MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Sarah Beatty Buller is a New York business owner and self-described “serial entrepreneur” who grew up in Sudbury, where it was easy to be a history buff. There were trips to the Wayside Inn, Louisa May Alcott’s house, Minute Man National Historical Park. She made grave rubbings at Concord’s Old Hill Burying Ground.
But her knowledge of the American South was a lot less nuanced — until a few years ago, that is, when it accelerated quickly. In 2012 her husband, Mark Buller, expanded his building material supply company to Alabama and she went to Montgomery for the first time.
Events she knew mainly from history books suddenly, soberly, became real. On almost every street corner in downtown Montgomery, a historical marker told of some seminal or turbulent event that transformed the country.
There was the elegant fountain in the Court Square area “that looked like it was from somewhere in Eastern Europe” but was once the center of the Montgomery slave trade. A few steps away was where Rosa Parks boarded the city bus and took a stand against Jim Crow. In the telegraph office across the street, the communication was sent ordering troops to fire on Fort Sumter, which triggered the Civil War. Within walking distance is Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King preached in the 1950s and launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Also on Dexter, thousands of activists completed the Selma to Montgomery Freedom March for voting rights in 1965. There were lunch counter sit-ins at department stores.
Yet the streets were empty. Buildings were boarded up and blighted. There was absolutely no foot traffic. If a tumbleweed had rolled down Dexter Avenue, it wouldn’t have been surprising.
“All these amazing moments of history happened here,” Buller remembers thinking. “Why doesn’t anyone physically walk on this ground?”
Not one to run away from a challenge, Buller, 53, decided to do something about it.
She and her husband purchased 13 old buildings and launched “Montgomery Builds,” an ambitious initiative to rebuild, and reinterpret, these culturally relevant historic spaces. It’s part urban renewal, part historic preservation, part incubator for small businesses, part public art project, and part effort to build community.
And it’s a facet of a major revitalization of the city of Montgomery that’s drawing a new and diverse generation who want to change the narrative of the city, to reflect on and come to terms with its segregationist past. This includes, most notably, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and its counterpart, the Legacy Museum, which opened here a few months ago, founded by prominent civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson. Together they explore the country’s ugly history of slavery, lynchings, segregations, Jim Crow, and other racially-motivated injustices.
“A reporter asked me, ‘So, Mayor, how does it feel to have the country’s only lynching museum?’ ” said Montgomery’s mayor, Todd Strange. “Well, I did a tap dance around it, and then I said, ‘History is not always a pretty sight.’ ”
Sarah Buller’s background hadn’t exactly prepared her for a project that merged building restoration with reconciliation.
She’d majored in sociology at Harvard and had been a marketing executive at MTV. She founded and owned two businesses — Green Depot, a distributor of environmentally-friendly building materials, and Greenmaker Industries, which manufactures sustainable products.
But she was passionate about history and restoration, and just couldn’t bear to let this rich legacy crumble away. “Coming from Boston,” she said, “I really believe in the importance of connecting people to history.”
She added: “Our vision is not to demolish old historic buildings but embrace them, have new structures grow up from them that will serve as platforms for creativity, community, innovation, and healing,” she said.
If there’s a city in need of healing, Montgomery would be a strong candidate.
For a lot of Americans, the painful era of civil rights battles is over and done with, but for many in Montgomery it’s still real and alive.
Valda Harris Montgomery was born in 1947, grew up two houses away from Martin Luther King’s home, and vividly remembers the loud explosion that rocked her house when she was 10, shattering 14 windows in her grandmother’s house next door. Sticks of dynamite had been placed at the cab stand across the street.
“It took many years for me to get over the sound of breaking glass,” said Montgomery, whose home was a meeting spot for King and the young Freedom Riders who used nonviolent protests to end racial segregation in public transportation.
“Montgomery was a rigidly segregated city during my childhood and my parents’ childhood and their parents’ childhood,” said Richard Bailey, a Montgomery historian and writer born in 1947.
“We knew where the back door was. We knew where the colored water fountain was. We knew where the colored restrooms were. When you purchased your item, if you were a black female and wanted to try on undergarments, you had to promise to buy them. Not only that, if you were at the cash register and there was a white person in front of you, the salesperson would say, “May I help you?” and that person’s change was placed in his or her hand. If you were black, the sales person just looked at you. Your change was placed on the counter for you to pick up.”
Scenarios like this were played out day after day in Montgomery in stores like the S.H. Kress Department Store, a glorious 1896 edifice with tall columns and Art Deco and Italian Renaissance design elements that suggested a stature grander than its reality as a five-and-dime store. The front door — for whites only — was on Dexter Avenue, the center of commerce for white folks. The back door was on Monroe Street, the black people’s business district.
It was shuttered in 1981 after white Montgomery residents fled to the suburbs, in “a quiet response to the advancement of black people’s rights,” Bailey said.
Kress is the first building the Bullers tackled because it’s such a strong symbol of Montgomery’s past. Even the building materials reflect the racial divide. The marble flooring ends close to the “Colored” Monroe Street entrance, where it abruptly switches to concrete. During the restoration, workers uncovered huge slabs of marble — they look like tombstones — that denoted the segregated water fountains. One is engraved with the word “COLORED.” The other says “WHITE.” The fact that they were made in marble suggests they were meant to be there forever.
And in a way they are. The Bullers converted the old building to an airy, modern, mixed-use hub including apartments, an art exhibition space, and small businesses.
When you enter the new Kress building on the Monroe Street side, the first thing you see are those segregation-era slabs, which the Bullers reinstalled in the foyer. During the official opening last April, they were unveiled in a formal ceremony, on Holocaust Remembrance Day. It was “a special moment for the local community to come together, reflect, and move forward,” Buller said.
The building houses a diverse array of small businesses, reflecting the diversity of the city and honoring “the integrity of the space,” Buller said. It includes an art exhibit space, featuring work by contemporary Alabama artists and “compulsive makers.”
There’s Prevail Coffee Roasters, a hub of activity all day long. There’s the Chop Shop, a rare barber shop catering to both blacks’ and whites’ hair styles. There’s a recording and podcast studio called StoryBooth, where people can record their stories, which are then published online.
There’s “More Than Tours” a civil rights tour company owned by artist and activist Michelle Browder, whose family intersects with civil rights history. Her father, Curtis Browder, was the first black prison chaplain in Alabama: He was asked to minister to Robert Chambliss, the white supremacist terrorist convicted of murder in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham that killed four young girls in 1963. Her aunt Aurelia Browder Coleman was a Montgomery activist arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white person.
Her tours go far beyond the standard destinations, and even now include a visit to Rosa Parks’s little house, not normally open to the public. With a little encouragement, she’ll break into a civil rights-era song.
Meanwhile, Montgomery seems galvanized in other ways. New galleries are opening around town. Eclectic restaurants are popping up. Most significantly, Buller has mobilized a massive undertaking in conjunction with the famed French photographer known as JR. It’s part of a global arts project in more than 100 cities — including at the Louvre in Paris, Times Square in New York, and the Pantheon in Rome — where “we’ll take people’s portraits and literally plaster them all over the outside of the building, to amplify a message. Our message is “We are the dream.”
It’s already started. More than 2,000 photos of Montgomery residents will go up in April, mounted on one of Buller’s buildings on Dexter Avenue “It’s where so many people have stood up with resilience,” she said. “You’ll see the diversity, the strength, and character of people today.”
“Montgomery is going through this moment, ” said Todd Schmidt, the new executive director of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. The company had just staged a production of “Four Little Girls: Birmingham 1963,” about those four young girls killed in the Birmingham church. “We have to own up to our history, understand it, embrace it, and learn from it,” he said.
“It’s something to make all of us feel proud,” said historian Bailey. “This is our past. This is not our present. And it’s certainly not our future.”