City Spotlight: Birmingham, AL

Reprinted from Civil Rights in Birmingham by Laura Anderson on behalf of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (Arcadia Publishing, 2013)

Birmingham, Alabama is generally best-known for 3 things: steel, the medical facility at UAB (University of Alabama – Birmingham) and its prominence in The Civil Rights Movement. Yet this great southern city has so much more to offer. Join us as we dive into a brief history of Birmingham, historic images of Birmingham, and more!

A Brief History

Though Birmingham, Alabama was officially founded in 1871, its first residents were veterans of General Andrew Jackson’s army, who arrived in 1815. The area developed a fledgling iron industry when its rich mineral deposits of iron ore were discovered. During the Civil War, the Confederate army seized control of the industry, using the land’s resources to manufacture cannon, warships, and other military hardware.

After the Civil War, however, the development of railroads paved the way for the city’s founding. In December 1870, investors recognizing Birmingham’s potential as a steel center, organized the Elyton Land Company, for the purpose of building the new city. The company’s president, James R. Powell, was selected in January 1871. Having recently returned from a trip to Birmingham, England, which served as the country’s iron and steel center, Powell suggested the same name for the new town, in the hopes that it would match its English counterpart in the steel industry. Birmingham, AL was officially chartered by the state legislature on December 19, 1871.

Two unfortunate events threatened the city’s economic growth shortly after its establishment. A cholera epidemic savaged the city’s residents due to a lack of sufficient clean water or adequate sewage facilities. Not long after, the economic Panic of 1873 struck, destroying Birmingham’s real estate boom. Fortunately, the city and its residents powered through these misfortunates, relying heavily on the rich supply of mineral deposits available in the area, eventually making it the industrial center of the New South.

Growing Birmingham into an industrial city began first in 1878, with the help of a major government stimulus. A series of mines were opened which facilitated the large-scale production of pig iron. Later, the Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company (TCI) opened several more facilities, while acquiring others already existing, allowing the production of pig ironic to flourish further. Continued industrial expansion in the 1890’s saw Birmingham evolve from a rough and tumble “boom town” to a civilized city with paved streets, gaslights, telephone service, and a public school system.

The success of Birmingham’s economy in the early 1900’s is largely credited to two developments. First, the purchase of TCI by U.S. Steel in 1907, followed by the completion of the lock-and-dam system on the Tombigbee and Warrior Rivers in 1915. The former action brought financial resources to the city, while the later provided Birmingham manufacturers with cheaper water transportation for their goods.

Unfortunately, the city’s economy, as with much of the U.S., saw a severe downturn when the stock market crashed in October 1929. Birmingham struggled to recover in subsequent years until the outbreak of World War II. The city’s steel mills quickly became an essential part of the nation’s arsenal, which reignited growth in Birmingham’s economy. After the war, Birmingham diversified its manufacturing, creating farm equipment, chemicals, nail, wire, cottonseed and more.

In addition to the new post-war industries, Hayes International Aircraft, and the establishment of a modern medical complex, had the ability to see Birmingham’s economy truly soar. Unfortunately, this was not yet to be the case, as city officials and residents faced a civil rights struggle that left the city’s reputation in shambles, and deterred new investors.

The Civil Rights Movement

African-Americans initially moved to Birmingham to escape the plantations where they were once slaves, and later sharecroppers. By 1880, more than half of the city’s industrial workers were African-American. While working and living conditions were difficult for African-Americans already, this was compounded by the deeply entrenched system of segregation that dominated the South, and especially Birmingham.

The city of Birmingham and its industries were built on the backs of thousands of African-American laborers who migrated to the city to toil in its mines and mills. [Pg. 10]
Reprinted from Civil Rights in Birmingham by Laura Anderson on behalf of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (Arcadia Publishing, 2013)

The city’s struggle with civil rights is perhaps best expressed by its former nickname, “Bombingham,” which was coined as the result of numerous racially motivated bombings of black homes. However, the issue didn’t become a national focus until the brutal treatment suffered by the Freedom Riders in 1961. Later, in 1963, the “Birmingham Campaign,” which involved protesting segregated downtown businesses, further revealed the racial tensions in the city. In fact, Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested during these demonstrations, and during his incarceration, he wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” as a response to an opinion piece by white ministers urging an end to the protests.

African-American culture was anchored by the church. Hundreds of churches, of all sizes and representing many denominations, were located throughout the city. Sixteenth Street Baptist church, seen here, was designed by Wallace Rayfield and constructed in 1911. The congregation itself was founded in 1873 as the first chruch for African-Americans in the city. (Courtesy Birmingham Public Library.) [Pg. 13]
Reprinted from Civil Rights in Birmingham by Laura Anderson on behalf of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (Arcadia Publishing, 2013)

Though a few weeks of peace were established with the end of some of the segregationist policies later that year, it came to an abrupt halt after the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church (shown above), which claimed the lives of four young girls. It is largely acknowledged that this horrific event led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed racial segregation in public places. The passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 further served to improve race relations in the city. In fact, they elected their first black mayor, Richard Arrington Jr., in 1979.

Modern Birmingham

Today Birmingham boasts a strong economy, thanks in great part to an exceptional medical and research facility at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, as well as the presence of several of the nation’s largest steelmakers. Some of the country’s top construction and engineering firms are also based there.

Birmingham is the state’s most populous city, with an estimated 212,000+ residents, according to the 2010 Census. At this time, the city’s reported median household income was around $30,000, with the per capita income around $18,500.

While Birmingham is home to a number of visitor attractions, its hallmark is undoubtedly the towering statue of Vulcan, which overlooks the city from the top of Red Moutain. Sculpted by Guiseppe Moretti in 1904, the Roman god of fire and metalworking serves as a fitting symbol of the city. Other attractions include the Civil Rights Institute, the Birmingham Museum of Art, the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame and more! Birmingham also boasts the nation’s oldest baseball park, Rickwood Field, as well as the third-longest golf course in the world at the Ross Bridge Renaissance resort.

Though Birmingham’s history is rife with challenges, it has utilized its strengths to become an incredible southern city.

Birmingham Fun Facts

-   The Birmingham Museum of Art houses one of the largest collections of Wedgwood pottery outside of the U.K. Wedgwood was founded in 1759 in Stoke-on-Trent, England by Josiah Wedgwood.

-   Birmingham is the only place in the world where all three raw ingredients for steel (coal, limestone, and iron ore) occur naturally within a ten-mile radius.

-   The Divinity of Light (although most people just call her Electra) stands atop the Alabama Power Building. In 1926, a writer for the Birmingham Post began publishing installments of the love story of Electra and Vulcan, attributing the potholes downtown to their footsteps from their trips to see one another.

-   A replica of the Statue of Liberty lies on the city's outskirts; it was originally commissioned by the founder of Liberty National Life Insurance Company in 1956.

-   Barber Motorsports Park, located just outside city limits, boasts the world's largest motorcycle museum. Guinness World Records made it official last year.

Historic Images of Birmingham

Downtown Birmingham's Fourth Avenue business district, seen in this west-facing photograph bustled with life's business and pleasure after its emergence as the center of entertainment and commerce for African-Americans in the 1910s. Restaurants, lounges, physicians' and lawyers' offices, insurance companies, banks, and theaters were located in this historically black business district. (Courtesy Birmingham Public Library.) [Pg. 21]
Reprinted from Civil Rights in Birmingham by Laura Anderson on behalf of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (Arcadia Publishing, 2013)

The "Bird's Eye View" shows three Birmingham skyscrapers, the Brown-Marx (large building on right), the Empire (tall building left of center), and the Woodward (foreground next to Empire). 
Reprinted from Birmingham and Jefferson County by Jefferson County Historical Commission (Arcadia Publishing, 2010.)

The area that became Wylam was settled after the Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Roailroad Company opened two mines there in 1886. [Pg. 29]
Reprinted from Birmingham and Jefferson County by Jefferson County Historical Commission (Arcadia Publishing, 2010.)

Beginning in 1972, the First National Bank/Southern Natural Gas (SONAT) Building displayed these Christmas emblems by inserting red or green sleeves over the fluorescent bulbs in some of the windows. More than forty years later, the tradition continues each holiday season. [Pg. 29]
Reprinted from Christmas in Birmingham by Tim Hollis (The History Press, 2015.)

Terminal Station and Subway, Birmingham, c. 1929. The Terminal Station was built in 1929 for all trains except the L&N, which had a depot on Morris Avenue and Twentieth Street. By the mid-1920s, almost 100 passenger trains arrived and departed each day. The Terminal Hotel is located across the street from the station. It was one of a half dozen located within a block of the station. [Pg. 18]
Reprinted from Birmingham in Vintage Postcards by J.D. Weeks (Arcadia Publishing, 1999.)

For more information about the city and historic images of Birmingham, check out these other resources:

Birmingham: Then & Now

Birmingham Broadcasting

Baseball in Birmingham

Haunted Birmingham

Lost Birmingham

All Birmingham, AL books