The call came from one of the many people Wanda Howard Battle considers family, whether related or not. They were asking him to do something different: lead tours of one of the most historic places in the country, the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in his hometown of Montgomery.
His mind returned to his childhood here. Battle was born the year her family and other black residents boycotted buses in Montgomery. She grew up sharing her childhood home with rights advocates, and Battle remembers standing on the porch with her sister singing spirituals and hymns of freedom every day at sunset.
His mother moved them out of state when the church’s former pastor, Martin Luther King Jr., was shot dead by an assassin. The battle did not expect to return.
But a devotion to family brought her home, and Battle has since dedicated herself to helping improve the town however she can. As a result of this work, she was named Montgomery Advertiser Community Hero for the month of May, an honor sponsored by Southern University.
The former bank clerk and home helper has spent years building ties in the community, advocating for improvements in historic neighborhoods and sharing stories of what happened in those places. More people have been wanting to hear these stories lately, so last year Battle opened his own business here, Legendary tours.
Once the quiet child of the family, Battle now raise your voice in the song in front of the pulpit where King once preached. “This little light of mine, I will let it shine!” his voice resounds. A diverse group of tourists join in the way her sister once did.
“I was so grateful because doing the tours showed me how much people really want to come together, how much we really want to be a family for each other,” Battle said.
“During a time like this, I am in the right place doing a job that I know is divinely ordained. It has given my life such purpose and meaning.
A long way home
It has not always been so.
Montgomery’s winding road has taken her through careers in Chicago and Atlanta, through a battle with depression and a search to find the light within herself that everyone around her sees so clearly. . The constant was family.
When she returned in 1995, it was to bring her grandmother home, but she found a town that needed love. People had left the city center. Many of the businesses she grew up around have disappeared. The freeway had replaced the street where she grew up, which was also home to the Montgomery Improvement Association. It all disappeared without even a marker.
Since then things started to change and Battle said she wanted to be part of that change. “I’ve seen the last four mayors in the city (bringing) vision into the development of this downtown,” Battle said. “Now we have our first African-American mayor, Mayor Steven Reed, and there’s another vision to expand that to black communities on the West Side (and) Centennial Hill.”
It is part of a push to make Centennial Hill a historic neighborhood and an advocate of an effort by Reed and others to more fully develop western Montgomery. Meanwhile, Battle is here to do more than tell stories.
Her cousin, former community hero Rebecca Martin, said Battle is a regular at community events in Chisholm, among other places, where she shows up to help distribute supplies to neighborhood children. Beyond that, Martin described Battle as a rock to his extended family, sometimes traveling to support loved ones. When Martin’s husband died last year, Battle was his funeral soloist.
“The family is so proud of her and so grateful to have her there to spread good news and get into good trouble,” Martin said.
Valda Harris Montgomery who grew up a few doors down from King at Centennial Hill, said those strong family ties are evident in many ways.
“She’s got a lot of Montgomery in her, even though she’s walked away,” she said. “He is his mother’s child.”
“It changes you”
It’s 10 a.m. on a weekday and busloads of tourists criss-cross downtown Montgomery behind Ashley Jernigan.
Nearly two years after a racial reckoning began that continues to reverberate across the country and the world, Alabama’s capital is booming with people here to see where the modern civil rights movement began and better understand its impact. The city’s lodging tax revenue jumped 84% year-over-year in February alone and continues to rise, boosted by the recent expansion of the Legacy Museum at Equal Justice Initiative.
“They want to know what happened…,” says Jernigan, a tourism consultant with the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce. “They want to know, and now they feel comfortable walking into a space and asking the question.”
Jernigan said Battle was a valuable part of it because of his genuine passion and love for the city, for its history, and for people in general. “Wanda just exudes this happiness that makes you want to smile. They make you want to sing a song – and she will,” Jernigan laughed.
Jernigan calls Battle an “advocate for tourism.”
Rosemary Judkins of the state tourism department calls Battle an “experience giver” and said the department invited her on the road with them as they worked to find others like her.
“Whenever we need to explain an experience giver, we just introduce Wanda,” Judkins said. “…Our tours should be an experience, and they should be immersive. It changes you, and if it doesn’t, we haven’t done our job.
It keeps changing Battle.
Even after hundreds of tours, her voice still cracks with emotion as she speaks of the honor of standing at the spot where King once preached, or at the nearby corner where Rosa Parks once waited for the bus. When talking about Claudette Colvin, who was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a city bus nine months before Parks, she refers to a “cousin on my dad’s side,” one of many ways whose Battle is always a matter of family.
“It changed something in me to say, ‘Wanda, you can do this. Keep talking about love. Keep telling the truth. Keep giving people hope. Because if we lose hope we can be better together, we’re falling apart,” Battle said.
Montgomery Community Heroes
Community Heroes Montgomery, sponsored by Southern University, profiles one person each month.
The 12 categories the Montgomery announcer will focus on: Educator, Health, Business Leader, Military, Youth, Law Enforcement, Fire/Paramedic, Nonprofit/Community Service, Religious Leader, Senior Volunteer, Entertainment (arts/music) and athletics (such as a coach).
Do you know a Community Hero?
To nominate someone for Community Heroes Montgomery, email [email protected] Please specify the category for which you are applying and your contact details.
Contact Montgomery Advertiser reporter Brad Harper at [email protected].