When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. needed a safe haven during a brief visit to Greensboro more than 50 years ago, it was only natural that he turned to longtime friend and local civil rights activist Theresa Burroughs.
King was in Greensboro on March 21, 1968, to speak at a church, said Theresa Davis. As he was leaving town, he got a message that Ku Klux Klan members were prowling the streets and burning area churches.
For his protection, African American residents hid him in a tiny three-room shotgun-style house owned by Burroughs’ family. Stationed in bushes around the house, they watched over him throughout the night.
In 2002, Burroughs opened a museum in that three-room house and filled it with artifacts, photos, biographies and other relics depicting the civil rights struggle faced by those living in Greensboro and the rural Black Belt region. As a reminder of King’s long-ago visit and its impact on the community that night, she named it the Safe House Black History Museum.
“Through the museum, Theresa wanted to highlight the foot soldiers who were involved in the local movement and show people they, too, can stand up for what is right,” said Davis, executive director of the museum. “She proved if you believe in something, stand for it and pursue it, you can make it happen.” Davis recently took the reins of the museum, succeeding Burroughs, who, at age 90, died last year on May 21.
Raised in Greensboro, Burroughs fought for equal rights for all people at a time when the playing field was uneven among the races. Blacks across the South were “fed up,” Burroughs said in a 2009 article in the Tuscaloosa News. They wanted the same rights that whites had, especially the right to vote.
Burroughs was persistent. As a young woman, she and other African American Greensboro residents stood in line for hours every first and third Monday for 10 weeks at the Hale County Courthouse waiting to register to vote. The Board of Registrars would quiz them, asking irrelevant questions or testing their knowledge of American history.
Burroughs remembered one instance in which the chairman of the board held up a bag of jellybeans and asked her how many red and black ones it held. When she failed to give the right answer, she was told that she could not register.
Growing tired of rejection, Burroughs told the Rev. J.J. Simmons, the local minister who had supported her throughout the process, that she would not return to the courthouse and be embarrassed by “silly” questions.
“Rev. Simmons told me, ‘You want to vote, don’t you? … We’re going to go until the building falls down. We’re going to be there every time they open that door,’” Burroughs said in “A More Perfect Union,” a video produced by StoryCorps.org.
On another occasion, Burroughs was told to recite the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, and it was then the board finally allowed her to register.
“The whites didn’t have to do that to register,” Burroughs told the Tuscaloosa News. “This is how we were treated, and we were tired of it. We were going to take whatever means necessary that were nonviolent to vote. And we did.”
Burroughs was one of the leading “foot soldiers” of that era. She was among the first marchers to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in 1965 and was attacked and arrested in what became known as Bloody Sunday, Davis said.
But Burroughs’ home base was Greensboro, where she fought most of her battles. She and other activists joined forces to form the Hale County Civic Improvement League, an organization that was instrumental in encouraging minorities to run for public office.
“I can’t tell you how many times we marched, how many times we demonstrated and how many rallies we had,” she told the Tuscaloosa News in 2005.
“Everybody knows about Selma, Montgomery and Birmingham, but you don’t find much in the history books about Greensboro, Hale County and even Greene County. Well, we had quite a bit of history here, too.”
Burroughs was also a leading businesswoman in Greensboro. Before opening the museum, she owned and operated a beauty salon, the Beauty Bar, for more than 50 years.
“Theresa was a woman of courage,” said Davis. “Young people looked up to her because of her ability to lead and get results.”
Davis said the museum, which has been expanded to include two neighboring shotgun houses, an art gallery, a gift shop and a lobby, clearly tells the story of the struggles that these foot soldiers faced during the 1950s and 1960s.
The walls are covered with the black-and-white mug shots of the marchers, each holding a sign with their name, birth date, hometown and the date of the Greensboro protest that led to their arrest – July 29, 1965. Among the photos is a shot of Burroughs holding a towel and wearing glasses to protect her eyes from tear gas. There are also photos from the Edmond Pettus Bridge march on Bloody Sunday and later the triumphant Selma to Montgomery March.
The museum also includes many artifacts that Burroughs collected through the years as well as others that have been donated. Among them are kitchen utensils, pots, hand-crank milk churns and musical instruments.
The commitment of Burroughs and the other marchers reaped results. On Aug. 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. It outlawed discriminatory voting practices, including literacy tests as a prerequisite for voting.
In the Tuscaloosa News, Burroughs said she always exercised what she called her “sacred right” to vote.
“The next election (after the Voting Rights Act of 1965), I voted and I haven’t missed an election since,” Burroughs said. “I don’t miss voting because we paid the price.”