February is Black History Month, and several local African-Americans have stories to tell about growing up in Jackson County during a time of segregation. Local resident and retired teacher Tiajuana Cotton is one such individual. Cotton is currently writing a book focused on this subject matter, but to recognize Black History Month, she stopped by The Daily Sentinel on Monday to share her recollections on going to the movies and being an integrator.
The building that is now Southern All-Sports on the west side of the square in downtown Scottsboro used to house the Ritz, a one-screen movie theater with approximately 100 seats. The Ritz closed in the early 1970s, but Cotton recalls a time during her childhood in the early 1960s when she and her friends watched movies there.
“The theater was segregated, and we had to go there in groups. Since we were black, it was very dangerous to go alone,” Cotton said. “So we had to wait until a group of us could gather, and then we would go to the Ritz as a group.”
Cotton said this group of friends consisted of mostly school-aged kids ranging from age 7 to their early 20s. And once they arrived at the theater, they were forced to walk around to the side of the building to get their tickets.
“We weren’t allowed to walk up to the main ticket booth. That was for whites only,” Cotton said. “If any one of us was bold enough to go to the main ticket booth, we would not be sold a ticket.”
Cotton remembers the long rope that worked to segregate the theater between blacks and whites. And the places on the floor where the poles supporting these ropes once stood are still visible inside Southern All-Sports.
Once the African-American customers got their tickets, they had to walk up a very steep set of stairs in near pitch-black darkness, Cotton said. Blacks were banned from watching the movie downstairs with the white viewers, which made the concession machine inaccessible to African-Americans.
“The concession machine was on the white side of the rope, but we would occasionally find a white person kind enough to get concessions for us if we gave them the money,” Cotton said. “If we couldn’t find anybody, we would sometimes wait until about halfway through the movie to sneak across the rope and get our own concessions.”
And, out of frustration from the racial discrimination, the blacks would sometimes become devious and throw ice and popcorn down at the whites in the theater, Cotton said.
“I never did that myself, but I remember others doing it,” she said. “And by the time the movie was over, we knew we were in trouble because the whites were going to come after us. Most of the time, we had to run all the way home while being chased, but we knew we were safe once we crossed the railroad tracks. The whites that chased us would never cross the tracks for some reason.”
Moving from the topic of the theater to that of her schooling years, Cotton said she holds a special place in the history of Stevenson High School. Cotton and her sister, Bessfanette Stewart, along with two other African-American girls, Zata Bynum and VeEtta Cole, were the first to integrate SHS. And these girls got a scare during a pep rally that year.
“We were sitting in the stands at the football stadium during a school pep rally, and some students came toward us motioning for us to follow them,” Cotton said. “We were scared and didn’t know what to do, but we decided to follow the students, and we ended up in the middle of the football field in front of the entire student body. We were terrified and shaking. We thought we were about to be killed execution-style until we realized we were being inducted into the National Honor Society, which was one of the defining moments of my life.”
The National Honor Society, which was also known as the Beta Club at the time, was led by Mrs. Jan Britton at SHS, Cotton said. Britton took the club to Birmingham for a state convention and registered the students to stay at the Redmont Hotel.
“But Mrs. Britton was disappointed to learn that the hotel wasn’t integrated,” Cotton said. “She was devastated almost to the point of tears and didn’t know what to do because she knew she couldn’t leave us four black students out on the street. She must have pleaded and begged on our behalf because she was able to convince the hotel staff to let us stay there.”
And thus, after integrating their school, Cotton and her colleagues were the ones to integrate the Redmont Hotel. African-Americans had never before been permitted to stay in any of the large hotels in Birmingham, making this quartet the first to do so, Cotton said.
Cotton said she could tell dozens of stories concerning her upbringing in a segregated society in Jackson County but added that she’s saving several of them for her upcoming book. And while some remnants of segregation, such as the marks on the floor at Southern All-Sports, remain to this day, Cotton said much progress has been made since her days of going to the Ritz with her friends.
“As a city and county, we have come a long way from the days of my childhood,” she said.