Symbolic Ala. ferry returns

Most black residents of tiny town think disappearance of boat was linked to their 1960s civil rights activism

September 19, 2006|By Cox News Service

GEE'S BEND, Ala. -- Nettie Young - farmer, quilter and 89-year-old grandmother of 16 - remembers taking the ferry across the Alabama River in the 1960s with other slave descendants from this remote river-bend settlement and landing 10 minutes later in Camden, the county seat, to march for the right to vote.

They were greeted on the other side, Young recalls, "by more people than I'd ever seen with guns." But she and the others still marched.

Then, one day in 1962, Young headed down to the landing to go back over to Camden, only to find the ferry nowhere in sight.

"It disappeared," she says. "I didn't know which way it went or why. I just knew it was gone."

So Young and the others piled into cars and drove more than an hour to the nearest bridge to march in Camden some more. Camden and the rest of the segregated South finally gave up and let them vote.

Now, more than four decades later, the ferry is back.

"Just like when it left. I don't know where it come from or why it come back," Young says. "I just know it's here."

The return of the Gee's Bend ferry is a peculiarly Southern tale, as winding, muddy and slow-moving as the water it crosses. It involves a reformed racist, the administrations of three governors and a desperate search for economic development in one of the state's poorest counties.

It also has been called a land grab, racial payback and pure folly, the latter a reference to the nearly $2 million spent on an occasional method of transportation that is likely to benefit, at least initially, no more than a few hundred people. The population of Gee's Bend is about 700, and the population of Camden is about 2,200.

But yesterday morning, under a broiling sun, state and local politicians - along with Gee's Bend's famous quilters, whose designs are on U.S. postage stamps - gathered on the landing in Camden to christen the 100-foot-long, 40-foot-wide boat and proclaim a new day.

"The reason the ferry closed is about as ugly a reason as you can have. It was a symbolic statement," said Rep. Artur Davis, a Democrat who represents Camden and Gee's Bend. "The opening of the ferry is another statement. That old Black Belt we used to have, the one where some people knew their place, is dead."

Gov. Bob Riley, a Republican who pushed to complete the ferry in this overwhelmingly Democratic county, said: "Better late than never. It's been 40 years. That's later. But it's here."

The history of Gee's Bend covers much of the black experience in the South, from its founding as a slave plantation to its providing the farm mules that pulled Martin Luther King Jr.'s funeral casket through Atlanta.

Sixty miles southwest of Montgomery, the swampy outback was settled in 1820 by Joseph Gee and the slaves who worked his 10,000-acre cotton plantation.

Gee's Bend attracted national attention in the 1930s, when a local merchant collected on debts and left many families without food or any way to make a living. The Red Cross distributed rations. The federal government bought the land and resold it to local residents in a cooperative program.

The community's lifeline to the rest of the county was largely through its ferry.

Various official reasons have been given for the ferry's removal. Some say it was moved downriver to accommodate workers at a new sawmill. But to most of the county's black residents, the reason was obvious.

"Whites took it out when we started the civil rights," said John Wheeler, 61, who lives in Camden.

Blacks in Gee's Bend got the right to vote, but the ferry didn't come back. Residents who could get jobs in Camden drove nearly an hour each way, up the peninsula's two-lane road, back down and over a bridge and then into town.

The roundabout commute was the price of living in a place where almost everyone was related, where keys could be left in the car and clothes could be dried on the front-yard fence.

Then along came Hollis Curl, publisher of Camden's weekly Progressive Era. Curl had fanned segregation's flames in the 1960s - "I was as racist as anybody" - and as a city judge once jailed 410 blacks for marching without a permit.

"I saw it as the destruction of our way of live," says Curl, now 71.

But one day in the early 1990s, Curl had what he calls "an epiphany." Segregation was not only immoral, he thought, but economic suicide for the county. His idea for making up for the sins of the past and righting the future was a front-page column calling for the return of the Gee's Bend ferry.

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