Safe House Black History Museum, Rural Studios, 2010 Greensboro, Alabama 

On March 20, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a speech in Eutaw, in western Alabama, to mobilize support for the Poor People’s Campaign. Ten days before, he had been speaking with union healthcare workers in New England. Still, this rally would kick off a tour of small, majority-black towns in the South and beyond to raise awareness of and raise funds for his campaign aimed to address economic inequality and poverty in the United States. They advocated for policies that would improve the living conditions of impoverished communities, regardless of race. The people of Eutaw contributed eighty-six dollars and sixty-one cents to the cause. 

His speech that day reflected an evolving vision of the Civil Rights Movement, which had expanded beyond the fight for desegregation and voting rights to encompass broader economic and social justice issues. He was calling for an act of civil disobedience. He sought one million people from Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Milwaukee, and Cleveland to converge on Washington, D.C. To create a town within a town. To be seen. “Fire hoses can’t deal with a million people. Yes, the water will give out. Dogs can’t bite a million people. The United States Army wouldn’t know how to deal with a million people.”

The next day, Dr. King would travel 21 miles to Greensboro, Alabama, where he preached at a church. Following the service, Dr. King was preparing to depart when someone hurriedly entered with alarming news: Two churches along the highways exiting the town had been set ablaze by the Ku Klux Klan. They knew Dr. King was in the region but weren’t sure where. It was decided he would be taken to the home of Mrs. Theresa Burroughs, a close friend of the King family (she was a lifelong friend of Coretta Scott) and a dedicated participant in the Civil Rights Movement. Mrs. Burroughs lived in the Depot neighborhood on the southwestern side of Greensboro, an area deeply affected by the pervasive racial segregation and discrimination that characterized much of the American South during that time. Mrs. Burroughs played a crucial role in organizing protests, marches, and voter registration drives, all of which were met with resistance and violence from white supremacist groups and law enforcement. She liked to say that while cities like Birmingham, Montgomery, Selma Atlanta, and Memphis were focal points for media attention, it was rural communities like hers where the Civil Rights Movement began.

That armed group of Klansmen searched for Dr. King throughout the night in Greensboro. “It was a terrible night, it was an awful night,” Burroughs said of their night staying motionless inside her shotgun house. “They would drive slowly by their guns visible through the windows of their cars. They kept their headlights off to remain discreet while we ensured King’s safety.” Dr. King left town immediately the following day. This small town of Greensboro, boasting a population of fewer than 2,300 residents, in the heart of Alabama’s Black Belt, a region renowned for its fertile land and entrenched racism, got the feeling of victory that continued for only two weeks. Tragically, Dr. King’s life was cut short when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee. As absolutely devastating as this time was, Greensboro remains proud of their bravery, proud of their role in keeping Dr. King alive for two more weeks. 

In 1991, Mrs. Burroughs transformed her home into the Safe House Black History Museum to meticulously document American history’s resilience, courage, and ongoing struggle for equality. Central to the museum’s mission is its dedication to documenting the fight for equality. Through carefully curated collections, visitors are transported back in time to witness the challenges faced by African Americans in Hale County. From relics dating back to the era of slavery to powerful images capturing pivotal moments in the Civil Rights Movement, such as the Greensboro marches and the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, the museum provides a comprehensive overview of this transformative period in American history.

In the fall of 2009, Rural Studio, the groundbreaking architectural program based at Auburn University, was brought in for the museum’s renovation process. Founded in 1993 by architects Samuel Mockbee and D.K. Ruth, Rural Studio addresses the needs of underserved rural communities while providing hands-on educational experiences for architecture students. It’s one of the most incredible college programs anywhere. The student project team (Chris Currie, Cassandra Kellogg, Candace Rimes) did a great job achieving a delicate balance of preserving the historical integrity of the intimate museum, restoring it to its original condition, returning it to its natural pine finish that was there when Dr. King sought refuge. They thoughtfully connected it with an adjacent shotgun house repurposed as an open space for classes and rotating art exhibitions (I curated a show there in 2018). The Rural Studios team connected the buildings with a modern glass walkway that reads Freedom Lane across the floor and has the silhouettes of marching protesters leading the way. This thoughtful addition, combined with the reorganization of works, serves as a bridge for their reverence for the past with a commitment to education and advocacy for social change.

The significance of the Safe House Black History Museum extends beyond its physical walls. It serves as a beacon of hope and inspiration, reminding visitors of the importance of standing up against oppression. It’s a marker of strength, a small town’s willingness to stand up. Mrs. Theresa Burroughs’ decision to transform the safe house into a museum was driven by a desire to ensure that the sacrifices made fifty years ago are never forgotten. As she aptly puts it, “We kept him safe.” Through her tireless efforts, Burroughs reminds us that, even in our darkest moments, there is light to be found in the pursuit of a more just and equitable society.