“I grew up in North Carolina and married a soldier when I was 16. We moved to Mobile in 1952 and I have lived in The Bottom ever since. I didn’t know anyone here, except my good in-laws. My mom taught us education was the most important thing. I finished high school at Josephine Allen Institute after I moved to Mobile. I went to the 20th Century Business College to become a secretary. I completed the courses and realized people weren’t hiring black secretaries. There weren’t many jobs a black woman could do in Mobile. I had to accept the limited options for making a living. I have always been independent and outspoken and knew I needed to find something else to work for myself.
I visited my sister in the Bronx and saw her beauty shop was a good business. I went to cosmetology school so I could open my own beauty shop. I worked as a presser at Swan Cleaners during the day and went to beauty school at night. After I got off work, I walked my three-year-old daughter to the Roger Williams projects for my girlfriend to keep her, then walked to school.
I have been in the beauty business for 60 years. My first shop was on the corner of Davis Avenue and Peach Street. I walked up and down the street to my shop. One day a lady stopped me and asked if I wanted to buy her house. Others wanted it, but she said I work hard and have children, she wanted me to have it. I couldn’t afford the house, but she took me to the Black-owned bank and we talked with the president. She paid the $80 down payment and we created a payment plan I could afford. I have been here ever since. My shop is next to the house and there were nights I worked until after midnight. I put four kids through college from this shop. Most of my clientele was the teachers who lived in the neighborhoods around Davis Avenue. Many had master’s degrees and Ph.D’s. You could hear their heels click as they walked up and down the sidewalk. They were second parents to our kids and helped us keep them in line.
Once I sat down on the bus on the way home from work. The bus driver told me I had to get up. I said: ‘Sir, nobody was sitting here.’ I was tired from working all day. He kept telling me to get up. I told him no and ignored him. He stopped and told me he was going to call the police. I sat there until I thought the police had time to arrive. I got off the bus and walked home. It was a terrible feeling, but you either did what they said or were beat up. That wasn’t right, so I became active in the civil rights movement in Mobile.
Heart of Mary was the only church that allowed civil rights people to come in and plan meetings and marches. Dr. King was going to come in and lead a march from there, but the preachers got together and stopped him at the airport. They told him Mobile was alright, we didn’t need him here. The NOW organization (Neighborhood Organized Workers of Mobile) began and took up the things Dr. King wanted to do.
I marched up and down Davis Avenue for civil rights. Our first sit-ins were at the Kress and Woolworth stores downtown. We had a “Black Christmas” boycotting the stores downtown to get them to hire black employees. John LeFlore was one of the leaders in the civil rights movement in Mobile. He didn’t live too far from me and we heard the bomb go off when someone firebombed his house.
I went back to school and got a bachelor’s degree in business administration. I taught at Bishop State as a part-time instructor in cosmetology. They wouldn’t hire me as a full-time instructor, but I was determined to succeed. I was the first Black in almost everything I’ve ever done.
In 1980, Fob James was the governor of Alabama. There were no Blacks on the Alabama Board of Cosmetology. Maj. Gen. Gary Cooper worked with Fob James and helped me get appointed. I was the first Black from our district. George Wallace was re-elected governor and reappointed me. After he swore me in, I told him he looked good. He said: ‘Baby, I wish I felt good. I am in pain every day of my life.’ That changed my feelings toward him. There is a picture of us on my wall. He was in a wheelchair and a caretaker wheeled him around. He wrote on the picture: ‘Best wishes to my friend Mary Morris.”
I have lived and worked on Davis Avenue all of my life. If you didn’t walk down The Avenue, you haven’t been anywhere. You didn’t wear jeans on the Avenue. I wore my beautiful dresses and pants suits. My friends and I would walk to the end of The Avenue. There was so much that you could do with the movies, the clubs and the restaurants. There was also respect. You could walk down the Avenue at midnight or one o’clock in the morning. Nobody would bother you. People asked if you were alright or if they could walk you somewhere. I enjoyed that life. Now, I’m afraid to walk The Avenue after dark.
As the older generations died out, the younger ones didn’t stay to take over what was left on The Avenue. They moved away. The oldies like Yvonne Kennedy and I fought to keep businesses here, but we didn’t have the support. Davis Avenue lost its base. There weren’t enough people fighting to keep it alive.
Integration also took a turn. The city restructured Dunbar Middle School. They also closed Owens and Northside elementary schools and Central High School, sending our students and best teachers outside of our district. Now the children stand on the corners early in the morning, waiting to be bused to schools outside our neighborhood. We lost schools, neighborhoods, businesses and churches. We became unrooted and unconnected. There are lessons to learn because losing this community was losing our strength.
I will be 85 soon and still fight for our community. I’m glad to be a part of this history. God gives me the strength to still help people and to work every day.”