Tuscaloosa Civil Rights Trail

The Tuscaloosa Civil Rights Trail (TCRT) is a self-guided tour consisting of 18 sites that explore Tuscaloosa’s complicated history of legal and cultural race-based segregation practices and policies. These sites lead the observer from the territorial and early statehood period to the modern civil rights struggle and reflect the ways in which discrimination against people of color evolved over time. As visitors tour the trail, they confront the ways in which American ideals collide with political, cultural, and economic factors and shape and distort American democracy.  

The trail is supported by the Tuscaloosa Civil Rights History & Reconciliation Foundation, which publishes a printed guide of the trail available at the Tuscaloosa Visitor Center. The foundation is overseen by a 14-member board of directors. In addition, historic markers and interpretive panels are located at several stops on the tour.  

The trail was initiated by members of the Tuscaloosa community to offer a portrait of the city’s long struggle with the ideals of freedom and equality. Formerly the Mayor’s Task Force on Civil Rights History, the interracial group of citizens identified a working list of key places for the first draft of the guide. They then solicited members of the Tuscaloosa community to provide descriptions of specific sites. The entire task force met to review the proposed entries, making corrections and adding details. The Trail was officially opened on June 10, 2019. Though the Trail is intended to be self-guided, guided tours are available.

Site 1: Capitol Park  

The trail begins at Capitol Park, site of the state capital from 1826-46. Following Tuscaloosa’s selection as capital, architect William Nichols designed and built the Alabama Capitol building using enslaved laborers and stone they quarried from the University of Alabama property. There, the Alabama Legislature passed scores of slave codes and laws, some of which prohibited teaching enslaved persons to read and made the distribution of abolitionist literature punishable by death.

Site 2: The Old Jail  

Built in the early 1850s, the Old Jail was designed by William B. Robertson and served as the county jail from 1856 to 1890. In 1884, it was the site of Tuscaloosa’s first recorded lynching, which occurred when Henry Burke was removed from the jail, beaten, shot, disemboweled, and eventually hung in a tree at the First Presbyterian Church. The church likely was chosen by perpetrators because its minister, Charles Stillman, established the Tuscaloosa Theological Seminary for training young Black ministers in l878. Seventy-seven additional lynchings have since been documented in and around Tuscaloosa. Renowned nineteenth-century social reform activist Julia Tutwiler visited the jail in the late l870s and found the prisoners living in miserable conditions and spurred action that eventually led Gov. Rufus Cobb to improve conditions.

 Site 3: Druid Theater and Hollywood 

In July 1964, a week after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, a group of Black teenagers attended a film at the Druid Theater and were met with a mob of White people who pelted them with rocks and bottles. The crowd returned the next day after rumors circulated that Hollywood star Jack Palance, who was visiting Northport relatives at the time, would attend a film there with his family and that he was there to support integration. Another rumor circulated that the heavily tanned actor was a Black man escorting a White woman to the theater. The crowd harassed Palance and his family, and in response to escalating threats from the mob, Police Chief William Marable rescued Palance and his family, and the city immediately enacted a three-week curfew.

 Site 4: The Mob at the Flagpole 

The flagpole, erected at the junction of Tuscaloosa’s University Boulevard and Greensboro Avenue as a war memorial, was the site of a mass protest by White students and citizens in reaction to Autherine Lucy’s admission as the first Black student at the University of Alabama. She attended her first classes on February 3 and 4, 1956, and then returned to Birmingham for the weekend. That Saturday, a large group of White students and others marched from UA to the flagpole, where student Leonard Wilson entertained the crowd with racist humor. Student government association president and future congressman Walter Flowers Jr. asked the crowd to disperse, declaring their racist jeers out of place in a university town. Lucy returned to class at UA Monday, February 6, to a crowd of more than 1,000 White harassers, but made it to class. The crowd was even larger when she attended her second class, and she had to be rescued by the police and escorted off campus amid a hail of rocks and rotten eggs, stopping at the Howard-Linton Barbershop for refuge. That evening, the UA Board of Trustees met and expelled her from the school. This prompted Tuscaloosa News editor Buford Boone to write an editorial titled “What a Price for Peace: The Mob Won,” which won the 1957 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing.  

Site 5: Woolworth and Sit-Ins  

In early June 1964, Rev. Theophilus Yelverton “T. Y.” Rogers and the Tuscaloosa Citizens for Action Committee (TCAC) staged sit-ins to protest segregation at Tuscaloosa’s local F. W. Woolworth Company, H&W Drug Store, and S. H. Kress & Co. lunch counters. (The TCAC was formed in 1962 to protest racial discrimination in the city.) White Tuscaloosans attacked and assaulted the peaceful Black protestors. The violent events of what would become known as Tuscaloosa’s Bloody Tuesday followed quickly on the heels of these protests.

Site 6: First Black Legislator: Shandy Jones 

Born into slavery in 1816, Shandy Jones was emancipated as a child by his White father in Huntsville. He moved to Tuscaloosa as a young man and became a very successful businessman and barber. In 1866, he led some 600 freedmen in organizing Hunter Chapel AME Zion Church and created the first school for Black students in Tuscaloosa. In 1868, he was elected to the Alabama House of Representatives, becoming the first Black person from Tuscaloosa to hold that office. His tenure was obstructed by White Tuscaloosans, especially Tuscaloosa newspaper editor and KKK leader Ryland Randolph. Rudolph’s threats intensified to the point that Jones feared for his life and the safety of his family. Finally, in 1871, he and his family fled to Mobile, where he served as the pastor of Little Zion AME Church. He died in Mobile in 1886.

Site 7: Kress Building and Bus Boycott 

On May 5, 1962, six years after the federal courts declared segregated seating on public transportation unconstitutional, four Black youths were ordered by the White driver of a Druid Transit Company bus to give up their seats to White riders at the stop in front of the Kress Building. Despite efforts to defuse the situation by civil rights activist and minister Willie Herzfeld, the young men were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. In response, several Black clergy and others formed the TCAC, with Herzfeld as president, to focus on civil rights in the city. Two years later in August, after a violent incident between another White bus driver and a Black rider, Black Tuscaloosans organized a bus boycott. Finally, on April 12, 1965, the integrated Tuscaloosa Transit Company began operations. 

Site 8: Paul R. Jones Museum 

The Paul R. Jones Museum celebrates the personal art collection of Paul R. Jones, a native of Bessemer, Jefferson County, and lifelong art devotee. It also represents resilience. In 1949, Jones applied to the University of Alabama Law School and was rejected. Throughout his long life, he was an enthusiastic collector of African American art and even shared his home with struggling Black artists to support them. In 2008, Jones donated 1,700 works to the University of Alabama, which created the museum in 2011 in downtown Tuscaloosa. The museum continues to expand yearly with important new works, now numbering more than 2,000, and remains the largest and most valuable art gift ever donated to the University of Alabama. 

Site 9: Alston Building and the KKK 

The Alston Building on the corner of Greensboro Avenue and 6th Street in downtown Tuscaloosa was built in 1909 and formerly housed the Tuscaloosa County Courthouse. It was named for alderman and City National Bank president Samuel Fitts Alston. The courthouse was the site of George and Lurleen Wallace’s marriage ceremony in 1943. The building’s most infamous tenant was Robert Shelton, who was Imperial Wizard of the United Klans of America, the largest Klan organization in the United States at that time with an estimated membership of more than 25,000 members from Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. More than 11 lynchings occurred within the building’s shadow. Many KKK activities, including Birmingham’s 24th Street bombing (1963) and the Michael Donald lynching (1981) were discussed in this building. When the Southern Poverty Law Center won its civil lawsuit against the Klan on behalf Donald’s mother, Beulah Mae Donald, in 1987, the Tuscaloosa Klan was directed to sell all its Tuscaloosa properties in partial payment. The Tuscaloosa KKK was bankrupt, its power depleted. 

Site 10: Dinah Washington Cultural Arts Center 

The Dinah Washington Cultural Arts Center is housed in the former Allen & Jemison Hardware building on Greensboro Avenue. It opened on August 29, 2013, in honor of entertainer Dinah Washington, the “Queen of the Blues.” She spent her early years in the city before her family moved to Chicago to escape the racial violence in Tuscaloosa. The center houses two galleries featuring rotating exhibits, performance spaces and offices for the Alabama Blues Project, the Tuscaloosa Symphony, and the Arts Council. The Grand Hall is available for rental as an event space.

Site 11: County Courthouse and Marchers 

The Tuscaloosa County Courthouse, completed in 1963 with significant federal funding, was approved to replace the existing courthouse in 1955, with assurances to Tuscaloosa’s Black community that it would be fully integrated when operational. But when Gov. George Wallace opened the doors in March 1963, Black citizens were greeted with signs denoting segregated water fountains and bathroom facilities, with the Black bathroom located in the basement. After being denied a permit to lead a protest march, Theophilus Yelverton “T. Y.” Rogers and the TCAC organized a march anyway, scheduled for June 9, 1964. Peaceful demonstrators were violently attacked as they left First African Baptist Church, in an incident knows as Bloody Tuesday. Ninety-three demonstrators were arrested and 33 were hospitalized. Rogers then filed and won a federal lawsuit to integrate the building. 

Site 12: Greensboro Avenue Churches  

Four churches formed the core of White Tuscaloosa society prior to the Civil War: First Presbyterian, First Methodist, Tuscaloosa Episcopal, and First Baptist. Each church required enslaved persons to learn selected lessons from the Bible, the only book the enslaved were permitted to read, with obedience as the key lesson. Entries from the 1859 First Methodist census listed 800 total members, 200 White and 600 enslaved. University of Alabama president and slaveowner Basil Manly was pastor of First Baptist during this time. Following his stint as Chaplain of the Confederacy, he was the first Tuscaloosa businessman to offer labor contracts to freedmen. In 1876-78, Charles Stillman, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, founded the Tuscaloosa Theological Seminary, which eventually became present-day Stillman College.

Site 13: Bluefront District 

The Bluefront District was the center of Black commercial enterprises in the city of Tuscaloosa in the years after World War II. It consisted of a cluster of segregated Black professional buildings and businesses off the main thoroughfare. As with most Black professional centers in the segregated South, Tuscaloosa’s Bluefront District was located away from Tuscaloosa’s center of White wealth and social status, Greensboro Avenue. The district was home to a variety of professional services, including doctors, dentists, attorneys, insurance agencies, financial advisors, and even a taxi stand. Immediately adjacent to it, the segregated Cardinal Theatre was built in 1947 to serve the burgeoning Black population while also reinforcing segregation and “separate but equal facilities.”  

Site 14: Bailey Tabernacle CME Church 

Established in 1870, Bailey Tabernacle was built by Alabama’s first Black architect, Wallace A. Rayfield, and named for early pastor Virgil L. Bailey. During the civil rights movement, the church was an organizing center for protests, and hosted a mass meeting led by Martin Luther King Jr. and foot soldiers James Bevel, Harold Middlebrook, and Richard Boone on June 10, 1964, following the previous day’s events of Bloody Tuesday.  

 Site 15: Hunter Chapel AME Zion Church  

Hunter Chapel AME Zion Church was formed immediately after the Civil War in 1866 by businessman and civic leader Shandy Jones, among the first Black men to serve in the Alabama House of Representatives. Originally housed in a shed on property adjacent to present-day Bryant-Denny Stadium, the church membership included more than 600 freedpeople and became the first institution to offer educational opportunities to Blacks in Tuscaloosa. The current building was completed in 1881. In 1955, a young Martin Luther King Jr. preached there. 

Site 16: First African Baptist Church 

First African Baptist Church was also formed in 1866 and eventually became Tuscaloosa’s largest and most important Black church by the turn of that century. It is noted for hosting Tuskegee Institute president Booker T. Washington to discuss his “separate but equal education” vision in 1910. In March 1964, Martin Luther King Jr. installed Theophilus Yelverton “T. Y.” Rogers as pastor. Given Rogers’s dynamic personality, he was quickly recognized as leader of Tuscaloosa’s civil rights campaign. The church became the central meeting place for civil rights organizing and events and was the starting point for the protest march that came to be known as “Bloody Tuesday.”  

Site 17: Murphy-Collins House 

The Murphy-Collins House was built by Will J. Murphy, Tuscaloosa’s first Black mortician, in 1923 and is an important example of Black middle-class success in Tuscaloosa. It is situated in what was known as the “Lace Curtain Community” for the distinctive window treatment style of the area. The Craftsman-style house is now the home to the Murphy African American Museum and displays many artifacts from the civil rights movement and middle-class Black culture in the city. 

Site 18: Howard-Linton Barbershop 

The Howard-Linton Barbershop and Beauty Salon is located in an area known as the “Block,” Tuscaloosa’s first Black-owned commercial center. Named for Nathaniel Howard and Thomas Linton, the barbershop, built circa 1940, and its beauty salon were centers of news, civic exchange, and civil rights meetings. The beauty shop was a refuge for Autherine Lucy was after she was pelted with eggs after leaving class at the University of Alabama in February 1956. In June 1964, the barbershop functioned as a “triage” center on “Bloody Tuesday,” coordinating the recovery with Martin Luther King Jr. and U.S. attorney general Robert Kennedy. Linton later became Tuscaloosa’s most important civil rights negotiator, promoting new anti-segregation laws and new employment opportunities for Blacks while a member of the TCAC. 

Further Reading

  • Clark, E. Culpepper. The Schoolhouse Door: Segregation's Last Stand at the University of Alabama. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  • Giggie, John M. Bloody Tuesday: The Untold Story of the Struggle for Civil Rights in Tuscaloosa. New York: Oxford University Press, 2024.
  • Hollars, B.J. Opening the Doors: The Desegregation of the University of Alabama and the Fight for Civil Rights in Tuscaloosa. Tuscaloosa, AL.: The University of Alabama Press, 2013.
  • Wolfe, Suzanne Rau. The University of Alabama: A Pictorial History. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1983.

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First African Baptist Church

Photo courtesy of Gregr; <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/">Creative Commons</a>
First African Baptist Church

Capitol Park

Photograph by Justin Dubois
Capitol Park

Druid Theater, 1951

Druid Theater, 1951

Theophilus Yelverton “T. Y.” Rogers

Photo courtesy of the Alabama Department of Archives and History
Theophilus Yelverton “T. Y.” Rogers

Alston Building

Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
Alston Building

Dinah Washington Cultural Arts Center

Photo courtesy of Tuscaloosa Tourism & Sports
Dinah Washington Cultural Arts Center

Police Attack at First African Baptist Church

Police Attack at First African Baptist Church