September 6, 2013 11:21:43 AM
More than 200 people turned out for Thursday's ceremonial unveiling of the monument at Catfish Alley as the city and its residents paid homage to a bit of the city's history that continues to unite our community.
The half-hour ceremony featured a half-dozen or so speakers, but the stars of the event where a couple of self-confessed "country boys," for whom Catfish Alley was their first glimpse into a bigger, more exciting world filled with possibilities.
While both men -- Columbus Mayor Robert Smith and Lowndes County Supervisor Leroy Brooks -- would grow up to be community leaders, their first exposure to the city block between College and Main streets cast them not in the role of men of authority, but of wide-eyed county boys for whom Catfish Alley must have seemed like Times Square.
During Thursday's ceremony, Brooks recited a poem he wrote for the occasion, recreating two conversations with his mom. In the poem, as a small child, Brooks "asks" his mother if they could go to "the Alley," a plea his mother flatly refuses. In the second part of the poem, a young man who had made his own money bailing hay "informs" his mother he is going to "the Alley," as his mother urges him to "be careful."
Thursday was a day for reviving memories and telling stories as residents turned out to admire the monument that has been erected to note the history of Catfish Alley and pay respects to the scores of black merchants, entrepreneurs and professionals who made the city block the touchstone of the black community for more than a century, a place where black and white residents crossed paths, unlike any other part of the city.
While Brooks was the rhetorical star of the day, Smith's contributions to the event are undeniable. In fact, it could be argued that the story of Thursday's celebration represents one of the mayor's finest moments, a display of leadership that turned what began as contentious debate into the celebration we witnessed Thursday.
More than a year ago, descendants of Sallie Mae Jones, who operated a restaurant on Catfish Alley for many years, approached the city council with a proposal to rename the block "Sallie Mae Jones Catfish Alley."
The proposal sparked a debate between members of the Jones family, which includes city councilman Kabir Karriem, and others who felt that no one person who operated a business in Catfish Alley should be set apart for distinction from the scores of others who could claim a similar distinction.
At that point, Smith stepped in, forming a citizens' committee to brainstorm ways to honor the history of the Alley.
The success of that effort was apparent Thursday.
Catfish Alley in its heyday exists mainly in memory today. It has long since ceased to be the economic and social hub of the black community that it once was. Today, there is a restaurant, a liquor store, a handful of offices, with virtually no hint of the Alley's rich and vibrant past.
Thanks to the efforts of the mayor, the committee he formed and all those who contributed to the project, the history of Catfish Alley has been preserved for future generations who never had the good fortune to see the Alley in its heyday.
Catfish Alley will never be what it once was. But it will not be forgotten.
That is what Thursday's ceremony was all about.
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