On a Friday afternoon in winter, the riverfront in downtown Selma feels like a ghost town trapped in time. An elegant historic hotel reminiscent of the French Quarter sits vacant, with a view of the Alabama River below.
Abandoned storefronts and warehouses line the riverfront Water Avenue near the St. James Hotel and the Edmund Pettus Bridge. There are plenty of for sale signs for most of these buildings that pre-date the Civil War. Spanish moss hangs from the trees above the banks of the Alabama River, whose surface glows with the reflection of the setting sun, unrippled by boats.
“In many ways, the world has left Selma behind,” said historian Karlyn Forner, author of “Why the Vote Wasn’t Enough for Selma,” published by Duke University Press in 2017. “Selma has gotten the short end of the stick.”
The only sign of activity involves the decoration of Christmas trees lined along on the Riverfront Park City Walk. Businesses have volunteered to provide a tree and decorate them.
“This is the cutest little town,” said Danielle Wooten, as she decorated the tree for the Wooten Law Firm. Her husband, Brandon, grew up in Selma, graduated from the University of Alabama Law School and worked at the Montgomery District Attorney’s office. The Wootens moved back to Selma in 2010, despite ominous signs of decline and poor prospects for an upwardly mobile black family.
No city in Alabama with more than 10,000 people has suffered a faster population decline than Selma since then. None are even close. Selma had a population of 20,756 in 2010, according to the U.S. Census. By 2017, Census estimates said it had shrunk by 11.5 percent to 18,370. The Selma City public school system has dropped from 4,055 students in 2000 to 2,854 in 2018.
“Selma does have a future,” Danielle Wooten said. “We are in a time of challenges. It is going to turn around. It depends on the community coming together.”
The City of Selma has traditionally put up Christmas decorations, but after more than 60 city employees were laid off Nov. 6 due to budget shortfalls it appeared there would be no decorations this year.
“Community groups banded together and said we’ll put up the decorations,” Wooten said. “They were going to do it themselves. It’s bringing people together.”
Sheryl Smedley, executive director of the Selma Chamber of Commerce, said that was a misunderstanding. “The city never made a public announcement that there would be no Christmas decorations,” she said. “They were running one week behind.”
The city did put up the decorations, Wooten said.
“Maybe these challenges are here for a reason, to show us that we need each other,” she said. “It’s hard for some people to see the future. If the people who have the means to leave do leave, then what’s left? But what if they came back? What could happen if they came together?”
Smedley said negotiations are going on for the purchase of the St. James Hotel, built in 1837, which could be re-branded as a Hilton Hotel. “With the right folks managing it, that would definitely be a shot in the arm for us,” she said. “That’s going to be a big economic boost to our downtown.”
The Alabama Department of Transportation has approved a project that will expand the city’s River Walk around the hotel, connecting to the current walkway, Smedley said. That project will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Another phase later could add a boat dock for boat access to the St. James Hotel, she said.
The renovation of the St. James Hotel could open the door to a renaissance in the opportunity zone along the river that once was home to cotton warehouses and commodity brokers.
A mile away, during lunch time at Lannie’s Barbecue on Minter Avenue, a crew of heating and air-conditioning workers order their barbecue and sit down at a table. They say Lannie’s is one of the few dining options in Selma that isn’t fast food.
Allen Worthy, a middle-age white man who was born in Selma and has lived here his entire life, traces the start of Selma’s economic decline to the closing of the Craig Air Force Base in 1977.
“It ain’t going back to booming,” he said. “If Bush Hog and International Paper closed down, we’d dry up and blow away. We ain’t got much.”
Bush Hog, with 332 employees, has been in Selma since 1952 and is known by farmers worldwide for its rotary mowers.
Worthy also complained that the Selma Mall once had J.C. Penny and Sears, but now Belk and Hibbett are the main occupants in a concourse of mostly empty retail spaces.
Worthy said his son works as an electrician at International Paper and his daughter attends Auburn University, so he’s not worried about them. But most young people in Selma don’t have much to hold them here, he said.
“It’s not as bad as it seems,” said Anthony Collins, 30, a black man who works on the crew with Worthy. “It’s what you make it. There are other places that are worse.”
Jay Wilson, an elderly black man whose grandmother started Lannie’s Barbecue 70 years ago, sits eating potato salad in a nearby booth. He thanks Worthy for his contribution to rebuild the rotted sign at Siloam Baptist Church, and gives him an update on the fundraising effort.
Wilson said he knows why people are leaving Selma so fast. “Because there are no jobs for the children,” he said.
When TV and movie star Oprah Winfrey came to Selma to make the movie about the city’s famous 1965 “Bloody Sunday” civil rights protests, many people hoped the movie would help transform the town.
The 2014 movie “Selma,” directed by Ava DuVernay and starring the rapper Common, Winfrey and David Oyelowo as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., brought a lot of fanfare to Selma.
Wilson believes Winfrey and other millionaires still have plans for something big. “When the money comes, we’ll have a new government,” Wilson said.
Like many locals, he worries about crime in Selma, but investors could turn that around, he said.
“The killing and the murder will stop,” Wilson said. “All this is going to change.”
He gestures toward run-down neighborhoods where houses can be bought cheap. Millionaires will swoop in to buy them, he believes. “It’ll be all condos,” Wilson said. “When you come back here three years from now, it will be different. When they bring the money back, it’s going to be a historic city then.”
There are no imminent indications of that comeback that Wilson believes will happen. There’s plenty of evidence of continuing decline.
Concordia College in Selma, a private black school founded in 1922 and run by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, has been conducting a clearance sale that includes old school sports uniforms and furniture from every building. Big yellow signs advertising “Total Liquidation” line the main road into Selma. Concordia closed this year after the spring semester, citing declining enrollment and financial problems. It had 130 employees.
Debra Phillips, 62, bought some chairs and loaded them into her car. “This school saved my life,” she said.
She transferred to the school when it was called Alabama Lutheran Academy and Junior College, in 1972. The Selma Public Schools, in the process of integration, were in the midst of intense racial turmoil.
“They were writing ‘N—-s’ go home on the sidewalk,” she said. “I saw so much racial hatred.”
At Concordia, she found peace.
“It changed my whole focus,” Phillips said. She graduated from the high school in 1973 and earned an associate degree from the junior college in 1975. “It’s woven into the fabric of Selma,” she said of the school.
The closing of Concordia, a place of fond memories, hurt her deeply, she said. “I thought we were moving forward,” Phillips said.
It wasn’t just former students who were looking for a bargain at the Concordia College clearance sale. Lula Dean, 71, found a set of twin beds for $85 apiece. This is a sale she’d rather not be shopping, though.
It’s yet another economic blow for Selma. “People lost their jobs,” she said.
It’s also an opportunity lost for youth who need a lifeline. “There’s nothing to do for young people here,” Dean said.
Three years ago, Selma had the highest crime rate in Alabama. Crime remains a problem.
“They’re shooting, stealing, robbing,” Dean said. “I’m afraid to be out at night. I hate to say it. It’s dangerous here.”
Dean said she graduated from another historic black college in the city, earning a degree from the Baptist-supported Selma University in 1967. That school has struggled financially at times, too, but remains open.
Dean has little hope for Selma’s near-term future. “It’s not a city you’d invite anybody to come to,” Dean said. “It’s not a good place for children.”
International Paper, Selma’s largest employer with 768 workers, has been spending hundreds of millions in the conversion of its No. 15 paper machine at the Riverdale Mill.
“If Selma’s so bad, why is somebody investing so much money here?” said Wayne Vardaman, executive director of the Selma and Dallas County Economic Development Authority.
“Our capital investment this year is over $600 million, and that’s little old Selma,” he said. “It’s a significant year.”
Most of that is the Riverdale Mill, but that’s not a bad thing, Vardaman said. “It created jobs and saved jobs,” he said. “There’s thousands of construction workers out there right now (working on the expansion).”
The former Craig Air Force Base is now an industrial park with six manufacturers, and the city has other busy industrial areas, he said. “We have 35 manufacturing or distribution centers here,” Vardaman said.
Thousands of people who work in Selma don’t live in Selma, he said.
“Trying to get people to live here is a problem,” Vardaman said. “You just have to roll up your sleeves, peel back the layers of the onion and fix what’s wrong – education, crime problems.”
The declining population remains a concern for funding basic services. “With out-migration, you have less disposable dollars,” Vardaman said.
Selma also doesn’t have an interstate highway nearby. It’s harder to get to than Birmingham or Montgomery, two other cities that attract international civil rights tourists.
Still, tourism generated $71 million for Selma in 2017, a four percent increase, Smedley said. “It’s on the rise every day,” she said. “There’s not a day that goes by there’s not somebody here touring Selma.”
There are museums, monuments and an interpretive center, but the centerpiece is the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which civil rights marchers crossed into a famous violent confrontation on March 7, 1965.
By 1975, the annual anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” and the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights marches became a tourist attraction. In April, there’s also a re-enactment of the Civil War Battle of Selma. But when the crowds leave, the downtown streets are often empty.
“During the annual jubilee, there’s all this attention on Selma,” Forner said. “Selma has become part of that triumphal narrative of progress.”
When cotton was king, Selma was the Queen City of the Black Belt, a slogan still displayed on the city’s welcome signs.
“Its heyday was when cotton was booming, with cotton brokers and warehouses,” Forner said. “The wharves in Selma delivered cotton downriver by steamboat to Mobile to be shipped.”
The boll weevil arrived in Alabama in 1915, infesting crops, and farmers began losing cotton in 1918.
From slavery to segregation to rapid population loss, Selma has always faced its problems headfirst.
“One thing about Selma is that people rally together to help each other,” Smedley said. “I don’t look for the gloom I look for the positives. We’re very rich in history.”
On the playground by the City Walk, Brooks Wooten, 5, swings high on the swing set, within view of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Nobody can tell him it’s a bad place for children.
As his mother decorates their community Christmas tree, he laughs and swings even higher. “This is the best day ever,” he shouts.