Volunteers on Sunday replaced part of a sign, damaged by fire Saturday night, marking the site of the planned Freedom Riders Park on the spot where a mob in 1961 burned a bus carrying civil rights demonstrators.
Pete Conroy, the co-chair of the park's organizing committee, said the wooden sign announcing the park on Alabama 202 was burned by a fire set sometime Saturday night.
“It’s disappointing,” Conroy said. “But I think it emphasizes the need for understanding and education and the need for the kind of positivity that we’re trying to bring with this park.”
A back panel on the wooden sign was completely burned away. It told the story of the attack on Mother’s Day 1961, when a mob firebombed a bus carrying Civil Rights activists through the state testing a Supreme Court ruling mandating integration of travel facilities.
The front panel of the sign, facing Alabama 202 and reading “Future home of Freedom Riders Park” was partially burned. News of the burning quickly spread. Sunday evening one of the Freedom Riders, Hank Thomas, expressed his disbelief about the incident.
“I was obviously disappointed and a wee bit shocked because the last couple years I’ve seen Annistonians, black and white, work together and be very open in trying to put this past behind them,” Thomas said Sunday evening from his home in Atlanta. “I think this represents an undercurrent of racism still there.”
Thomas said he believes the incident can become a healing moment, and a chance for the white religious community in town to speak out against the past.
“This is a chance for them to say this is not the Anniston of today,” he said.
Conroy was met this afternoon by a group of about six volunteers to help replace the sign, including Cedric Duncan, a pastor at First Missionary Baptist Church in Anniston, who said a prayer at the site’s initial groundbreaking.
“Sadly, I wasn’t surprised,” Duncan said about hearing that the sign had been burned while at church this morning. “I was reminded of the ignorance some people have, but I was also reminded of the courage to stand up to that ignorance and hatred.”
Calls to investigators at the Anniston Police Department and Anniston Fire Department were not immediately returned Sunday afternoon.
The sign for the park was unveiled last month at a groundbreaking ceremony. Conroy said he hopes to kick off a national campaign to raise money to complete the park in the near future.
Conroy said he received several calls Sunday morning about the sign, including from state Rep. Barbara Boyd and Anniston Mayor-elect Vaughn Stewart.
“This act of intimidation would not have deterred the Freedom Riders 50 years ago, and it will not deter this community today,” Stewart said in a prepared statement. “Anniston will redouble its efforts to build the Freedom Riders Park and pay tribute to those American heroes.”
Conroy said Stewart was told by police there were no suspects yet, but there might have been a witness in the area sometime around 2 a.m.
Calhoun County Sheriff Larry Amerson said the Sheriff’s Office was not involved in the investigation of the incident, but was notified that Anniston Police Department knew about the fire and said deputies would be keeping a close eye on the area.
“It’s certainly disappointing when someone tries to destroy the improvements in our community,” Amerson said
Conroy said he hoped to replace the back panel sometime in the next few days.
Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.