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A county that once barred Black people holds a town that was a safe haven for them

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

When Cullman County, Ala., was founded in 1873, it was advertised as a place with, quote, "no Blacks and no Indians." Cullman's largest city was a so-called sundown town - a place where Black people were not safe after dark. But a different community in Cullman County - one of its oldest - was actually a safe haven for Black people. WBHM's Kyra Miles has more on that history.

KYRA MILES, BYLINE: On a hot summer day in August, hundreds of people gather in Colony, Ala., for an annual town reunion and homecoming.

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MILES: Kids giggle their way through outdoor games, and hamburgers sizzle on the grill. It's everything you want from a Southern cookout. They call the celebration Colony Day, and longtime resident, Inez Malcolm, looks forward to it.

INEZ MALCOLM: We really enjoy our community. And a lot of people from different areas would - they don't believe that Black people live in Cullman County. And we do. You know, we coincide with everybody, and everybody gets along.

MILES: A lot of people here call the town the Colony, and residents say to live here is to embrace the simple life. Kids play freely in the woods, and neighbors always share with one another.

MALCOLM: Nobody in my community will ever go hungry 'cause there's always somebody that knows somebody.

MILES: On Colony Day, everyone honors their shared history. Colony is a Freedmen's town - what's left of them, anyway. Many of these towns have disappeared, but they were settled by formerly enslaved people after the Civil War. But Colony's land wasn't known for being fertile, so white settlers didn't want it. They left Colony alone. Black farmers were able to work their land, make money, and eventually buy their plots. Robert Davis, who's a history professor at Wallace State Community College in Cullman County, says it was a place where you could be Black without fear, especially in the early 1900s.

ROBERT DAVIS: The Black community in Cullman County owned more land than any other community. They had their own stores, their own mills, their own schools - the whole nine yards.

MILES: When Colony was established, it was not originally in Cullman County. They weren't welcome. Davis says there were no Black people, or at least very few in the county. And the county's largest community, also called Cullman, was a sundown town. But Davis says, when coal mines opened near the Colony, Cullman County leaders wanted to bring in the economic benefits.

DAVIS: And you can't bring Stout Mountain and the coal mines in unless you also bring in the Colony.

MILES: Combining the area's oldest Black town with a known anti-Black county could have been a recipe for disaster.

EARLENE JOHNSON: Cullman had a terrible reputation.

MILES: That's Earlene Johnson, one of Colony's oldest residents.

JOHNSON: They say Blacks were afraid to come through Cullman, even on the trains, and they would pull the shades down when they rode through Cullman.

MILES: But Johnson says the relationship between the town and the county was more complicated than that. There was nothing particularly difficult about integration in the area, and people got along. But she says there were racial tensions between the Colony and the rest of Cullman. She says it just wasn't as bad as in other parts of Alabama. Johnson went to college in Montgomery.

JOHNSON: And I was in school during the marches, when Reverend King and all that - and Rosa Parks was riding the bus. We did not have that kind of fighting going on - you know, struggle going on, where they'd put dogs and what have you.

MILES: She says residents of the Colony were largely self-sufficient, so they didn't need to go into Cullman often. But when they did, it was fine. After college, when she moved back to Colony, she became a teacher - and later, mayor. Johnson says she applied for any and every grant to get Colony a library and a town hall building. Her team's work to grow Colony led to the town's official incorporation in 1981. Johnson, who is now 84, says she hopes a new generation can continue to build up Colony.

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MILES: Back at Colony Day, Jasmine Cole is wearing a shirt that says, team Colony - lifetime member. She's 27 and the town's youngest council member. She says she was inspired by Johnson when she was a young girl to continue building up the Colony.

JASMINE COLE: So I was more just following in her footsteps trying to get The Colony back alive again 'cause it was, like, withering away.

MILES: She says Colony's biggest challenge is boosting morale and growing the community. Events like Colony Day, which she organized, is one method. But there are obstacles. Only a couple hundred people live in Colony, but the town wants a subdivision and a sewage system. Funding for that hinges on the population. It's also hard to get Black people to move to Cullman County. Today, the population is still over 95% white. Some town residents are also moving away for jobs. Despite these obstacles, Cole still believes in the Colony.

COLE: I'm proud of this area. It's always been a good community, so it means a lot to me. It's my home.

MILES: Colony is not a town that is solely defined by its history. It's a community that's supported one another through good and bad times. Cole says bringing more people in will help continue the town's self-made legacy. For NPR News, I'm Kyra Miles in Birmingham.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kyra Miles