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Former Bus Terminal to House African-American Museum - 2002-02-25


Many historic buildings in U.S. communities are being transformed for new uses. Butler Cain has the story of a bus station in the American South, built during the time of racial segregation, that will soon showcase African-American accomplishments and contributions.

An old Greyhound Bus terminal sits unused in the heart of downtown Dothan, Alabama. It's hardly noticeable. Nestled between two office buildings and surrounded by a chain link fence, there are no written signs that hint of the structure's controversial history. Four decades ago it was a symbol of racial segregation. During the 1960s, bus terminals like other public facilities throughout the American South, were divided into white areas and black areas. The building still has the separate entrance and restroom facilities that black customers were legally required to use. Today, those elements have a different social value, and they will become one of the centerpieces of a new African-American history museum.

"We are using that as one of the exhibits, and we are titling it 'A Symbol of Social Change.' We see it as a positive development," Francina Williams, executive director of the G.W. Carver Interpretive Museum in Dothan, explained. "That is the thrust of this museum, that we look at the positive elements that have happened, and especially in terms of the black experience."

Ms. Williams and a group of project volunteers have been dreaming of this opportunity for about a decade. Right now it's nothing more than a concept and an empty building. But the ideas are grand: she wants to encourage and inspire African-Americans by educating them about their history. The lesson begins with the museum's namesake George Washington Carver, one of America's premier agricultural scientists.

"He was to agribusiness what Thomas Edison was to the electric power industry, which is saying a lot. There might be people who would say 'you're kidding,' but I'm not kidding. I really believe he was that important to agribusiness," says retired economics professor Thomas Moore. The professor helped induct Dr. Carver into the Alabama Business Hall of Fame. Dr. Carver's experiments at the beginning of the 20th century revolutionized commercial agriculture in the American south, especially in Alabama. He encouraged farmers to preserve soil by replacing their cotton crops with peanuts, and that changed the course of economic history for the entire state. Now peanut farming is a multi-million dollar business.

Museum Director Francina Williams hopes to use Dr. Carver's fame to highlight other African-Americans who have not been as widely recognized.

"Everybody practically knows about Dr. Carver's contributions. But the reality is that black scientists and inventors played a major role in the entire development of America, particularly during the industrial revolution," she says. "And these facts are not generally shared in the teaching of American history."

The museum will include galleries devoted to the accomplishments of George Washington Carver and other black scientists and inventors. There will be a gallery depicting black heroes of military and social campaigns. Ms. Williams says the museum also will document the migration of Africans throughout the world and the impact the continent has had on human history.

"One of the things we have recognized is that when you talk about African history, you are talking everybody's history," says Ms. Williams. "It's where everybody started, and everybody dispersed from Africa into other parts of the world and influenced every part of the world."

But that influence has been achieved under harsh conditions at times. Ms. Williams says blacks have a heritage of victimization that cannot be ignored. She says that should be recognized, but the negative aspects seem to overshadow the positive moments in African-American history. She expects the new museum to restore some balance.

"It's important to have some idea of yourself as a worthy person, as a capable person, and your heritage is a part of that message," she notes. "When you constantly see yourself in a negative light, then it tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. And that's what we do see. That's what we've got to turn around."

And the city of Dothan is helping. It's providing the museum with some financial support, and it's already promoting the attraction to visitors. Amy Matthews is a spokesperson for the Dothan Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"A lot of people, really from all over the world, like to come to Alabama and they know about that, they know about the Civil Rights, and that's one of the things they associate with Alabama," Ms. Matthews explained. "So anything we can do to appeal to those people and help them learn a little bit more about that part of our history is good."

The G.W. Carver Interpretive Museum should open its doors by August and its director Francina Williams hopes to capitalize on Alabama's historic role at the center of America's civil rights movement. When visitors come to Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery to learn about the struggles that African-Americans have endured, she would like them to make a side trip to Dothan to see what African-Americans have contributed to Alabama, America and the world.

Part of VOA's Black History Month Series

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