Etta Freeman Park was dedicated in 2010 and named in honor of retired educator Etta B. Freeman, who has witnessed and made more history than most Old Town residents during her 103 years of life. Born just outside of Decatur in rural Morgan County, she grew up in the Old Town home of her grandparents, Sam and Emma Gray, and graduated from Decatur Negro High School in 1937. The school’s principal at the time, Clifford Joel Hurston, encouraged her to enroll in the teacher education program at Alabama State in Montgomery, and helped her afford tuition by misrepresenting “her brother’s age so he could enter one of the local Civilian Conservation Corps camps.”
“He was the cause of me being where I am… He was the principal and he was determined that I was going to do something… My brother was two years behind me. He put his age up and put him in the CCC camp. My brother stayed in there for two years, and I received a check… in the mail for the two years that I was there, and that helped me. I paid two-thirds of my way [with that] and worked for the other part.”
After graduating from A&M with a Bachelor’s degree in elementary education, Ms. Freeman accepted a teaching position at the Rosenwald School in Moulton, Alabama. “It was the only one they had for blacks,” she recalls. “One year I had 67 in my class [of] fifth and sixth graders, and the room was in the auditorium.”
During her time at the Rosenwald School, Ms. Freeman boarded in Moulton on weekdays and returned to her home in Old Town on weekends. She was six months pregnant during one trip, in 1943, when the “bus driver requested that she give up her seat… to a white passenger.” Ms. Freeman refused, however, and the white man remained standing. This was twelve years before a similar show of defiance by Rosa Parks sparked the Montgomery bus boycott.
“They could have done anything, and nobody would ever know what happened to me. I was the only black on the bus… They could have dumped me on the side of the road and told any kind of tale. They could have made it up, you know... But no issue was made of it… I didn’t know I was setting an example. I didn’t know anything about what was going on… I was innocent.”
It was not the last time Ms. Freeman stood up to Jim Crow, however. Several years later, she was waiting with a friend in a voter registration line when the registrar asked them to “move to the back.”
“He said, ‘We don’t usually register the blacks before the whites.’ I said, ‘I’m next in line.’ And he repeated himself… So my friend moved to the back. But I stood there until finally he decided to register me… When he got to race, he put ‘black’ on there. I said, ‘That’s okay, I’m still next in line.’”
It was in her role as a teacher that Ms. Freeman made her most lasting mark. Three generations of some Old Town families came through her classroom at Cherry Street Elementary School during her 57-year career. “The Ms. Freeman I knew was serious when it was time to be serious, but she also made school fun,” one former student told the Associated Press on the occasion of her 90th birthday. “She was a teacher and mother,” another recalled.
Ms. Freeman retired from teaching in 1976, but she remains active in the Old Town community, which celebrated her most recent birthday with a parade of “about 100 cars passing by her home.” She still drives her own car to worship services at First Missionary Baptist Church, and to the Turner-Surles Community Center, where she volunteers.
“I drive up to the center now every morning… and play cards with the old ladies and men that I taught in the first grade. And some are in worse condition than I’m in… I’m helping them… But teaching them? No, no, no. They wouldn’t listen to me now!”
Just north of Etta Freeman Park, on the opposite side of Church Street, is the Dancy-Polk House. Built in 1829, it is the oldest surviving building in Old Town, and one of four in Decatur to survive the city’s occupation by Union and Confederate forces during the Civil War.
A boarding house run by Fannie Parker Hayes once stood between the park and the Dancy-Polk House, near what is now the Collis Stevenson Pedestrian Bridge. In 1906, Hayes filed a damage suit against the Southern Railway Company, alleging that “in building an embankment alongside [her] property,” the company had “caused her house and lot to be flooded with water.” Hayes further alleged that construction of “the cement bridge over the railroad tracks… cut into her lot,” and sought $1,000 in compensation. The suit finally went to trial in 1912, and “the jury brought in a verdict for the plaintiff of $350.” A circuit court decision in 1914 awarded Hayes a further $5.46, by which point the “suit was one of the oldest standing on the dockets of Morgan County.”
Fannie Hayes died in 1938, but her boarding house was still listed in the following year’s edition of the Negro Motorist Green Book. First printed in 1936, and named for its founder Victor Hugo Green, the Green Book functioned as a directory of “services and places relatively friendly to African-Americans” during the Jim Crow era.
Use the Collis Stevenson Pedestrian Bridge to cross over the railroad tracks, then continue east toward Bank Street, and tap the button below to visit our final tour stop.