By Josie Shaw
On Aug. 22, Montevallo’s City Council approved the production of an African American Heritage Trail to commemorate Black history within the Montevallo community.
Dr. Kathy King and Anitka Stewart Sims are currently leading the project, and created a presentation to the City Council introducing 14 new historical markers. King has drawn up a map detailing 10 spots located around Main Street, creating a 1-mile-long trail.
Talk of the heritage trail began in 2016. Rev. Kenny Dukes, current President of the Shelby County NAACP, introduced the idea to previous Montevallo mayor Dr. Hollie Cost.
King said, “She announced on MLK Day in front of a huge audience that the city was going to be launching an African American Heritage trail.”
After that moment, Dukes began work on the trail by forming a committee, until COVID-19 shut down the plans.
In 2019, the Montevallo Community Remembrance Project formed a coalition to work with the Equal Justice Initiative on bringing acknowledgement to a double lynching that happened in Montevallo in 1889.
The Equal Justice Initiative is a nonprofit Alabama based organization that is dedicated to ending mass incarceration by representing illegally convicted citizens. One of their projects includes researching and archiving locations where African Americans have been lynched. This archive is public to see at The Legacy Museum in Montgomery.
The marker was placed on Main Street in June 2020 with a commemoration.
With Dukes’s approval, King revived the project in 2020. At this time, King was appointed to serve on the Montevallo Historical Preservation Commision. Joyce Jones, former mayoral candidate of Montevallo, was the head of the commission, and decided to make the heritage trail their lead project.
In this commission, Sims stepped up to work with King on finding Montevallo citizens to tell their stories connected towards Montevallo’s Black history.
King and Sims research for the trail has been publicized monthly in “The Chamber Chatter,” a newsletter published by the Montevallo Chamber of Commerce. Their column is titled “Untold Stories of Black Montevallo,” and highlights local historical citizens and their stories. These stories will eventually be incorporated into the heritage trail.
The “Untold Stories of Montevallo” column is now beginning its second year of publication.
“It has been a very important initial step because we are learning, we are educating and making people more aware, and we’ve been gaining more trust in the community because they see we have been telling these stories honestly and responsibly by putting black experience at the center of it,” said King.
King continued, “Erasure pretty much describes what has happened. We are trying to bring back the figures of the black board that have been erased the best we can with memories.”
King and Sims have ultimately done most of the work for the trail up to this point, but are hoping to expand their team in the future. King said, “I’ll go to the court house, and look at probate records, and try to get the history that is reduced to writing in our legal system, and Anitka gets on the phone and talks to people.”
The original idea for the trail was to commemorate firsts in the Montevallo Black community, for example the first Black doctor in Montevallo.
“That’s a really hard thing to do, and to document.”, said Dr. King.
Initial locations picked for the trail were Ward Chapel AME Church, Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church and Montevallo Middle School. The middle school was previously Montevallo’s all Black high school, Prentince High School. The title of the high school was dedicated to former Montevallo citizen Rev. Prentince.
Knowing that Prentince was an important figure in the Montevallo Black community, King researched him using archival microfilms recorded from Southern Baptist Conventions that she found at Samford’s special collections.
“I spent time at Samford going through microfilms and trying to find any reference to Joseph Prentince, and found a lot. And so, we were able to reconstruct the context of his career.”, said Dr. King.
“I would be sitting there going through the microfilm and find something exciting, so I’d text Anitka what it is. She, in the meantime, is on the phone trying to find his descendants,” said King.
King decided to dedicate her resources and passion towards uncovering local Black history. “In the white community, sorry to say it, but there’s an attitude of indifference and neglect towards Black history,” said King.
On Aug. 22, Montevallo’s city council approved King and Sim’s plan for the Heritage trail.
Only two council members, Sonya Swords and Martha Eisenberg, voted against the resolution. Both Swords and Eisenberg have declined to comment about this decision.
Because of the multi-hundred-dollar pricing of producing, distributing, and installing an individual marker, the heritage trail will continue to grow over the next few years. King and Sim’s are still awaiting an approved budget for the trail, but hope to finish unveiling the markers throughout the next 4 to 5 years.
King said, “What we are doing now, because it is a city approved project right from the start, we are going to have to be more bland, evenhanded, and less interpretive.”
King doesn’t believe that the project will see much public opposition, since the city council and the Black Heritage Council will have to approve all of the language.
The Black Heritage Council is a part of the Alabama Historical Commission.
“I don’t think we could have moved forward as quickly as we have been in the council but for the mayor who really wants to see this happen.” said King.
King said, “It has been a very different experience than trying to bring the lynching marker here, which had open and sometimes hateful opposition.”
“They have a message, they have a vision, and they wanted their perspective to be on that marker. Their emphasis was focused on the widespread application of racial terror, and that made a lot of people uncomfortable.” said King.
King doesn’t believe that there will be anything on the trail that will upset citizens. King followed up saying, “What does make people uncomfortable is an emphasis on racial consciousness.”
King used to be a professor at UM within the English Department. She continued her career by becoming the Director of Faculty Development and Collaboration within the last 5 years of her teaching.
She moved to Montevallo in 1989 as an assistant professor. She previously lived in Atlanta where she got her PhD at Emory University.
“I was not prepared for rural Alabama. I was so naïve coming from Atlanta thinking I was a southerner.” said King.
Throughout her career, King was motivated by recovering the lost history of British women writers from the 18th century.
“I was very much influenced by, and animated by, third wave feminism, and the desire to recover history.” said King.
This interest developed into the curiosity of Montevallo’s own history that had been forgotten or make secretive.
“The goal has been to emphasize the agency of the African American community and the individuals within. I’ve tried to face myself as much as possible, and try to find the words of people from that community to capture that history.” said King.
King recommends reading Chamber Chatter to read the unveiled historical stories about Montevallo’s Black history.