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Prominent home in civil rights may be museum

July 9, 2009 at 2:09 a.m.


SELMA, Ala. (AP) — First impressions can be misleading, especially when they involve a decaying yellow house that appears ready to collapse on Lapsley Street near Selma University.

Pedestrians and motorists look at it and shake their heads, wondering how it got that way and if something could have been done to save it.

What few realize is the importance of the dilapidated house. It's the place where civil rights history was written, where George Washington Carver, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other American luminaries visited or spent the night.

Amelia Boynton Robinson lived in the house for 50 years, moving in with her first husband in 1929. Soon, they began showing black residents how to register to vote in Selma. It didn't do much good, not back then. It would take more than three decades for that to happen.

It all came to a head on a Sunday in 1965 when Robinson, then a widow, joined hundreds of other activists as they tried to walk to Montgomery to urge then-Gov. George Wallace to ease barriers to voter registration for blacks.

She became a victim — beaten by Alabama state troopers who used clubs and gas to rout the marchers. Photographs showed her slumped on the Edmund Pettus Bridge after the attack.

After medical treatment, Robinson eventually returned to her house where she had time to recover and reflect on what had just happened.

Robinson remarried, moved to Tuskegee, became a widow a second time and kept working on civil rights projects. What distressed her to no end was watching her house slowly fall apart before her eyes over the years.

"It brings me to tears whenever I see it," she said. "I won't drive by it. I can't stand to see what has become of it."

Last October, the Alabama Historical Commission added the house to its "Places in Peril" list, raising awareness, especially in civil rights circles.

James Brown and Genise Kemp-Brown of East Point, Ga., have taken note and they are working hard to give the house a new life and a new mission.

Their goal is to turn it into a wax museum honoring leaders of the voting rights movement, which reached its apex in Selma.

"If it wasn't for Mrs. Boynton, I don't think (President) Obama would be president today," James Brown said. "What she and the others did helped bring that about."

Brown and his wife estimate that $250,000 will be needed to complete the restoration project.

They said they have received federal commitments of about $20,000 in grants and have spent about $12,000 of their own money to begin removing debris from the house.

The couple said a Tuskegee artist will create wax figures of those who helped lead protests that ended voter discrimination against blacks in Alabama. The Boyntons are expected to be among the first figures.

The house, which was used as a headquarters to plan the protests, has changed hands several times in recent years, but the Browns say the buck stops with them.

Carver Boynton, who grew up in the house and has fond memories of it, said Tuesday that she did not realize the historic significance of it until she was in college.

"When I became a young adult I really began to appreciate what it meant to the movement," said Boynton, 35. "It's so sad to see what it's become today, and that's why I'm excited about the idea of turning it into a wax museum. I think it can work."

Her grandmother is just as convinced and plans to be around next March when the Browns say they'll open the museum. It's to be tied in with an annual event commemorating "Bloody Sunday" in 1965 — a day she was savagely beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

"Mrs. Boynton has never been one to toot her own horn," James Brown said. "We plan to do that for her and others who helped change history in Selma."

A contractor said the roof and foundation are in good shape considering the house's age, but extensive work will be needed to redo the interior.

The house had a coat of white paint when the Boyntons moved in 80 years ago. The yellow paint was added in recent years, and it wasn't long before it began to peel.

When and if the renovation is completed, it'll be a red-letter day for Amelia Boynton Robinson, who is only two years away from her 100th birthday.

___

Information from: Montgomery Advertiser, http://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com

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