‘Colored’ and ‘White’ etchings at the Kress make history real

(Photo by Julie Bennett)

Mike Watson, the new owner of the historic Kress building, has made the bold decision to preserve a portion of the wall where black and white customers once drank out of separate water fountains.

But if you ask someone who didn’t live during the days of segregation, that move doesn’t seem quite as bold. The words “colored” and “white” lack significance for someone who never had to experience such blatant, open and – the worst of it – accepted discrimination.

As a 29-year-old, the words have always struck me as an¬†anachronism, something that is so far removed from my world that it is difficult to fully comprehend the power the words wielded so long ago. But seeing the words in their original context and natural setting, as I did at the S.H. Kress building last week, made it more real. Even though the water fountains have long been removed, I could stand in front of the marble wall and imagine what it might have been like to have an assigned drinking fountain determined because of my skin’s pigmentation.

When I considered that, a wave of embarrassment came over me.

(Photo by Julie Bennett)

This is what Montgomery Advertiser photographer Julie Bennett had to say about seeing the same wall:

As a journalist living in Montgomery, I spend a lot of time listening to people remember. We scan and republish old photos so that no one forgets. So I know the history from everyone else’s perspective. But seldom do I get to stand so close to it, to touch the etchings in their original settings and not within the confining ropes of a museum exhibit. Like I’d unearthed it myself. It was just there…the way it was back then. If I had walked into that store 60 years ago that’s what I would have seen. My first thought was very present day: I should be repulsed. But then I stood back and realized that if I had walked into that building 6o years ago, it would have been so normal I wouldn’t have even noticed it. That was the scary/intriguing part.

 

Turns out, a group of EMERGE members who toured the building last week seemed to have a similar reaction to the etchings. As the group was walking up to the roof to admire the views of downtown, a special stop was made along the way so people could snap photos of the etchings with their cell phones.

Kindell Anderson, who is the president of EMERGE, which is Montgomery’s young professionals organization, said later that he was “very shocked” but “in a good way” when he saw the etchings. If anything, Kindell says he was more surprised that the etchings were still intact (at some point, paneling was put up to conceal the words).

“I really didn’t have any negative feelings (about it). It’s all a part of history. You have to have an understanding of the things that happened in your past in order for you to move on to your future,” Kindell said.

If you have seen the etchings, what was your reaction to them? Even if you haven’t, should the wall be preserved and incorporated into the Kress rehabilitation project?

About JillNolin

Jill Nolin is a city/county government reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser. She can be reached at jnolin@gannett.com or follow @jillnolin.
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2 Responses to ‘Colored’ and ‘White’ etchings at the Kress make history real

  1. Erin Schovel Turnham says:

    I was a part of the Emerge group that toured the Kress last week. What struck me was the juxtaposition of that relic of Montgomery’s past with the group standing in front of it last Wednesday. We are a diverse group of young professionals. Two moments in history came together. Sixty years ago that water fountain’s marble backsplash was one of many, many spaces where Montgomery was divided on a daily basis. Last Wednesday it was one of many, many spaces where Montgomery is coming together on a daily basis. Seeing those two words engraved in stone was a chilling reminder of what had gone before. There are still areas for improvement, there always are. But almost everyone in that group calmly took out a cell phone and snapped a picture, because that is how our 21st century generation records, shares and discusses the past, the issues of today and our future. And then together we lit the dark stairway with our cell phones, climbed two flights of stairs and emerged on the roof to a beautiful scene of the Montgomery skyline. Montgomery is already a great place to live and I’m glad to be a part of a diverse organization looking for ways to make it even better.

  2. Annette says:

    Preserve the wall. It is an ironic, but sober reminder of our arrogant and ignorant past.

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