Mayor Bell to request Presidential Executive Order to create civil rights historic park

Times staff report

Birmingham Mayor William Bell and U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell are working to designate the A.G. Gaston Freedom Center and the Civil Rights District as a National Historic Park. (Provided photo)
Birmingham Mayor William Bell and U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell are working to designate the A.G. Gaston Freedom Center and the Civil Rights District as a National Historic Park. (Provided photo)

Birmingham Mayor William Bell will next week request a Presidential Executive Order to designate the AG Gaston Freedom Center and the Civil Rights District as a National Historic Park.

Earlier this year, U.S. Rep Terri Sewell introduced federal legislation asking for the designations, which city officials say would transform the Civil Rights District and surrounding areas.

However, there are not enough legislative days remaining to get the bill passed this term. Bell said he plans to ask President Obama for the use of Presidential Executive Order.

“This project will be transformative for the Civil Rights District and beyond. Not only will the history be preserved, but the economic impact has the potential to really transform the surrounding neighborhoods as well,” Bell said.

The city is working with a number of federal agencies to get the designation including the Department of Interior; National Park Service; Sewell’s office and the White House “to coordinate this designation and we really cannot wait to see it all come together,” said the mayor.

In 2015, the City Council approved $10 million to restore the former A.G. Gaston Motel and build a Freedom Center.

The historic 1954 wing of the AG Gaston Freedom Center will be preserved with the legendary “war room” returned to its 1963 state with the in-depth story of civil rights icon Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and businessman A.G. Gaston told with digital exhibits. The supper club will become classroom space, plus retail and restaurant space. The remaining 1968 wing of the hotel will be rehabbed and become archival space for the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

“The next several months are critical for this project. We look forward to more updates as we capture this unprecedented opportunity,” said Bell.

On August 28, several federal agencies including the National Park Service will host the March for Birmingham which is designed to increase awareness at a national level for the Civil Rights District.

On Sept. 8, the city, along with the National Historic Trust and Sewell’s office will host a “Lobby Day” to include visits to key members of the House and Senate to prepare for the executive action and garner support for future appropriations for the Civil Rights District.

The motel was built in 1954 by A.G. Gaston and during the civil rights era was headquarters for significant figures including the Revs. Martin Luther King Jr. and Fred Shuttlesworth. The facility closed in 1986.