Apr. 10—The thing about Anniston's old Greyhound station that surprises Jessica Epperson most is the way segregation was built into its physical structure. Two sets of bathrooms. Marks on the floor where walls once separated black waiting rooms from white.
"Growing up in the South, there are signs of segregation everywhere that I never recognized," said Epperson, the park ranger at Freedom Riders National Monument in Anniston. "Seeing boarded-up doorways, seeing staircases on the sides of old theaters, where there were once 'colored' entrances — I saw them growing up, and I never knew that's what they were."
Tourists can now get a glimpse of some of that legacy in Anniston, now that the old Greyhound station on Gurnee Avenue is open to tourists on weekends. It's a small step toward the completion of the full site the federal government plans to complete here as a national monument to honor Anniston's place in civil rights history.
In May 1961, Black and white activists boarded buses to cross the Deep South states, challenging segregation in bus stations here and testing a Supreme Court decision that made segregated facilities illegal on interstate bus lines. They were greeted with violence in many Southern cities, including Anniston, where a white mob set fire to one of the Freedom Rider buses just outside of town.
Journalists' coverage of that attack, including The Anniston Star's photo of the burning bus, helped galvanize support for the civil rights cause.
The Obama administration in 2017 declared the Greyhound station and bus burning site a national monument — a move that came after years of local efforts to create a park at the site. For years, a steady stream of sightseers made their way to Anniston's Freedom Riders sites with little signage to guide them.
Today there's a mural of a bus in an alleyway next to the Greyhound station, with signs explaining the Freedom Riders story. And this month, for the first time, visitors can enter the Greyhound station itself, where park service officials have put up displays with information about other aspects of the civil rights movement.
As the site stands now, it would take a trained eye to see the civil rights history inside the building. Interior walls were knocked down years ago, and wood paneling covers much of the remaining walls. Still, there are glimpses of the institution-green tiles of the old restrooms from the building's years as a bus station.
The plan, Epperson said, is to restore the building to its original mid-century appearance as a bus station. Federal officials and park advocates have said the final national monument may also include a 1960s-style bus to take visitors to the bus burning site. Epperson said completion of that project is likely five or six years away.
For now, there are guides to explain what it all means.
"We're stewards of the story of the Freedom Riders," Epperson said. "We're here to learn as much as we can about those stories and experiences and share those with people."
The Greyhound station drew about 40 visitors on its first weekend open to the public earlier this month, U.S. Park Service officials said. Some families on vacation, taking a moment off Interstate 20 to see a civil right site. Some came for stamps in a national parks passport, a common practice for park service fans. Members of the local chamber of commerce stopped by as well.
On Saturday, the first visitors were prospective volunteers, hoping to work at the site themselves. Wellborn High School English teacher Charissa Lambert brought several of her students to the volunteer orientation.
"We're the school closest to the bus burning site," Lambert noted. She said she has been teaching the history of the Freedom Riders in her classes, in the context of what it says about a citizen's duties.
"Anniston's called the Model City," she said. "We talk about what that means, to be a model citizen."
Wellborn junior Kamryn Jackson, 17, said she came out of curiosity.
"I want to learn more, I want to know more, about the Freedom Riders," she said.
The Greyhound station is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.