The Ferry Is Coming

Four Decades Ago, It Stopped

About 750 people, most of them black, many of them descendants of slaves who once worked at nearby plantations, live in Gees Bend, a small town in rural Alabama. They are very isolated, as the residents there have been for four decades, ever since the ferry across the Alabama River stopped running.

Although no one is exactly sure why the ferry stopped running, many people think it had something to do with racism. But some months ago Gees Bend was preparing to enter a new era: A new ferry was to begin carrying people across the river. Earlier this year Vicki Mabrey found out what a new ferry would mean and why it would be so important.

Along the river, there was a great deal of anticipation. Most said that the new ferry will end the small town's isolation.

The town is a quiet place without many job opportunities. But those who live in Gees Bend like it. "It's our little haven," Doris Pettway said.

"I think we're so accustomed to living here; that we don't feel really isolated," said Doris Pettway, who grew up on Gees Bend, went off to school and then came back. She teaches third-grade at the local elementary school.

Gees Bend has been cut off for so long - nearly 40 years - that many people have gotten used to it. Some hardly remember a time back in the 1960s when a 10-minute ferry ride across the Alabama River brought residents to the big city - Camden, the seat of Wilcox County.

Racially mixed now, but nearly all-white then, Camden was where people from Gees Bend worked and shopped. It was their lifeline, the source of their most basic needs.

But then the civil rights movement arrived. Gees Bend took part in the struggle. Martin Luther King came to there to rally the troops. And when Dr. King made his historic march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in nearby Selma, people from Gees Bend marched with him.

But in the early 1960s, when the protests were in full flower, the old ferry disappeared. (It now rides the river in another county.) Suddenly, the river became a hostile dividing line between the two communities. You could drive around the river, but it took a good hour, and few people on Gees Bend had cars.

Some people said that racism was the reason for the loss of the ferry service.

"The ferry stopped running because the whites in Camden did not want the African-Americans from Gees Bend having equality and civil rights," said Ken Mullinax, a former congressional aide who has helped raise money for the new ferry. "They didn't want them coming over here and protesting."

Not everyone agreed. Camden barber Van Waren said the ferry stopped running because it broke down too often. "It wouldn't run half the time. It stayed broke down; it couldn't run at night. It wasn't feasible then. And it had nothing to do with race."

"They can pretty it up and you can whitewash over it. But the bottom line, down to the nitty gritty, it was nothing but race," Mulinax said. "But we've taken care of that now."

The man most responsible for resurrecting the ferry is Hollis Curl, the avuncular owner and editor of Camden's only newspaper. Several years ago, Curl wrote an editorial advocating the return of the ferry. Most people were surprised by what they read; in the 1960s, Curl was a well-known segregationist.

At that point, Curl was proud of his racism. "There's a code of behavior between whites and niggers," Curl wrote in 1972. "We don't know how to keep the code but we do know when we violate it."

Said Curl recenlty: "I don't use that word as often anymore."

Several years ago, said Curl, he was overcome with remorse about his earlier racism. To atone, he began using his newspaper to promote the idea of bringing the ferry back.

Curl argued that the ferry would most of all help the children of the Bend: They wouldn't have to wake up at the crack of dawn to catch a school bus and could stay late to participate in after-school activities.

He also said that a new ferry might save lives. It might have saved the life of Ed Pettway, who died of a heart attack before an ambulance dispatched from Camden could reach him. "It took 45 minutes for them to get there," Curl said. "By the time they got there he was dead."

But Curl also has a financial interest in a new ferry. Fifteen years ago, an acre of riverfront property on Gees Bend cost $2,500. Today, with the imminent return of the ferry, the same acre costs $50,000 to $70,000. People who invested early, including Curl, stand to make lots of money. He owns land on both sides of the river.

Is Curl simply interested in lining his own pockets?

"An interviewer from New York might say that, but people who live here and know me wouldn't say that," said Curl.

"Personal gain has nothing to do with my motivation in trying to help restore this ferry," he said. "The fact that I own 120 acres of hunting land on a creek seven miles from the ferry - that's not a factor."

Most people on Gees Bend and in Camden, both black and white, favor the return of the ferry. Among the supporters are four of Wilcox County's most prominent black professionals: lawyer William Pompey, tax assessor Ralph Ervin, social worker Cheryl Threadgill and Sheriff Prince Arnold.

They say Curl is motivated by politics, not altruism or greed.

"(Curl) wants to be in politics," said Arnold. "I think he wants to be a senator eventually. And he knows the black population is the one that's going to make him whatever he becomes in this area. He's smart now."

Camden today is very much like the rest of the South, perhaps even like most of America. Blacks and whites rub elbows. Blacks even hold many top government positions. But most businesses are owned by whites, and the public schools, desegregated a few decades ago, are now virtually all black.

Pompey suggested that racism is stilalive. "When I moved here, the sheriff received phone calls saying, 'Why in the hell that nigger's moving into our community?'" he remembered. "Nothing has changed in Wilcox. And the only difference is that the common need is the dollar. And if it wasn't for the dollar, then there would be no interaction."

Some hope that the ferry will help get rid of the divide. "There's a lot yet to be done to heal the divisiveness of the past, and I like to think that this ferry is a step in that direction," Curl said.

Will a new ferry bring Camden and Gees Bend, blacks and whites, together?

Doris Pettway was not sure that the ferry will have any effect. "Other areas have ferries and bridges and everything else, and did it make a difference as far as bringing blacks and whites together?" she asked.

"If our ferry did, then I'll do another interview with you and tell you the ferry made the difference here, " she said. "Because it has nothing to do with bridges and ferries. It really has to do with individuals. And I don't think a ferry can cure that."

A footnote, June 2000: Doris Pettway was right to hedge her bets. Several months after she said those words, the ferry still hadn't come.

Broadcast story produced by Joel Bernstein; Web story produced by David Kohn;