We very nearly interviewed Tori Bailey, possibly the busiest person in the Shoals area. Tori runs WZZA, the only Black radio station in North Alabama, started by her mom and dad in 1972. Tori is also president of the Northwest Alabama NAACP and VP of this and board member of that. Tori organizes the world famous WC Handy Festival in the Shoals, now encompassing 300 events in 20 cities.
Tori was proud of her dad, an energetic entrepreneur, described by her as a “maverick.” The conversation was as much about her father as it was about Tori. Robert Carl Bailey, who died in 2001, was responsible for a lot of firsts: First Black policeman in Huntsville, first Black car salesman in the area, first Black police chief in Triana (a little mostly-Black town near Huntsville), first Black owner of a record store in the area, first Black host of a TV show in Florence, and first Black owner of a licensed radio station in Northwest Alabama. Articles about him said, “He paid church mortgages, utility bills, car notes, school tuition; spoke with employers, judges and lawyers on behalf of those who needed an advocate.”
Tori said that the gift her father gave to her was her willingness to take risks. Her mother Odessa Bailey was the practical one who kept the family down to earth. She still works the front desk at WZZA.
We talked about Alabama’s voter ID laws and the sneaky maneuvering being done to disenfranchise Black voter. Tori is politically active and heads an effort to get people to the polls and to help resolve issues in which voters have been denied their right to vote, in a few cases even getting the Alabama Secretary of State’s office involved. Tori said both major political parties had more or less abandoned African American people. Tori said, “I’ll sit down when someone else stands up.”
We talked about Civil Rights history and how some of the explicit conflicts down in Selma, Birmingham, and Montgomery never reached the Shoals. Her thought was that it was because there is a spirit of cooperation and mutual respect in the Shoals.
When I asked her what she missed when she lived in Atlanta, Tori said, “The River. And the way people take care of each other in a small town.” Then added, “Maybe I don’t miss how everybody knows your business, but that’s alright.”