February 1, 2022 |Gretchen Hoffmann

Freedom Riders Journey Continues to Inspire

The History

In May 1961, an interracial group now known as the Freedom Riders boarded two buses in Washington, D.C. with plans to travel to New Orleans through several southern cities. Their goal was to shed light on unconstitutional state and local segregation laws and practices in the south.

By May 14, they had made it as far as Atlanta, Georgia. That morning, buses carrying the Freedom Riders left Atlanta and traveled to Anniston, Alabama, where, upon arrival at the Greyhound Bus Depot, the first bus and its riders were violently attacked by a segregationist mob. When the bus was finally able to depart, driving away on slashed tires, it was followed and attacked again six miles outside of Anniston. The Freedom Riders struggled to escape as members of the mob firebombed the bus and then attempted to trap them inside the burning bus. Media coverage of this violence against the Freedom Riders inspired many Americans to take action and resulted in the Federal Government finally taking steps to ban segregation in interstate bus travel.

Firebombed Freedom Riders bus outside Anniston, Alabama. Photo by Joseph Postiglione.

Freedom Riders National Monument was established by President Obama in January 2017 to preserve and interpret those sites where the Freedom Riders were attacked both in downtown Anniston’s Greyhound Bus Depot and outside the city on Old Birmingham Highway (now known as Highway 202). The local community, National Park Service (NPS), The Conservation Fund, City of Anniston, Calhoun County, and Freedom Riders Park Inc. all played an important role in creating the monument. Many people worked for years to make this vision a reality, including Alabama State Representative Barbara Boyd and Pete Conroy, Director of Jacksonville State University’s Environmental Policy and Information Center, whose work through Freedom Riders Park Inc. was a driving force in this effort.

“Every connection is an opportunity to do something new,” said Pete Conroy, co-chair of Freedom Riders Park Inc. “There’s no particular formula, but having relationships and connections with NPS, The Conservation Fund, and federal and state governments—and most importantly local connections with the mayor’s office, city council, and chamber of commerce—was key. Getting everyone in as early as possible for buy-in and true ownership of the concept made this possible.”

Unveiling of the official sign during the dedication celebration of Freedom Riders National Monument on May 13, 2017 in front of the Historic Greyhound Bus Station in Anniston, Alabama. From left to right: Barbara Boyd (State Representative), Glenda Gaither Wright (Freedom Rider), Hank Thomas (Freedom Rider), Tom Medema (NPS Chief of Interpretation, Education, and Volunteers), David Reddick (Anniston City Councilman), Jack Draper (Anniston Mayor), Charles D. Gregory, Sr (Pastor and High School Principal), Reggie Tiller (Freedom Riders NM Superintendent), Pete Conroy (Co-chair Freedom Riders Park Board), Bonny Wright (NPS Realty Specialist), and Bill Harbour (Freedom Rider and Co-chair of Freedom Riders Park Board). Photo by NPS.

What’s the Monument Like Five Years Later?

The successful creation of this new national park site came with a lot of pride and excitement, but not much in the way of staff, funding or infrastructure. Initially, many NPS staff members from other locations rotated through to help get this site up and running; some were even known to work out of the local Starbucks from time to time. Kris Butcher was named the first permanent superintendent in October 2019, and he is now joined by Park Ranger and Education Specialist Jessica Epperson; both are excited about the future of Freedom Riders National Monument.

Superintendent Butcher and Ranger Epperson now have dedicated office space near the Anniston Greyhound Bus Depot. Currently, the bus depot building is only used for special programs and exhibits, but future visitor services and renovations are being planned. There are also interpretive panels and a painted mural on the building next to the bus depot where visitors can read and learn about the attack on the Freedom Riders standing in the place where it happened.

Standing in the alley between the bus station and mural building, you can really imagine what it was like to be on that bus with dozens of hateful people crowded outside. Retaining these original buildings will help tell the complete story of what happened to the Freedom Riders in Anniston. With financial assistance from the National Park Foundation, the building on which the mural is painted was acquired by The Conservation Fund in 2018, and the Fund transferred ownership of the mural building to the NPS in 2022.

Left: The Greyhound Bus Depot and mural on adjacent building. Photo by NPS. Right: Local artist Joseph Giri working on restoring his mural of the Greyhound Bus. Photo by Freedom Riders Park Inc.

Six miles outside of town, the site of the bus burning now has interpretive panels and a lighted sign designating it as part of the Freedom Riders National Monument.

Left: The three-sided interpretive panel at the bus burning site. Right: The sign designating the site as part of Freedom Riders National Monument is now illuminated and eye-catching. Photos by NPS.

“The main struggle has been finding opportunities to provide to the public until we have full visitor services,” said Ranger Epperson. “We engage with the community by supporting the City of Anniston with their events, like the Noble Street Festival in April. We also celebrated Juneteenth in partnership with the City, and it was the kick-off to our free outdoor summer movie series in Zinn Park. We are very lucky to have a very supportive group of stakeholders, like State Representative Barbara Boyd, the City of Anniston, Jacksonville State University, and the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce.”

In fact, the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce currently hosts the interim visitors’ center, where you can find an interactive kiosk, park brochures, and obtain the Freedom Riders passport stamp and Junior Ranger books. Calhoun County Tourism Director Audrey Maxwell is considered an honorary member of the NPS team for her enthusiastic support and assistance. Audrey noted that visitors range from local school groups and families to out-of-state and international guests, and often are visiting more than one national park site along their journey.

“We’re so happy to partner with the National Parks Service,” shared Audrey. “The story of the Freedom Riders is one of bravery, and they are the true heroes here. One of the brochures we have asks the question, ‘Would you get on the bus?’ and it is really interesting to think about how you’d answer that question for yourself. One of my favorite things I get to help with is swearing in kids as Junior Rangers and giving them their metal pins.”

The vestibule of the Calhoun County Area Chamber & Visitors Center (left) is home to an interactive kiosk (center) that allows visitors to learn about the Freedom Riders Story. Photos by Visit Calhoun County. Kids can complete the Freedom Riders National Monument Junior Ranger Book (right) to receive an official Junior Ranger badge and certificate.  

Ranger Epperson also shared some favorite parts of her job. She said, “When I came to work at Freedom Riders National Monument, I had to learn the story in order to be able to share the story. Unlike some historical parks, this park has such a recent history that you have the unique opportunity to connect with people who lived it. As a steward of their story, it was amazing to have the opportunity to learn directly from the Freedom Riders themselves. One of the things that I find the most amazing about them is that this wasn’t just a one-time thing. They continued to participate and make a difference in their community and our country long after the Freedom Rides, and they continue to be exemplary human beings.”


Celebrating 60 Years and Counting

Original Freedom Riders Hank Thomas and Charles Person, along with many of the supporting partners already mentioned, gathered in Anniston in May 2021 to mark the 60th anniversary of the Freedom Rides. The City granted organizers permission to shut down the street outside the bus depot for an event, where guests listened to remarks by Mr. Thomas, Mr. Person and others before enjoying the premiere of the documentary film “The Fire in Anniston.” At the bus burning site, a candlelight vigil commemorated the events with song and reflection. NPS plans to light luminaries at the site each year from May 14 (the bus burning anniversary date) through June 19 (Juneteenth).

60th Anniversary events were held at both Freedom Riders National Monument locations: downtown Anniston outside the bus depot (left; photo by Pete Conroy) and at the site of the bus burning (right; photo by NPS).

The Conservation Fund is proud to have helped protect the history and land that is now Freedom Riders National Monument and to honor the courageous efforts of the Freedom Riders and their important place in history. We look forward to all the great things in store in Anniston.

Find out More

Read The National Park Service Protects the History of America’s Civil Rights Movement written by NPS Chief Historian Dr. Turkiya Lowe.

Watch the documentary “The Fire in Anniston: A Freedom Riders Story.”

Watch as actor and comedian Roy Wood Jr. interviews original Freedom Rider Charles Person about his life for the 60th anniversary of the Freedom Rides.

For the most updated information on programs and events, please follow Freedom Riders National Monument and Freedom Riders Park on Facebook.

Written by

Gretchen Hoffmann

In her role as Blog Manager, Gretchen Hoffmann helps share unique perspectives, projects and people from across The Conservation Fund and our partners. She enjoys being able to combine her passion for storytelling with her love of nature and conservation, and has worked on our blog, Redefining Conservation, since its launch in 2015. Gretchen holds a Master of Science in Biomedical Journalism from New York University and a Bachelor of Science from Cornell University. She lives in Westport, CT, where she enjoys playing tennis, working in her garden and being on the water with her family.