This is the first in a series of feature stories during Black History Month. Stories will run each Tuesday in February. Nominate an individual who is making an impact on his or her community by emailing a brief description and contact information to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Three years ago, Lucy Ford, dressed in patriotic red, white and blue, watched in awe from her cream recliner at her Eighth Street Southwest home.
The woman who worked in cotton fields, sat in the back of a bus, drank out of cups marked with a black slash — the designation for black customers — saw a black man take the oath of office as the 44th president of the United States.
She heard President Barack Obama issue a challenge:
“Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.”
Obama received the “gift of freedom,” a gift centuries in the making, from generations before, and people like 104-year-old Ford, who endured the height of prejudice and racism.
“She never thought she would see a black man be president,” said Mary Gilbert, great-niece of Ford. “Never ever. She sat right here and watched the whole inauguration.”
Born on Jan. 13, 1908, 43 years after the end of the Civil War, Ford grew up among former slaves — those declared “personal property” by the 1857 Dred Scott Decision. She lived on a farm in Colbert County with her four brothers, four sisters and mother and father, who worked the fields.
At age 12, after eight years of school, Ford, too, walked the rows of cotton, dragging a burlap sack down Alabama’s red dirt.
“When it was time to chop cotton, I chopped. When it was time to pick cotton, I picked,” she said. “I would pull in about 100 (pounds) a day.”
When she got older, Ford cleaned buildings and worked for a white family in Leighton. On Sundays, she sat in a pew in St. James Mission Baptist Church in Leighton.
She worked and prayed. She had faith the world would change, that one day blacks and whites wouldn’t have to drink from a separate water fountains, ride in separate train cars, use separate restrooms, live separate lives.
“There was a place in Leighton that sold the best hamburgers. We couldn’t enter from the front,” said Gilbert, 62. “There was an entrance in the alley we had to go through, even when I was young. That’s just the way it was.”
Slowly, the change Ford prayed for occurred.
In 1947, the woman who spent hours listening to baseball games on the radio heard the announcers utter a new name — Jackie Robinson, the first black Major League Baseball player.
In 1954, Ford watched as her nieces and nephews, once designated to all-black schools, integrate with white students.
And in 1965, she saw black voters cast ballots.
The joys, however, came with sorrow. Attackers firebombed a bus ridden by the Freedom Riders, James Earl Ray assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. and the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed and four girls were killed.
“Back in them days, it was really bad, that prejudice was real bad. It’s hard for us to understand today,” Gilbert said. “One of Aunt Lucy’s brothers, a white man spit in his face. That stuff happened all the time.”
Despite the advancements, the fight must continue, Ford said.
“We are not where we need to be yet. There is still hatred by whites and blacks, on both sides, and there’s no need,” Gilbert said. “But God has brought us so far. Back in them days, the white folks didn’t want the black folks and now it’s the Mexicans.”
Every night, Ford prays for her more than 300 great-nieces and nephews and the world around them. It is a faith that Ford passed down to her family.
“You know, in the Bible, God said in the end nobody’s going to know whether you’re black, whether you’re white, whether you’re Mexican,” Gilbert said. “Color shouldn’t matter, but for some reason it did and still does.”
Lift Every Voice and Sing
To preserve history and the stories of individuals who built Decatur, the Decatur-Morgan County Convention and Visitors Bureau created “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” The video profiles noteworthy African-Americans and their contributions to the religion, education, military, athletics, political and social scenes of Decatur.
Some of those profiled include:
Bertha Lee Polk Lyle: The first African-American female preacher in Decatur.
Herschel V. Cashin: Served two terms in the Alabama Legislature as a representative of Montgomery County. He was Decatur’s first African-American attorney and served on the city council.
Dr. Frank Sykes: Sykes attended Morehouse College and Howard University, where he earned a dental degree. He played professional baseball in the Negro Baseball League. After his baseball career ended, he moved back to Decatur.
Robert Murphy: Born a slave, Murphy received quasi-free status. After the Civil War, he helped rebuild the city’s homes, churches and business district.
Athelyne Banks: Decatur’s first female principal.
Burrell Lemon: A grocer and the city’s first black city councilman.
Matilda Hall: A notary public and the first female pharmacist in Decatur.