in that yard and I can feel my grandfather probably standing there at the door looking as they walked out, saying, "Whoa, what have I done? What's going to happen? Is it going to make a difference?" I'm sure all these things went through his mind.
Jennifer Errick: She wants others to be able to feel this history the way she does.
DaVine Hall McGuire: That is the dream just to walk through that row of trees. It changes you. It literally changes you.
Cheryl Gardner Davis: It's a story that I've always wanted to tell but didn't know how to tell it.
Jennifer Errick: Cheryl Gardner Davis is the daughter of Robert and Mary Gardner, who owned the land where participants camped on the third night of the march.
Cheryl Gardner Davis: When my parents talked about it, it was like a matter of fact, "Oh, yeah, that happened here." So that's how we grew up. It's like, "Oh, yeah, it happened here. That was true." Every time I hear someone say, "Oh, your parents had something to do with the passage of the Civil Rights Act," it's still shocking to me to hear that.
Jennifer Errick: Davis, the youngest of four children, was just four years old when marchers camped on her parents' land. She has vivid memories of that night, but she didn't fully understand what was happening at the time.
Cheryl Gardner Davis: I remember there were cars everywhere. There were people everywhere. I remember a lot of singing, a lot of talking. I remember one of my older brothers, we are 2.5 years apart. So, we snuck out of the house and went up to one of the tents to peek under, and there was somebody at the front speaking to the group. It looked like he saw us, and I don't think he did, but of course, I ran back because we weren't supposed to be out anyway.
Jennifer Errick: It wasn't until Davis was in sixth grade learning about the march in school when she finally understood why hundreds of people had stayed in her yard that night.
Cheryl Gardner Davis: We were talking about it in class, and the teacher said to me, "Well, Cheryl, you should know about the march." I said to her, "Why should I know about the march?" She said, "Ask your mother." So I said, "Well, mom, why am I supposed to know about the Selma to Montgomery march?" She said, "I'll tell you when we get home." That's when she brought out, gave me the Jet Magazine with the writeup, and that's when she started telling me about it. Then the images came back. I was like, "Oh, I remember that's what that was about."
Jennifer Errick: Davis's family provided a vital site along the march route, and they learned about the event through their connection to A.G. Gaston, a businessman who had supported Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Reverend Ralph Abernathy in their efforts to desegregate Birmingham.
Cheryl Gardner Davis: My dad's sister, Minnie Gaston was married to A.G. Gaston, so as the organizers were planning, they needed a third campsite. So, my uncle told the organizers, "When you get to Lowndes County, ask for Robert Gardner. The family owns property on Highway 80. Ask if he would allow you all to camp there." I don't think there was any other Black-owned land in that area, so that property was very crucial.
Jennifer Errick: Like David Hall, the Gardners agreed to participate, understanding the risks, but believing the cause was worth the danger.
Cheryl Gardner Davis: They didn't have the right to vote, and they wanted their children to have the right to vote. Prior to that, they had not participated in any of the marches or any of the voter's right activities. Voting was very important to them, so they thought this was their contribution to the cause.
Jennifer Errick: Like Hall, the Gardners faced repercussions for their actions.
Cheryl Gardner Davis: There were threats, there were bribes. My mom's job was threatened. She was a schoolteacher at the time in the Lowndes County school system with an all-white board and a white superintendent. The board went to the superintendent to get her fired. Because any teacher who participated in any type of voting rights activities, they were fired from their job.
Jennifer Errick: Fortunately, Davis's mother was able to keep her job because the land was in her husband's name, and she claimed that he had made the decision, not her. Still, the family faced threats of physical violence, and Davis estimates that they remained under FBI surveillance for six months to a year after the march, for their protection. At one point, federal agents discovered a man with a gun near their house.
Cheryl Gardner Davis: Our neighbor had a high-powered rifle pointed in the direction of the property, waiting on my father to make his rounds, to check on the cattle. It was the FBI who were making their rounds on the property to make sure that there were no bombs or anything. He and my father had a very contentious relationship. So, there was always something between the two of them, and he was very, very racist. I remember my father saying that we were not allowed to go anywhere alone, that an adult had to be with us at all times, and that somebody had to know where we were.
Jennifer Errick: Despite having hundreds of activists in their yard, a threatening neighbor and federal officers watching them, the family and the community kept quiet about what had happened.
Cheryl Gardner Davis: It was probably the best-kept secret that everybody knew about, because no one was allowed to talk about it. I remember asking my aunt, who was also a teacher at the school, I said, "Well, what was the mood like after you all went back to school?" She said, "As if nothing happened. We didn't say anything. We didn't look at each other. We just went on about our day as if nothing happened." Because of the possibilities of the retaliation.
Jennifer Errick: Davis's parents were ultimately able to vote, but members of the community weren't taking any chances.
Cheryl Gardner Davis: When the teachers registered, they all got together and said, "We are all going down as one because they can't fire all of us." After school, they all left at the same time, and all of them went down and they registered to vote at the same time.
Jennifer Errick: Even after the Voting Rights Act passed, white officials continued to place barriers at the polls to try to prevent Black residents from voting. One of their methods was to conduct a discriminatory test.
Cheryl Gardner Davis: I remember having a conversation with my mother. She said as part of her test, she had to recite her alphabets, and that was the first time I've ever felt, and I heard, that shame in her voice. Because here she is, a college-educated schoolteacher. Surely the person that was giving her the test probably was not educated at all — but asking her to recite her alphabet. How degrading. Oh, my gosh. It just tore my heart.
Jennifer Errick: Davis and her family aren't yet sure what they want to do with their property, which is still a working farm, now run by Davis's son. She shares that the original home where her father was born and where she was raised is falling in. But despite the state of disrepair, the family allows visitors who schedule in advance to tour the property. Davis's son plans to teach young people farming there in addition to sharing the civil rights history.
Cheryl Gardner Davis: What we would like to do is to remind people of the sacrifices that other people made. When you think about the march, you hear about the campsites, but you don't get to know the people and what they went through on the campsites. Just to tell that story and to show that there were so many moving parts.
Jennifer Errick: Davis herself continues to learn about the march that she once saw through the eyes of a child.
Cheryl Gardner Davis: It still, for some reason seems surreal, even though I've lived it. I've always known it. People around have always known it. But we've never talked about it.
Jennifer Errick: The 1965 march route between Selma and Montgomery is part of the National Park System, but aside from basic historic markers, there is no interpretation at the campsites. Phillip Howard has been working with the three families to explore how they want their part of this history preserved. In 2021, he produced a documentary with filmmaker Michele Forman and director Claire Haughey, “54 Miles to Home.” It features McGuire, Davis and many other family members who are stewarding these lands.
Phillip Howard: The beautiful thing here is that the families that owned the properties in 1965, they own the properties today. Now the homes are in disrepair, and we're trying to figure out how to support the families to ensure that the homes are not lost, because they tell a great story of a community coming together and being a part of something so much bigger than themselves.
Jennifer Errick: The film also shares the story of Rosie Steele, an entrepreneur who owned land and a community store along the route. She allowed protestors to stay on her property on the second night of the march.
Phillip Howard: Miss Rosie Steele, who was 79 years old at the time of the march, Miss Steele was born in 1889, and the child of former enslaved people. She would go on to be widowed at 24, and she would go on to be a landowner. She would go on to be an entrepreneur. She would go on to own land in three counties. Even in this environment of danger, you have these stories of African Americans still thriving, still succeeding, still taking care of their families, and Miss Rosie Steele, her story is just phenomenal. When she was asked to do this, it was not a thought in her mind — "I am going to do this." She lived in Lowndes County, in one of the most horrible places, where they could shoot a Black man in the middle of the street, and nothing happened. Here's this woman saying that I am not going to be scared.
Jennifer Errick: After the march, Rosie Steele may have faced the most severe retribution of all, though it can't be proven.
Phillip Howard: Her family has said that after the march, her store burned down, her home burned down. Some people in our family said it was because a curtain caught on fire. Others believed that it was intentional. Of course, it wasn't investigated or anything like that by the police.
Jennifer Errick: Howard helped bring the three families together for the first time to discuss preservation at the local level and to hear their concerns and priorities.
Phillip Howard: What we found out was there was no connectivity. The families had never even been in the same room to discuss what they had been a part of. So, we began developing relationships, and it grew into this program that we now have where we're trying to find ways to help preserve and protect this African American history.
Jennifer Errick: Howard has facilitated conversations across the three counties where the march took place, as well as many of the surrounding areas. He has involved the Park Service in these conversations and helped to build bridges between the families and the agency.
Phillip Howard: We've had several community engagement meetings over the past year, and the National Park Service has been to almost all of them. There is certainly a need for local and communities to understand better what the National Park Service can do for these sites. There's a lot of mistrust that has been built up in these communities with plans and people coming in saying they're going to do A, B, C and D, and nothing ever happens. So, we're being intentional about ensuring that we go at the speed that the community wants us to go.
Jennifer Errick: The coalition of advocates is working to document a more complete history of events, and Howard plans to release a visioning document later this year in preparation for the 60th anniversary of the march next year.
Phillip Howard: It feels like we're doing something new where there hasn't been a regional approach that included this group of people, the actual stewards of the history.
Jennifer Errick: Howard recently became a preservationist after a career in law enforcement.
Phillip Howard: When the pandemic hit, my wife and I just decided that, if possible, we would want to be doing what we love to do at the end of this. During that period, I met a Freedom Rider Charles Person in Anniston. He was the youngest Freedom Rider, one of the original 13. I always loved history. The pandemic, you couldn't do anything, so I just started reading as many books as I could. Then I realized that the places that they're talking about are right here. I started visiting places, and I realized that a lot of the African American history is in terrible condition.
Jennifer Errick: People enjoy going to museums, Howard told me, but experiencing history where it happened brings our understanding to a different level.
Phillip Howard: There is the Lowndes County Interpretive Center. There's the Selma Interpretive Center, and there's the Montgomery Interpretive Center. You have buildings where you can go and learn about these stories. But if I got on a soapbox, it would be this one. We do a good job of building new spaces to house old history, when we could do an awesome job of finding those authentic spaces where the history was born, and it lives to this day, and trying to find ways to invest in those spaces and allow people the authentic experience of visiting where the event happened.
Jennifer Errick: But Howard emphasizes that we don't have the luxury of time.
Phillip Howard: If we don't do anything, we're going to look up in 5 or 10 years, and large parts of this story is going to be lost. That to me is just unacceptable. I believe this is the most important historical preservation project anywhere in the country. I try to always bring that sense of, we have to do this now. We don't have 5, 10 years of planning. This has to be now work. If we don't do something, we're going to be missing a large part of our history.
The Secret Lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association.
Episode 26, Stamped in the Soil, was produced by me, Jennifer Errick, with help from Todd Christopher, Bev Stanton and Linda Coutant.
Special thanks to Eboni Preston, acting director of NPCA’s Southeast Region.
Original theme music by Chad Fischer.
Learn more about the film “54 Miles to Home” at southernexposurefilms.org
Learn more about the Conservation Fund at conservationfund.org
Learn more about this podcast and listen to the rest of our stories at thesecretlivesofparks.org
For more than a century, the National Parks Conservation Association has been protecting and enhancing America’s national parks for present and future generations. With more than 1.6 million members and supporters, NPCA is the nation’s only independent, nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to protecting national parks.
And we’re proud of it, too.
You can join the fight to preserve our national parks and their history. Learn more and join us at npca.org
Cheryl Gardner Davis: It is huge. This is my chance to now give them that recognition that they never had.
Jennifer Errick: Hey, if you made it this far, I hope it's because you enjoyed the story. I know that I really enjoyed putting it together. If you subscribe and leave us a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts, you could help us reach more people so they hear it too. Thank you as always for listening.