2013 marks the 50th anniversary of many pivotal moments in the civil rights era in Alabama. The movement would lead to desegregation of schools and businesses in the Deep South. But, along with these victories, there were casualties along the way. Desegregation almost killed one small Alabama town.
“This used to be the main drag. The school would always have a homecoming parade, Christmas parade. So it was always kind of a celebration strip. And all these homes left and right, I knew everybody in these homes.”
Bernard Snow drives through the narrow, main strip of Hobson City. He’s familiar with the businesses and families that once thrived in this small Alabama town. That’s because he grew up here. Snow’s family was one of many that were part of a thriving all African American community. Today, things are different.
“Through here used to be our retail stores here. It’s all gone now and my grandparents own the café right there on this corner. Used to be a church right here on this corner. Used to be a sundry store on the corner to your right there where this building is. Followed by a beauty shop, another gasoline station, the barber shop.”
Hobson City could be easy to miss if you’re just passing through. About two miles long, the town sits between Anniston and Oxford. The city was once a part of Oxford, until an African American justice of the peace was elected from the area. Oxford’s mayor redrew the boundaries and kicked out Hobson City. The town was incorporated in 1899 as Alabama’s first all-black city.
“Nobody thought it would work because blacks were not used to governing themselves," says Hobson City Mayor Alberta McCrory. “In fact, some of the newspapers said it was a…refer to it as maybe a project, a test of some kind. And they would wait to see what happen. So here we are still existing in Hobson City in 2013.”
Like Bernard Snow, Mayor McCrory also grew up in Hobson City. She isn’t too far from where she went to class nowadays. That’s because City Hall was once the local school.
Today, much of the building is in disarray with peeling paint and leaky ceilings that are starting to fall in. But at one time, the school was a source of pride for Hobson City and was the town’s core. McCrory says a historic piece of legislation changed Hobson City forever.
“After the passing of the civil rights bill, we saw changes in Hobson City because it opened doors for us to go other places," says McCrory. "So the small businesses we had in Hobson City, like businesses in other small towns with the large companies coming in shutting them out. That’s what happened with Hobson City.”
McCrory says Hobson City had freedom of choice during the 1965-1966 school year. That meant students who used to attend segregated classrooms could choose to go to black or white schools. So, students in Hobson City could choose to stay in the local school or attend nearby Oxford, which was predominately white. McCrory says most chose to stay where they were.
“It took the court order to really desegregate the schools because people really wanted to stay where they were," says McCrory. "You know they had their own friends, their own school, they were involved in sports and music and all other activities and so they were comfortable staying where they were.”
McCrory says desegregation knocked down barriers, and ultimately that hurt Hobson City. After graduation, many students left and didn’t come back. Shops that were once “white only” in nearby Oxford and Anniston were now open to blacks as well. Hobson City stores and businesses that once relied on its residents as a solid customer base were forced to close. McCrory says she was active in the civil rights movement, and says she was thrilled to gain equal rights, but it came at a cost.
“Had I known then what I know now, that maybe I wouldn’t have gone to all the protest marches and then perhaps still would have marched because there needed to be changes in other areas," says McCrory. "But that if we had been able to maintain some of what we had instead of losing everything, because we did lose. And so you know that’s the price we have to pay.”
Mayor McCrory says she’s working to turn Hobson City’s fortunes around and bring it back as a thriving community. Some have expressed concerns that if Hobson City can’t make it, it’ll be swallowed up into Oxford or Anniston. Mayor McCrory says she’s determined not to let that happen.
“No. Never. We’ll never go back. Why? That’s like throwing our hands up to our ancestors and saying ‘we couldn’t make it. We couldn’t do it.’”
Others, like Bernard Snow, aren’t so optimistic.
“If you look straight ahead through there, you’ll see the play equipment. Our organization’s responsible for that," says Snow. "We found other people in the community in the industry that were willing to donate concrete, labor, machinery. So it was really a grassroots effort.”
Snow is part of an economic development group that’s rebuilding Hobson City one project at a time, like the $50,000 playground at the local park he’s pointing to. Snow says if something isn’t done soon, Hobson City will have to be incorporated back into Oxford, or merge into Anniston. But he says he’s going to fight with Mayor McCrory to try and preserve a piece of Alabama’s history.