Leaving Birmingham: Notes of a Native Sonby Paul Hemphill
Birmingham's history of racial violence and bigotry is the centerpiece of this intense and affecting memoir about family, society, and politics in a city still haunted by its notorious past.
In 1963, Birmingham was the scene of some of the worst racial violence of the civil rights era. Police commissioner "Bull" Connor loosed dogs and turned/b>… See more details below
Birmingham's history of racial violence and bigotry is the centerpiece of this intense and affecting memoir about family, society, and politics in a city still haunted by its notorious past.
In 1963, Birmingham was the scene of some of the worst racial violence of the civil rights era. Police commissioner "Bull" Connor loosed dogs and turned fire hoses on black demonstrators; four young girls at Sunday school were killed when a bomb exploded in a black church; and Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote his famous letter from the Birmingham jail, defending his activism to fellow ministers.
Birmingham native Paul Hemphill, disillusioned with his hometown, had left home to pursue a journalistic career, so he witnessed these historic events with the rest of the world through newspaper and television reports. "That grim old steel town," he writes, "was the most blatantly segregated city of its size in the United States of America, and most of us regarded it with the same morbid fascination that causes us to slow down and gawk at a bloody wreck on the highway."
Thirty years later, Hemphill returned to Birmingham to explore the depths of change that had taken place in the decades since the violence. In this powerful memoir, he interweaves his own autobiography with the history of the city and the stories of two very different Birmingham residents: a wealthy white matron and the pastor of the city's largest black church. As he struggles to come to terms with his own conflicting feelings toward his father's attitudes, Hemphill finds ironic justice in the integration of his childhood neighborhood and a visit with the black family who moved into his family's former home.
"The best explanation to date of the frustrations that led Birmingham to 'sulk like a volcano ready to erupt at the slightest provocation."
—Los Angeles Times
"Leaving Birmingham is family memoir, social history, political chronicle. . . . Paul Hemphill tells a story that can interest any reader who tracks the spore of American lives in the twentieth century."
—Cleveland Plain Dealer
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Never for a moment in its brief and tortured life has Birmingham been a genuinely "southern" city. True, it lies in the north-central part of Alabama, "the Heart of Dixie," only a hundred miles up the road from Montgomery, "the Cradle of the Confederacy." True, people there say "y'all" and on the surface would seem to share many traits with the rest of the Old Confederacy: they are churchgoing, flag-waving, slow-moving, and conservative to the point of being paranoid about people and ideas that deviate from the status quo. True, Birmingham has been associated with many icons that are considered, for better or for worse, southern: Bear Bryant, the Ku Klux Klan, the "Dixie-crats," George Wallace, the Confederate flag. But even southerners know that on the one hand there are Memphis and Charleston and Mobile and Natchez, old cities truly tied to the agrarian South, that gossamer myth of Gone With the Wind, and then there is Birmingham. No, Birmingham isn't southern except by geography. It was conceived as a gawky stepchild, more northern than southern, and was nurtured by outsiders to become the only industrial giant that ever developed below the Mason-Dixon line. It was masculine, not feminine; a hard lump of coal, not a soft boll of cotton; a miner's shack, not a plantation; a banjo, not a violin; gritty red iron ore, not damp black loam; mine shafts lit by carbide lamps, not antebellum salons bathed in candlelight. Its major blessing, that it nestled like a hen on deep lodes of all the mineralsnecessary for the production of steel, would turn out to be its curse.
The word "southern" implies a past, a connection to slavery and cotton and the Civil War, but Birmingham never had that past. Indeed, the city didn't even exist when Union general William Tecumseh Sherman razed Atlanta on his march to the sea. Up to that point, the area that would become Birmingham had been a scraggly wilderness at the southern end of the Appalachians, sparsely populated by pioneer farmers who didn't know exactly what to make of the sorry red earth except that it wouldn't grow much besides corn and that the departed Creeks and Choctaws had used it to make dyestuff. The big money in the South, of course, was in the cotton grown in the lush Black Belt south of there. In 1850, throughout what was known as the Cotton States, about one thousand families divided more than fifty million dollars. There was no middle class to serve as a buffer between them and the slaves, who earned not a penny for themselves, and the great sprawling mass of poor whites, whose average income was less than one hundred dollars a year. Little wonder, then, that when the call to arms was sounded, when time came for Alabama to secede from the Union, the slaves and the dirt farmers were much more interested in killing planters than in killing Yankees. Thus was born the Free State of Winston (near Walker County, whose seat is Jasper, an old lumbering and mining town on the railroad lines some fifty miles northwest of Birmingham), on the grounds that, as they say in those parts, "we ain't got no dog in that fight."
But while those poor farmers were cursing the infertile land where they had hoisted their cabins, some other men had taken a closer look at it, and doubtless their hearts had quickened. They were geologists, men who knew something of the great iron mills now pulsating in the North, men who knew that there were other uses for soil than growing crops. Thus, before the war, here and there in the dark gullies of Jones Valley in Jefferson County, whose population had been only four thousand when Alabama gained statehood in 1819, they began gouging coal and iron ore out of the ground and slapping together primitive charcoal furnaces to produce ingots of crude iron that, in the beginning, were sold to blacksmiths and to farmers who did their own smithing. By 1860, on the eve of the war, there were just twelve thousand souls living in the county, whose seat was a village called Elyton, which held one hundred and five families, a school, a courthouse, and a race track. Once the war began, the Confederacy set up an ironworks at Selma, near their capital in Montgomery, and subsidized an Alabama engineer by the name of John Milner to build a railway northward to fetch the minerals and bring them back to Selma. He didn't make it. Before Milner's men could complete the line, the Selma ironworks fell; and when the Union raiders traced the proposed line to its head in Jones Valley, which would become Birmingham, it took them only eight days in March of 1865 to destroy the furnaces and excavations that had represented the South's first tinkerings at iron production.
The war ended a month later, leaving the South in shambles. Atlanta, the queen city, had been leveled. The cotton economy was in ruins. Roaming across the wasted countryside were crippled veterans, widows and orphans, vandals and pillagers, former slaves wondering what to do with their "freedom," and a band of vultures known as carpetbaggers and scalawags andominously, euphemisticallynorthern "investors." The latter, salivating at the prospects, knowing full well what treasures lurked below the surface of the scarred earth, swooped down with their money, both real and imagined, in frenzied schemes and speculations. Land that had been worth fifty dollars an acre before the war was now going for as little as three dollars; and they bought up all they could in the knowledge that when the furnaces and mines were rebuilt, and railroads were laid to haul the coal and iron out of the valley, a whole new day would dawn in this part of the South.
Reenter John Milner, who had never given up on his dream of building a city from scratch in the middle of Jones Valley's rich veins of coal and iron ore and limestone. Milner hooked up with a shadowy Boston promoter named John Stanton in a lengthy game of cat-and-mouse involving the construction of railroads that would cross near Elyton; and when Stanton's fortune was found to be bogus, the victory went to the craftier and better-financed Milner. The railroads met, the Elyton Land Company was organized, and a new city was born. The date was January 26, 1871.
They named it Birmingham, after the grim old manufacturing center in England, and it was a stark contrast to the antebellum cities of Montgomery and Mobile in the southern part of the state. This was more like the Wild West than the Deep South. The records show that in September of '71 Birmingham proper consisted of "fifty-seven wooden houses, eighteen brick stores, two planing mills, and one hotel," but that tells little. "Now in the mud roads that pass for streets," it was written in 1937 in Harper's Monthly,
the speculators hurry back and forth giving sales talks to one another. "There's millions in it. Nobody knows much about what the mineral is or where, but it's there." They have got their railroad, such as it is, built to the town site and a little beyond, but they have no Northern connection. They live in a couple of boxcars beside the railroad track and make plans. "Cincinnati money has already showed up and annexed a furnace. Do you know where there's some money?" ... Grant is in the White House, the gilded age is dawning, and as they watch it the Birmingham speculators' mouths water.... The age of iron and steel, of rampant industry and the greedy gutting of a continent, has begun....
As new furnaces and foundries and mills and mines sprang up in the piney woods, virtually overnight, the fledgling town became a melting pot much like Denver, another mineral boomtown half a continent away. Birmingham was overrun by a roiling conglomeration of speculators, whores, gamblers, barkeeps, murderers, adventurers, freed slaves, assorted camp followers, and destitute young men who simply had walked or ridden horses into town looking for any kind of work they could find.
Although it was technically a city, with a core and a discernible "downtown" area, Birmingham was rather more a collection of mining camps strung out over a valley nearly twenty miles long and five miles across. The camps had grown beside the furnaces and the coal mines, shantytowns with names like Coaldale and Blossburg and Dolomite and Blue Creek, hideous clusters of tents and board shacks segregated by four diverse work groups: whites, blacks, immigrants, and convicts being leased to the mines. The raw sewage and generally primitive living conditions invited regular outbreaks of cholera and other diseases swept along by the putrid waters. Men toiled in the dank mines from sunup to sundown, and they owed their souls to the company store, the commissary, which dealt not in cash but in "clackers," imitation money drawn against a man's time, good for enough meal and molasses to get a family through another day. Harper's Monthly:
No man was ever out of debt; he never knew how much he earned. They were a superstitious people with a lurid circuit-rider faith of brimstone and fire.... They feared strangers, drank moonshine when they could get it, were given to sudden rages and violence; many could neither read nor write. Some of the towns, patrolled by deputies, were almost impossible to get in or out of. In such cesspools generations were born and died. There was no end to it; cut off from all light or hope, the company town was the whole of life.
The most wretched of the damned were the convicts, leased to the mines by the Jefferson County sheriff, who was raking off as much as eighty thousand dollars a year from the scam as late as 1912. Living in stockades, paid not a cent, dying from tuberculosis, tortured by whipping bosses, unable to strike or complain at all, they were freed to wander crippled into town, or else killed and dumped into shallow holes in the deep woods, gone without a trace.
Since the beginning, zealous promoters had been calling Birmingham "the Pittsburgh of the South," and although it would be a while before there was any truth to such Babbittry, the dim outlines of a real city did begin to appear during the boom-and-bust decades of the eighties and nineties. Downtown, on streets laid out in rigid midwestern grids (avenues running roughly east to west, streets north to south), red brick buildings began to rise: hotels, banks, land offices, retail stores. Little satellite towns, Ensley and Bessemer and Wylam and Irondale, began to grow around the mills. More and more railroads were reaching the city every day, most notably the Louisville & Nashville, connecting Birmingham to the markets in the North. Serious big-time furnaces and mining operations were establishedAlice, Oxmoor, Eureka, Red Mountain Iron & Coal Company, Cahaba Iron Works, Pratt Coal and Coke, Birmingham Rolling Mill, McElwain Furnacesmany of them miraculously surviving in times marked by wild speculation, bankruptcy, and the spectacle of companies being born in the morning and swallowed up by larger ones by nightfall. Up on the cool, forested ridge that was Red Mountain, high above the clamor and ugliness, northern entrepreneurs now suddenly swimming in wealth built fanciful "southern" mansions with cheap black labor. Fortunes were being made by bankers and engineers and iron masters and speculators, DeBardeleben and Ramsay and Phillips and Linn and Ensley and Sloss and Hillmannames that would, a century later, adorn schools and parks and municipal edifices everywhere. From the barren farms of the postwar South, eager families of both races kept squeezing into the new city, creating a need for hotels and rooming houses and schools and churches and hospitals and, eventually, city parks and trolley lines. With the poor whites and the freed blacks at each other's throats out there in the mining campstwo races born in fear of each other but now forced to work side by side out of the need to survive lynchings were occurring with startling regularity; there were twenty-four throughout the state of Alabama in both 1891 and 1892. More humane leaders might have done something besides exploiting those racial animosities to keep the wages down and the unions out, but things were going too well to be concerned with the rabble. The city's drumbeaters preferred to point, instead, to the astonishing growth of what they were now calling "the Magic City." Birmingham's population had ballooned from 4,500 in 1880 to 21,000 in 1885 to 110,000 in 1900. That was a long way from Pittsburgh; but the bestand, in at least one very important way, the worstwas yet to come.
From the start, the healthiest of the monolithic mineral companies in town had been the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company, known locally as TCI, with mines and plants throughout Jefferson County. TCI had relentlessly swallowed up smaller operations standing in its way to become the city's largest single employer. There were other huge operations, to be sure, such as Sloss-Sheffield Coal and Iron, and Republic Iron and Steel (both of those also the results of mergers and consolidations and raw takeovers); but by the turn of the century TCI had practically made Birmingham a one-company town. TCI's idea of civic responsibility was to stand firmly behind the new Jim Crow laws that had gone into effect in 1901, stripping black people of the right to vote or to do much of anything except hold the most menial jobs, and to keep a close eye on its own bottom line by using convict labor and crushing union uprisings and pitting the races against each other ("You don't want to work, I know a thousand niggers that do"). Money for expansion was always a problem, but TCI somehow seemed to prevail. TCI was as smugly proud as anyone when Birmingham's exhibit at the 1904 world's fair in St. Louis, a fifty-five-foot-tall cast-iron statue of Vulcan, turned out to be the hit of the show.
But suddenly in 1907, in what would lead to a defining moment in the history of the young city, TCI got into deep trouble. All across the country businesses and banks began to fail, the stock market plummeted, railroads went into receivership, and there were massive layoffs. A panic was on, and TCI had a debt of some five million dollars. A New York City banking firm that held TCI stock as collateral was feeling pressure from the panic, too, and needed to sell the stock in order to save its own neck. Thus, on the night of November 2, there was a meeting of bankers in the library of J. Pierpont Morganthe one, the onlyand after two days of further secret meetings that even brought President Theodore Roosevelt into the picture, the word came down: TCI now was owned by the United States Steel Corporation. U.S. Steel had paid slightly more than thirty-five million dollars for TCI's one billion dollars' worth of assets, less than four cents on the dollar, and had the audacity to call it a "public service" to "prevent a panic and general industrial smash-up." The Birmingham News was beside itself with joy: "The U.S. Steel Corporation practically controls the steel trade in the United States. With enlarged and improved plants it can make steel cheaper in this district than anywhere else. Superiority of product and cheapness of manufacture will conspire soon to make the Birmingham district the largest steel manufacturing center in the universe." So great was the elation in Birmingham that few questioned such a brazen violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. Now the entire city of Birmingham, in a twist, owed its soul to the ultimate company store.
And there was more, all of it traceable to the fact that the South was still hobbled by the Civil War and Reconstruction, and thus didn't have the bargaining power to stand up against a J. P. Morgan or a U.S. Steel. "This year of 1907 showed clearly that the domination of the absentee landlord was increasing," said Harper's Monthly.
Of the trunk lines entering Birmingham, the Southern had been put together by Morgan in the nineties. The Louisville & Nashville was acquired in 1901 by the Atlantic Coast Line in a Morgan transaction. Now through Morgan the Steel Corporation had annexed the biggest property in Birmingham. In 1907 the Alabama Power Company was organized, whichafter many vicissitudescame to rest as a subsidiary of the Commonwealth and Southern Corporation, reputedly a Morgan company. Ultimate decisions in power, transport, and industry were made at last in a distant banking house.
Promptly, U.S. Steel went about protecting its larger northern investments through such impositions as "Pittsburgh Plus," which artificially raised the price of Birmingham steel and thereby removed its competitive edge, and higher freight rates. The Pittsburgh of the South? Birmingham had become a poor cousin practically overnight, with the stroke of a pen, the shuffle of paper, never again to be master of its own destiny. And the moguls, those hard men who had gotten Birmingham off the ground through sweat and hustle and not a little chicanery, had seen their toys taken away. They were on somebody else's payroll now, emasculated, puppets of the most powerful absentee landlord in the United States. All that work and now this, they must have been thinking as they withdrew to their mansions on the hill, their dreams of creating a great dashing city gone. Never again would the white power elite of Birmingham have the vested interest in their town that inspires men to do noble things for the common good.
* * *
In spite of this turn of events, the city began to spread through the gullies and up the hills. Attracted by the promise of work in the coal mines and foundries and steel mills, not to mention a classic cotton-mill village plopped down only two miles from downtown, migrants of both races poured into Jones Valley from all over the South. Now that Reconstruction was over, slavery had resumed in the guise of sharecropping, and the boll weevil was in the process of ravaging the cotton fields and accordingly changing the face of the rural South. Indeed, it was in 1919 that the town of Enterprise, two hundred miles south of Birmingham, erected a monument to the boll weevil in the middle of a downtown streeta backhanded means of thanking the little devil for turning the South away from relying on that single industry. So the sharecroppers said goodbye to the barren fields and the outdoor privies and the aching loneliness of the southern countryside, crowding onto trains or hopping boxcars or cramming themselves into the new Ford automobiles if they had them, leaving to start new lives in Birmingham, "Bad Birmingham," the Magic City.
No matter that the strings were being pulled from afar; the mines and mills were booming like never before. New methods of working with the seemingly endless supply of minerals brought about new products; it was discovered, for example, that tar and ammonia and gas could be made from coal. In due time, Birmingham became the leading producer of cast-iron pipe in the United States. U.S. Steel and the other bosses began to see that allowing the primitive conditions in the mining camps to continue was self-defeating and started cleaning up their acts, even if their reasons were more pragmatic than altruistic. Downtown, at the corner of Twentieth Street and First Avenue, four massive stone office buildings arose, skyscrapers for their time, to create what the ballyhooers were calling "the heaviest corner on earth." When the city was consolidated in 1910, over the protests of mill owners who didn't want to be taxed (the politically powerful ones, like those of TCI's Ensley works, escaped tax-free, of course), the annexation of towns and villages that once had been mining camps swelled Birmingham's population to nearly 133,000.
Not surprisingly, the First World War brought great prosperity to this town of heavy industry. Production tripled, and there was virtually zero unemployment; and when the war ended, Birmingham was on a roll like never before. The factories flamed and belched throughout the night, spur-rail lines backing up to their loading docks to haul the stuff away; and it seemed as though the good times might last forever. Now came movie houses and restaurants and city parks and professional baseball (the Birmingham Barons, after the coal and iron "barons," whose radio announcer was a gravelly-voiced young man up from Selma by the name of "Bull" Connor) and trolley lines throughout the valley and even an unlighted airport, where pilots landed at night by the glow of the adjacent Republic Steel mill. With churchwomen leading the way, a civilizing process came to Birmingham: charity wards, more and better hospitals, temperance unions, summer camps where poor kids could escape the smoke and heat, suffrage movements, scouting organizations, the YMCA and the YWCA, Junior League. In 1921, as the city celebrated its semicentennial, the population figures were 179,000 for the city and 310,000 for the metropolitan area, making Birmingham the third-largest city in the South, behind Atlanta and New Orleans. At Terminal Station, the city's Ellis Island, a huge, lighted Erector Set sign appeared: "Birmingham, the MAGIC CITY."
But lurking deep below the surface, like a latent volcano smoldering and building its strength toward some cataclysmic day of reckoning, there was another Birmingham. Of those 310,000 people in the metropolitan area, 133,000 were blackthe highest percentage of blacks in any North American city of 100,000 or more. They were the sons and daughters of slaves and sharecroppers, and even though they were one-half of the work force, they held the most menial jobs, as domestics, yardmen, simple laborers. They lived in a thoroughly segregated society, in scores of shaggy communities dismissed as "Niggertown," and shared not at all in the city's periods of good fortune. In 1910, when there were 19,000 white children in public schools and a like number of blacks, the white schools were valued at $1,374,000, the black schools at only $81,680. To be sure, life was anything but a dream for black people in the other large southern cities, such as Memphis, Atlanta, and New Orleans; but in Birmingham, a gritty town of muscle and very little gentility and grace, segregation was maintained with great vigor.
To make sure it stayed that way, Birmingham boasted of having the largest Ku Klux Klan "klavern" in the nation, the Robert E. Lee Klan No. 1, with 18,000 members. If a white man wanted to get ahead in those days, if he knew what was good for him, he joined the Klan. (Thus a young Birmingham lawyer named Hugo L. Black, the future Supreme Court justice, stepped forward to take the oath.) During the twenties, their annual initiation ceremonies were gala family outings: whole lazy days filled with boating and picnicking and dancing at city parks, drawing crowds as large as 50,000, capped as darkness fell by the sight of as many as 1,750 men stepping forward in hooded white sheets to be publicly welcomed to the Klan in the eerie light of a burning cross. Forty years later, their distant heirs would dynamite a black church, killing four little girls, plunging Birmingham into a nightmare without end.
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Copyright © 2000 The University of Alabama Press. All rights reserved.
Meet the Author
Paul Hemphill, a former columnist for the Atlanta Journal, is the author of numerous books, including most recently The Ballad of Little River, a book about Little River, Alabama, site of a black church burning in 1997. Hemphill lives in Atlanta with his wife, Susan Percy.
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