Civil Rights Activists in Boiling Spring, Alabama

Although nearly abandoned today, in 1965 the tiny primarily Black community of Boiling Spring in remote northwestern Wilcox County was the center of a vibrant voting rights movement with leaders like the Lawsons, Burrells and Robinsons.

Satto Tilia Parker Burrell & James Burrell were parents of Boiling Springs leader Eddie Burrell and in-laws to his wife, Virginia Boykin Burrell. Their now abandoned home was once a vibrant political, religious and social center.

Sometimes I stayed with the Robinsons who had 12 children yet made room for me, a white teenage civil rights worker. I shared a bed with their teen daughter and several small children. When I rolled over, I had to be careful not to kick the little ones stacked at the end of the bedstead. Some evenings, we’d walk through the woods with kerosene lanterns to take meals at the Lawsons. After I returned to California, my letters to Robinsons and Lawsons were returned undeliverable. I searched for them for decades without success.

Forty-seven years later, Deborah Burrell Tucker, whose mother Virginia Boykin Burrell was a leader and voter literacy teacher in Boiling Spring, contacted me.

Voncille Burrell canvassed for voters from age 13. Her mother Virginia Boykin Burrell (right) taught literacy classes for new voters. Mary Robinson is on her left.

Her sister, Voncille Burrell Spencer, recalls canvassing for voters with me when she was just 13 years old.  Her Cousin Betty Lawson Henderson told me that her family maintained a civil rights safe house for years. After many years of searching, I discovered some of the Robinsons who housed me. Sadly, some still fear white retribution for their involvement in the Movement. While the Burrells and Lawsons, and another Robinson clan proudly claim their place in history, some of “my” Robinsons believe that the racial climate hasn’t changed a bit and asked me to omit their names from my book. It makes me sad but also helps explain why more progress hasn’t been made. The Robinsons and all civil rights activists who risked their lives and property to be active in the Movement, deserve to live in peace and comfort and to be honored for their contribution to the progress that has been made, most especially the right to vote.

Unsung Heroine of Boiling Springs is Recognized Posthumously

Recent unprovoked white on black murders tragically give credence to lingering fears. A new Civil Rights Movement calls for massive economic, social policy and educational change. We cannot give up, cannot rest, until everyone in this country can go to sleep without fear of being targeted for the color of their skin or for their commitment to racial justice. All of us must vote in every election until we change policies and politicians to secure these rights for all. The courageous heroes of Boiling Spring,both living and deceased, known and anonymous, continue to call us to action.

21 comments on “Civil Rights Activists in Boiling Spring, Alabama

  1. Any relatives of Dan and Priscilla Showers who lived in Boiling Springs, Alabama from about 1830-1939, please contact me.


  2. Betty says:

    Thanks Maria for such a wonderful article on Boilings Springs, my parent, Uncle Eddie & Aunt Virginia, also the Robinsons. My aunt was one great and wonderful person. She was like a second mom to me.


  3. Rebecca G. Marshall, 1503 Carbondale Dr. N., Jacksonville, FL 32208 (904)765-1133) says:

    I am Rebecca Graves Marshall and I grew up in Boiling Spring, Alabama. I graduated from high school in 1966 and was surprised that the Graves family as well as the Shaw family and others were not mentioned. Since 1900, the Graves family has had a presence in Boiling Spring, Alabama. In fact, I remember, my father, Cornelius Graves, as been one of the community leaders during the civil rights era during the 1960s.

    In searching family history, I found that my grandfather and his mother was in Boiling Spring in 1900 among the Shaws, Burrells, Lawsons,Ro etc. and though not blood relatives, have been a presence in the Boiling Spring community since that time.

    Setting the record straight, my parents, Cornelius (1919-2003) and Adlay Moore Graves (1922 – ) also participated in the civil rights endeavor during that time


    • says:

      Rebecca, I certainly remember that like yesterday. Your Parents was very involved in the movement in our community, very much involved. So wer our parents: I remember my father, Eddie James Burrell, being shot at during the civil rights movement. Who did it I dont know for sure or why it was done. I am not afraid of being in involved in the movement now or ever. Why should I be? I served in the Military, the Vietnam War. So I am not afraid; I dont have anything to worry about because God is over me and in me.

      Elmer Burrell


      • Maria Gitin says:

        Dear Elmer and Brenda, too. Thank you for correcting the name of the Burrell grandparents. And thank you to all the unsung heroes of the Boiling Springs Movement who continue to share their family stories. If you send them, they will be posted. Peace & blessings, Maria


  4. Rebecca Graves Marshall, 1503 Carbondale Dr. N., Jacksonville, FL 32208 (904)765-1133) says:

    Rebecca Graves Marshall — I too remember very vividly the contribution of Mrs. Virginia Burrell. You simply would not find a nicer person. I remember her teaching the adult education class. I also remember her sister, Mrs. Mary Robinson who was also a wonderful teacher.

    I also remember when all of the people from the community put on their Sunday best to go to vote for the first time. I remember going to Camden, along with my parents, almost every Sunday night to the civil rights meeting. I also remember Mr. Albert Gordon who also lost his teaching position because of his involvement in the civil rights movement in Wilcox County.


  5. Linda Simon says:

    Do anyone remember the Simon family? If so, please post a reply. I would be very interested in learning about my great grandparents. Thanks much! Linda


    • Rebecca Graves Marshall says:

      I am 66 years old and I don’t remember the Showers or Simons in Boiling Spring, but in addition to the Lawsons, Burrells and Robinsons, I also remember the Shaw and Graves family. The Shaw family is a pretty large family and they are related to most of the families mentioned; however, the Graves family who is not related to most people in Boiling Spring, has been there since 1900 and was very much a part of the movement. I pretty much remember almost EVERYONE in Boiling Spring being involved.

      In addition, Boiling Spring is still a vibrant community with many families still represented. Although many people relocated to the north during the 60s, 70s, and 80s, quite a few family members continue to live in Boiling Spring. As time goes on, some are returning home to live.

      I am home each year in September for homecoming at Boiling Spring and even though our parents and others are deceased, quite a few of their children continue to live in Boiling Spring and others that moved away continue to come back for this occasion every year.

      I would definitely not say that it is abandoned.


      • Linda Simon says:

        Hello Rebecca Marshall,

        Thanks so very much for your reply to my inquiry.

        I was hoping to glean information about my family having lived there in the early to mid 1900. My great-grand father Butch King lived there and his daughter, Bessie Mae King married my grand father John Simon and they lived there as farm labourers. Bessie’s brothers were Paul and John King.

        Bessie and John Simon had three sons, Robert, L.J. and one other who name I’m sorry to say escapes me at the moment.

        I’m not sure if they were involved in The civil Rights Moment, but being African American, they must have been as the times dictated involvement on some level or another. I hope they were a part of this wonderful time in our collective history.

        I hope this additional information will help free up any memories of my family. Thank you.


        • Essie Simon says:

          Hello Cousin Linda, this is Essie. I am in the family history mood also. My Dad name was Dave and the other brother was Uncle Herbert. They also had a half-brother named Hubert.I remember the names you have listed. I believe Uncle Paul raised Daddy and his brothes in Mobile,AL. I just returned from the Family Reunion in Cincinnati and I always try to find out more and more about the family.


    • Maria Gitin says:

      Dear Linda Simon, You will see that Rebecca Graves Marshall has kindly responded to your query. Also note, that while open to all, the principle purpose of this blog is to serve African American families and civil rights workers
      as a place to share their stories and memories of the prolonged civil rights struggle in Wilcox County. Please feel free to add anything about how your family contributed to the Movement. Thank you.


      • Linda Simon says:

        Hi there Maria Gitin,

        Thanks for your reply. Yes, I did see the reply from Rebecca and as you can see, I informed her that I wasn’t sure if my family were activity involved in Movement there.

        I do know that my family, the Kings’ in Gaston, Alabama were heavily involved my great-uncle J.D. King as matriarch, was a member of NAACP and marched as so many did, with MLK.

        I’m a bit short on a lot of the details as my branch of the family, my father Robert Simon had moved to California by WWII’s end.

        I do thank you kindly for posting your reply to my inquiry.


        • Maria Gitin says:

          You are very welcome. In my brief summer in Wilcox I do not recall meeting any Kings but have heard that there were some there. In my book,”This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight” I write about my brief time with the Robinsons and Lawsons, and also meeting the Burrells. If you would like, I can give you e-mail addresses for them if you write an e-mail message to me. I would not want to post them on this public site but expect that they would be glad to tell you what they recall if you share the names you are seeking.

          Also, later when I met Voncille and Deborah Burrell, they told me a story about their father, Eddie Burrell, being chased and shot at by men with guns because of his work in the Movement. He had to ditch his shot up car and ran into the woods and hid out at the “Kings.” So that must have been the same family.


        • Essie Simon says:

          The correct spelling is Gadsden. Uncle Herbert lived there until his passing. This is where many of our family members live now. We still have a great Aunt there (Aunt Alma). Her brother , our great uncle Woodrow (Uncle Woody) lives in Montgomery,AL. Our grandmother’s brother and sister.


  6. Linda Walker says:

    Hello Cousin Essie,
    Thank you so much for filling-in the names of your dad Dave and Herbert. My brain went blank. Anymore info you can share with me?


  7. David R. Hodges III says:

    Does anyone remember Pleas and Mary Hodges who lived in Boiling Springs in 1900. They had four sons.


  8. Linda Simon says:

    To: Essie Simon
    Did you find out anymore information regarding our family? Any civil rights involvement? Sorry to hear about Elaine’s passing.


  9. leverties lawon says:

    Mary Hoges lived behind the lawsons in 1900


  10. Albert Wright says:

    I’m searching for any information pertaining to the Lankford family. The 1910 census shows the following members living Boiling Springs: Saul 63; Bettie 44; Sallie Davis (daughter) 25; Davie 12; Howard 10; Cham (my grandfather) 6; Robert 4; Solomon 2. Please contact me with any information.


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