“Yeah, you could say there’s a certain warmth about our city. After all, it was forged out of 3600 degree blast furnaces.”
Sloss Furnaces promotional campaign
We spent most of the day today at Sloss Furnaces, where Glenn Eskew and Karen Utz helped us consider Southern history in general and focused on Birmingham’s story. Birmingham was birthed in 1871, a “New South” project aiming for an industrialized city. Birmingham was geologically set to compete with Pittsburgh, given its rich ore, limestone, and coal deposits. In a state emerging from devastated from the Civil War, Birmingham’s
location – corn fields settled by yeoman farmers, with little slave history – offered the promise of growing into a “magic city.” Alabama’s paternalistic culture transfered readily to the “industrial plantation.” Birmingham’s “perpetual promise” proved to be long lasting. Unfortunately for its residents, it’s colonial economy – with money heading north rather than staying at home – left that promise unfulfilled. We discussed the antebellum Alabama – with its mix of Black Belt plantations (named for its loamy soil, not its slave dependence) and subsitence farmers, the Civil War, and the rise of Birmingham.
Next, we headed back into Birmingham proper. We walked down the steps of 16th Street Baptist Church – as schoolchildren did May 7, 1963 – and into Kelly Ingram Park. Martha Bouyer led us in a consideration of the statuary now memorializing the Movement in the park, engaging us in public, family, and national history.
Back in the bus, we went to Bethel Baptist – Fred Shuttlesworth’s church. There, we were honored to be met by Aldridge Gunn, who treated us with stories of the Movement, the bombings, and the irony of ultimately delivering mail to an elderly Bull Connor. Gunn told us of his most powerful Christmas service, cleaning up the church following the 1956
bombing – one of three the church endured. Gunn was one of the first churchmembers consulted regarding the founding of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and later was elected to Birmingham’s City Council; now, he’s hard at work on fundraising to repair the church as it’s achieved national landmark status. Learn more about Bethel – including how to support their rebuilding efforts – here.
Following our study at Bethel, we drove through Dynamite Hill – the neighborhood whose battle over integration led the city to earn it’s moniker “Bombingham.” There, our driver piped up: “I’m a part of history too,” she said. She told us about how she would spend the summers in Birmingham with her uncle on family trips from Cleveland. When the neighboring house of Arthur Shores was bombed, she got interested in the Movement – leading her to participate in the Children’s Crusade and to be injured by firehoses. Everybody has a story, here.
While the day’s presentations were moving, educational, and inspirational, the setting is it’s own lesson. The city’s downtown makes me realize why the nation gets so excited about Portland: while it has fantastic architecture, it is a downtown without vitality; very few businesses; almost no one on the streets. The neighborhood around Bethel Baptist Church appeared to be one of abject poverty and despair. Clearly, the movement’s accomplishments, while substantial, did not alleviate root systemic problems of inequality for the citizens of this city. So visible in our surroundings, this is a thesis of Eskew’s book, and I look forward to hearing more from him tomorrow.
Want to read about the rest of the trip?