June 3, 2021 |Phillip Howard | Land

Safe Shelter for Marchers and Support for a Movement

On March 22, 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sat and enjoyed a cup of coffee in a small home that refuses to be forgotten in history. Like thousands of other Civil Rights protesters marching from Selma to Montgomery from March 21-25, 1965, Dr. King was able to have a safe night’s sleep at the farm site of Mr. David Hall — a landowner and farmer whose important role in the Civil Rights movement has little been heard.

Along the 54-mile Selma to Montgomery March route, Mr. Hall was not the only individual to offer refuge, shelter, and safety to marchers at his farm site. In fact, at the risk of great harm, three families allowed the marchers to stay on their land, including David Hall, Rosie Steele and Robert Gardner. It would have been too dangerous for marchers to spend the night on the sides of the Alabama roadway. Private property was the only answer. Had it not been for these three farms, it’s likely that one of the most important marches in history would not have taken place.

Today, these sites are still proudly owned by the same families and are situated along the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail. However, the full story of these campsites — where Dr. King, Hosea Williams, John Lewis and other notable movement figures stayed during the 5-day march — has really never before been told.

6 3 21 Hall Farm Sign 2The farms can be seen along the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail.

While no records show that Mr. and Mrs. Robert Gardner, Mr. David Hall, or Ms. Rosie Steele had ever voted themselves, they each played a critical role in ensuring that their children and their children’s children could contribute their votes without fear or intimidation. All three families have remained proud stewards of their farms. However, many of the historic farm properties are now in poor condition, and the families are interested in stabilizing and preserving the historical buildings on the properties so they can better interpret the role their parents and grandparents played in securing the right for all Americans to vote.

6 3 21 Hall Farmhouse 36 3 21 Gardner Farmhouse 2
Pictured left: The old home of David Hall, where Dr. King sat for a cup of coffee before moving on towards the state capital; Pictured right: The old home of Robert Gardner.

On March 21, 1965, 4,000 marchers left Brown Chapel in Selma, Alabama to embark on the 54-mile trek to Montgomery, the state capital. On that first day, marchers walked a total of seven miles to the home of Mr. David Hall.

Mr. Hall, in possession of the farm since 1940, allowed marchers including Dr. King, to rest that night. The following morning Dr. King went inside the home to have coffee and thank the family for their hospitality. The second day marchers continued to the Rosie Steele Farm and then to the Robert Gardner Farm.

“My dad did what he did because he wanted his children to have a better life than him with more options. His courage is what I remember most about him,” said Mary Hall-McGuire, daughter of David Hall.

The Gardner family has been in possession of their land since slave owner Hugh Carson willed the 110-acre farm site to his enslaved mistress, Mrs. Gardner. The land, once owned by a former slave, literally freed African Americans from the bondage of Jim Crow laws and segregation.

“My great grandmother was a slave and the mistress of Mr. Carson,” said Cheryl Gardner, daughter of campsite owner Robert Gardner. “When he died, he left my great-grandmother 110 acres on which her descendants still reside.”

6 3 21 Families meeting6 3 21 Rosie Steele Sign 2Pictured left: The families of David Hall, Rosie Steele and Robert Gardner meeting for the first time. Photo by Phillip Howard; Pictured right: Signage of the Rosie Steele farm.

The preservation potential at these sites is immense and bringing the families together is a huge step. But there’s a lot more to be done. I was introduced to The Conservation Fund in Anniston, Alabama during our efforts to establish Freedom Riders National Monument. We recognized the opportunity to continue historic preservation work over at the Selma to Montgomery march campsites. Together, we’ve been proud to help tell the stories of David Hall, Rosie Steele, and Robert Gardner, and will continue to work in tandem will their families to help preserve their land not only for historic preservation, but for educational and economic opportunities for the entire community.

The sites were recently designated one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. We are grateful to the National Trust for helping us bring attention and recognition to important sites like this. Our immediate goals are to continue building partners and stakeholders to be a part of this historic effort, while seeking the required funding to stabilize the homes from further decay. The visibility of being on the 11 Most Endangered list provides greater awareness of these historically significant sites.

6 3 21 Logo NTHP

Many aspects of Alabama’s critical role in the Civil Rights movement have been lost in history. There is an ongoing need to better preserve places like the Selma to Montgomery campsites, where supporters continued to join until a crowd of 25,000 arrived at the state capitol building. The establishment of the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail was one of the very first bills that the late U.S. Representative John Lewis authored and passed through Congress. It is fitting that the National Trust, The Conservation Fund and our nation should continue to uphold this legacy for voting rights by partnering with the owners to preserve the symbols that commemorate this important milestone.

Written by

Phillip Howard

Phillip Howard is the Civil Rights People and Places Program Manager for The Conservation Fund. He is dedicated to preserving, restoring and raising awareness of the Civil Rights movement in his home state of Alabama.