Farewell to a Civil Rights Chronicler

In May 1963 Bob Adelman was a guest at A. G. Gaston Motel in downtown Birmingham and a professional photographer whose goal was to capture what he described as the last battles of the Civil War. Regarding the atrocities of the struggle, Adelman once said:

“Segregation was an organized system of terror that was instated and reinforced by the Klan or leaders of the communities, and our fellow citizens were victimized. We needed photography to reveal this, to show people exactly what was going on…”

On May 3, 1963, in Kelly Ingram Park, Adelman did as the Civil War photojournalist Mathew Brady had done before him: set his lens on the ugliness of conflict. One harrowing shot shows a group of young protesters being pummeled by water. Photos such as this one helped to highlight the plight of blacks in Birmingham to a worldwide audience.

Adelman_Kelly Ingram Park.jpg

Adelman, 85, was found dead in his Miami Beach home this past weekend.

“I shot with one eye on the lens, one eye on history, and my heart was with the movement,” he said.

 

The First Lady and a Bull

In June 1938, the U.S. government published “A Report on the Economic Positions of the South.”  The report was created to bring attention to area’s crushing poverty. The report revealed systemic problems with the region’s wages, housing, child labor, education, water resources, etc.  “The low-income belt of the South is a belt of sickness, misery, and unnecessary death. It’s large proportion of low-income citizens are more subject to disease than the people of any similar area,” reads a paragraph from a section entitled “Health.

Eleanor_Roosevelt_portrait_1933

Eleanor Roosevelt

According to the Encyclopedia of Alabama website, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was influenced by human rights activists who wanted to hold a conference that would address oppression.  Roosevelt thought a conference would be an ideal forum to “publicize the grim findings of the report and possibly rally more southern support behind the New Deal,” the website states. The president’s wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, was quite enthusiastic about the conference and pledged her support.

On November 20, 1938, the first meeting of the Southern Conference of Human Welfare was held in Birmingham. Among the 1,200 delegates were prominent liberals such as the First Lady, Bibb Graves, Alabama’s governor, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, educator Mary McLeod Bethune, and activist Virginia Foster Durr. “During three days of panel discussions, the conference drew from throughout the South delegates who addressed labor relations, credit, education, farm tenancy, the poll tax, and constitutional rights,” states the Encyclopedia of Alabama.

Bull_Connor_(1960)

Eugene “Bull” Connor

It probably comes as no surprise that the meeting drew opposition. Twenty percent of the delegates were black. On the second day of the conference, Eugene “Bull” Connor, public safety commissioner, barged into the conference and ordered the participants to separate themselves. Blacks were made to sit on one side of the room and whites on the other. Determined to stand her ground, Eleanor Roosevelt sat with the black attendees. After a policeman told her to move, Roosevelt placed her chair between the two sections.

The SCHW’s existence was rocky; it suffered from lack of funds and charges of being a Communist organization, among other woes. The SCHW folded in 1948, but it is seen as a forerunner to important civil rights groups of the ’50s and ’60s.

In Celebration of American Archives Month

It’s almost the end of October, so that means it’s almost the end of American Archives Month. In honor of the meaningful work being done at archives throughout this land, I want to reintroduce a conversation I had with Jim Baggett, chief archivist at the Birmingham Public Library.

My grandmother – and Bob Dylan – used to say “I’ve forgotten more than you’ll ever know.” I’m not sure if that’s true of Dylan, but I believed my grandmother, a life-long student who died days shy of her 92nd birthday.

If James L. Baggett, head of the Department of Archives and Manuscripts at the Birmingham Public Library, told me that, I’d believe him, too. How could I not? He has worked more than 20 years among more than 30,500,000 documents, photographs and drawings, and other artifacts. And if you’d ever been blessed to attend one of his walking tours, then you know he could rattle off a timeline on Birmingham history in his sleep.

I spoke with Baggett in his basement office at the Central Library. You can join the conversation below.

Are you from Birmingham?

James L. Baggett: Yes, I was born here.

Where did you attend college?

UAB and Alabama. I received my bachelor’s and master’s in history at UAB, and at Alabama I did a Master of Library Science.

How did you become interested in what you are doing now, in archival work?

Sort of by accident. I was a history major at UAB and when I entered the master’s program, I thought I was going to do a straight history master’s, but they offered a public history program, which is about archives, museum management, historic site management. So I did the public history master’s and interned down here with Marvin Whiting who was my predecessor. And then I entered the Ph.D. program at Ole Miss. I thought I wanted to be a history professor, and I found I didn’t like it. I didn’t enjoy teaching. I had really enjoyed archives so I came back. I was lucky enough to get a job here and I did the library master’s. I never regretted it.

Did you like Oxford at all?

I liked Oxford a lot. I really liked living there. I liked Ole Miss and I’m glad I went. I finished the classwork; I learned a lot. I just realized the academic world just wasn’t where I wanted to be.

Does it get pretty lonely as an archivist?

Not really. Well, it depends. It doesn’t here. You know there are a lot of archivists who are known as lone arrangers, and they are “one-person shops.” That might get kind of lonely. Down here we have a full-time staff of five. We always have interns, volunteers. So at a given time we’ll have anywhere from six to 10 people working down here. And we serve 150-200 researchers a month so it’s a pretty heavily used collection.

A number of authors have given your department “a shout out” because of your assistance.

There are now more than 300 books that have been published out of this collection. That includes five winners of the Pulitzer Prize. And the last time I counted, there have been over 50 documentaries and film productions researched here, and that includes one winner of the Academy Award, Emmy Award winners, and Peabody winners. There have been at least 30 museum exhibitions researched here. But then you know, we also serve local college students and people researching a house or a building so it’s a broadly used collection.

So, what does the collection consist of, what do you house down here?

We have a variety of things. We focus on the Birmingham area, but within that, it’s a pretty broad collection. We’re the archives for the city so we house city records of historic value. We have papers of the mayors from George Ward to Richard Arrington. We serve as the archives for a lot of local organizations like OMB and the Chamber of Commerce, the YMCA, YWCA, the League of Women Voters, a lot of local clubs. We have company records, family papers. We have the largest collection in existence on the civil rights movement in Birmingham. We have the largest collection on women’s history in Birmingham. We have something in the neighborhood of 30,000,000 documents and half a million photographs.

Of course, you know, when we talk about archives, we’re talking about letters, diaries, notebooks, maps, blueprints, office files, church registers – pretty much anything you can think of, you can use to record information.

What’s the most unusual thing you’ve come across in the collection?

Probably fragments from the second Bethel Baptist Church bomb.

That’s my church, actually.

The second bomb, you know the one Will Hall [one of the men who voluntarily guarded the church] picked up and carried out into the streets, we found its fragments in the Birmingham police files. We found metal fragments of the bucket the bomb was placed inside of and pieces of shrapnel from that bomb. Some of those are now on display at City Hall.

How do you keep everything catalogued?

We inventory things at a file level. We can’t inventory all the documents. There’s tens of millions, there’s just no way to do that. So we create finding aids. It’s a guide to a collection that will list each file and tell you what’s there. We try to give a researcher a good general idea of what’s in a collection so they can know which files they might need to look into and which files they could pass over.

What’s your favorite thing about your work?

I guess there are several. Working with researchers is one. People come in with really interesting ideas, really interesting projects, and we find out how we can use our collections in ways that have never been thought of. It’s always fun to start with the research in the beginning, and when it’s done, they produce a book or an article or a Ph.D. dissertation. And finding new collections is fun.

If you could categorize the focus of the researchers, what would it be?

The biggest would be local architecture and historic buildings, and in that you would include land use. In a normal month, we’d have about 100 people come in doing either land use or historic building research. Civil rights is probably the second, especially right now with the 2013 anniversary coming up. We are getting a number of requests.

One thing I try to do when I talk to students is interest them in the other subject areas that are down here. We have lots of material here that’s just not used. With students, I ask do we need another paper on the Black Barons or the Father Coyle murder or would you like to do something new and different.

Have you ever thought about writing a book [Baggett is the author of five books] on one of those unrecognized subjects?

I’ve been working for 10 years on a biography of Bull Connor so I don’t know if unrecognized is the word – barely understood would be a better term. As much as Connor’s been written about, he hasn’t been written about in any complexity. I’m looking at him as a political figure, not just his civil rights study. I’m trying to understand him in a way no one has done.

Are you trying to show him in a more compassionate light?

It’s to try and help the reader understand him. They’re still not going to like him, and they are not necessarily going to be sympathetic to him, but I hope when I finish this, readers will come away with a better understanding. What you find when you start looking at figures like Connor, is how like us they are. Connor loved his family and he took his grandson on vacations. He was a complete person, which is what has never been explored with him before.

We want people like Connor to be totally different from us. We want to keep our distance. I find people get very uncomfortable when I talk about him and they often think I’m defending him when I’m not. I’m just trying to understand him.

Regarding Louise Wooster [Birmingham’s most famous madam, whom Baggett has written a book about], did she and John Wilkes Booth actually have a love affair?

It’s possible. Clearly, Lou embellished the story over the years. It is possible that they could have met and had some sort of relationship. Booth was in Montgomery in 1860 for six weeks, performing. And Lou was working in a brothel in Montgomery at that time. And Booth is known to have frequented brothels, so they both were in the right place at the right time. There could have been an encounter or a brief relationship. She would have been in her late teens at that time, and Booth was a huge star. It would be like having an affair with Brad Pitt now. Now the stories Lou tells later are clearly made up because she turns it into some great love affair. It simply didn’t happen.

Baggett also loves the kids. Photo courtesy of the Birmingham Public Library.

Baggett also loves the kids. Photo courtesy of the Birmingham Public Library.

Is Yellowhammer Creative guilty of Columbusing?

Part of the crowd at Yellowhammer Creative's town hall meeting at Trim Tab Brewery

Part of the crowd at Yellowhammer Creative’s town hall meeting at Trim Tab Brewery.

On Monday, the country will honor Italian explorer Christopher Columbus for accidentally stumbling upon the Americas.  While Columbus Day has been an official holiday since 1937, there’s a growing number of people who object to the celebration. Why pay homage to someone who practiced genocide as well as opened up the transatlantic slave trade, they wonder.

For years, Columbus has been praised for discovering the Americas despite the fact there were scores of indigenous people inhabiting the land long before he was born. His actions (or misactions), however, have taken root in a new word to describe misappropriation: Columbusing.  Columbusing, according to NPR, is the art of discovering something that’s not new.

In Birmingham, there’s a brouhaha over the owners of a local graphics design firm, Yellowhammer Creative, attempting to trademark a slogan and artwork they did not originally create. The slogan – It’s Nice to Have You in Birmingham – has been around since 1963, according to long-time civic leader Tom Cosby. Cosby stated on a Facebook post that the work was commissioned by the Downtown Action Committee which was later absorbed by Birmingham’s Chamber of Commerce, an organization he worked for for 35 years. “We used this image/message off and on throughout my career…while I might admire Yellowhammer’s chutzpah, this is laughable that they would now try to sell this image to citizens who want to promote Birmingham. What’s next, we have to pay to use the phrase “The Magic City?”

Reports have indeed surfaced that the group has had its attorneys send “cease and desist” letters to other vendors whose products contain the phrase. There’s one particularly damaging story of YHC sending a letter to local developers explaining it would cost more than $60,000 to add the phrase to the parking deck of one of their properties.

YHC feels their actions have been blown out of proportion. In an attempt to quell the furor, the company hosted a town hall meeting at a local brewery last night (10-8-15). In their defense, partners Brett Forsyth and Brandon Watkins said they did not file the trademark application to profit off the slogan but rather to become its benevolent caretaker. They reiterated what they’ve been saying since this news broke last week: We’re not doing this for financial gain; we’re doing this for the good of the city. And we certainly can’t trust the city to take care of this, they said. Their tone could be construed as patronizing, similar to Columbus’s tone with the “savages” he encountered.

It's NiceWhile Forsyth and Watkins stated they are seeking the trademark to protect the slogan from other cities who may want to usurp it as well as from bad people (“The klan may want to use it!”), some in the audience aren’t sure it needs protection. After all, the phrase has been fine all these years without a trademark.

One attendee asked, “What if the Chamber of Commerce had trademarked the slogan and made you [YHC] pay to use it?”  No answer was given.

People are finding it hard to stomach the gall, the chutzpah, the Columbus-like behavior, shown by YHC.

Jasmine Guy to bring the Harlem Renaissance to life tonight at Samford

Jasmine Guy

Jasmine Guy

Entertainer Jasmine Guy and the Avery Sharpe Trio will present “Raisin’ Cane: A Harlem Renaissance Odyssey” tonight at Samford’s Wright Center. Perhaps best known for her role as the pampered BAP (Black American Princess) Whitley Gilbert on the seminal TV show “A Different World,” Guy’s latest endeavor  celebrates and pays homage to those black artists who created enduring works of art amid racial strife. I spoke with her (via email) about tonight’s performance.

The Birmingham Buff: What will attendees of Raisin’ Cane: A Harlem Renaissance Odyssey experience? 

Jasmine Guy: This show is different in that we are celebrating a time in our history, the decade between the end of World War I and the beginnings of the Great Depression, where art blossomed for writers, poets, painters and musicians. This was the decade of the birth of jazz. Where Harlem reaped the benefits of white patrons inspire of the constant clamped down of the American Negro. This show is full of joy and information. We were dubbed “edutainment ” by the Amsterdam News after our Apollo debut.

TBB: Why do you think the stories of these artists are important to tell?

JG: Our history is important. We are not told the full African American story in school. So, I rejoice in revealing our American Journey to our audiences through poetry, music , dance and song.

TBB: The show’s release mentions that the Harlem Renaissance artists were looking forward but still struggling with the legacy of slavery and racism. We are now about 85 years removed from the Harlem Renaissance. Do you think blacks in this country are still struggling with the legacy of slavery, and if so, in what ways?

JG: Of course, we are still struggling as African Americans. Until our complete history is told we will continue to struggle. Until we are realized as a full and complete people we will know only a portion of our capabilities. This show helps to address the void. We are taught just a modicum, a minute picture of our stories. We go from Harriet Tubman to Martin Luther King and there are many more stories, struggles and songs in between.

TBB: Having left the South for New York City at a young age, I’m sure you can relate to several of the Harlem Renaissance artists who migrated to NYC. Which artist do you relate most to and why?

JG: We are all migrants in the making of this America. We have our own triumphs and humilities. You can say that as a Jewish immigrant or an Irish immigrant or as a  Native American in this American story that ours is completely tragic, but that is not true. This show encompasses the best of us, the best of America…..because that is our true message. In the words of Langston Hughes…. I, too, am America.

“Raisin’ Cane” starts tonight at 7 p.m. Get ticket information here.

 

SC shooter ignored history

By now, I’m sure you’ve heard about the murders of the pastor and eight parishioners at historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. The assailant – who’s still on the loose as of this writing – appears to be a young white man. But while this tragedy is senseless, history tells us that survivors and even those beyond Charleston will use this to begin or continue to propel meaningful dialogue and action.

Any student of history should not be surprised that this young man targeted a black church in his attempt to demobilize its people. Attacks against the black church have long been a strategy by terrorists. During slavery, the black church caused ire among slaveholders who were afraid that collective black thought would lead to insurrection. This fear led to limitations of the religious freedom of blacks, slave and free, in the South. In fact, Emanuel was destroyed by fire a few years after its founding in 1816. This event did not destroy the congregants who eventually rebuilt. The church became a stalwart symbol of Charleston’s civil rights struggle of the 20th century.

During Birmingham’s civil rights movement, terrorists here also attacked the black church. On Christmas night in 1956, civil rights leader Fred Shuttlesworth emerged from a parsonage left hobbled by six sticks of dynamite. Shuttlesworth was the pastor of the Bethel Baptist Church in the black working-class neighborhood of Collegeville in Birmingham. In later years, Shuttlesworth pointed to that event as validation that God would protect him as he led Birmingham’s civil rights movement. “…God took fear from me. He prepares you, I guess for what you have to do for Him,” Shuttlesworth said in later years.  Shuttlesworth was not the only one galvanized that night. Those who gathered that night were revitalized as well as black people throughout the city.

Bethel Baptist Church and parsonage following the '56 Christmas bombing.

Bethel Baptist Church and parsonage following the ’56 Christmas bombing.

The day after the bombing, 250 black residents rode local buses to test the new federal decree that outlawed segregated public transportation (but local laws still upheld segregation). Throughout the ’50s and early ’60s, Shuttlesworth was instrumental in calling attention to the plight of folks living under the weight of Jim Crow. The church would be bombed twice more – once in 1958 and again in 1962. Neither of those occurrences resulted in casualties, either.

Fire personnel and onlookers view the damage at 16th Street Baptist Church.

Fire personnel and onlookers view the damage at 16th Street Baptist Church.

Unfortunately, the same thing can not be said of the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963 where four young black girls were murdered. That horrific event helped to wake up ambivalent white Americans to the plight of Southern blacks. And black people in Birmingham and beyond were more determined than ever to fight. If history has any say, years later we will view this tragedy as a turning point, too.

What will you do for #MuseumWeek 2015 ?

The powers-that-be have declared this week as #MuseumWeek on twitter, and that’s great for us in Birmingham. Why? Because there’s no shortage of extraordinary museums in our fair city. When was the last time you’ve visited one of the area’s museums? If it’s been awhile, make plans to go this week. Use the list below to help narrow your choices (or just visit them all).

Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum
6030 Barber Motorsports Pkwy. 

Barber

Stop by Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum to check out their massive collections of motorcycles, racecars and Lotus cars. For $15 above the price of admission, you can sign up for the premium, docent-led tour. Tours are given Friday and Saturday at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. and on Sunday at 1 p.m.

Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
520 Sixteenth Street North

Across the street from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church sits the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.  According to its website, BCRI’s mission is “to enlighten each generation about civil and human rights by exploring our common past and working together in the present to build a better future.” You can take a self-directed tour that educates you on the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s as well as today’s fight for human rights. View photojournalist Spider Martin’s photos that chronicles 1965’s Selma to Montgomery march.

Photo credit: Spider Martin

Photo credit: Spider Martin

You can also catch “American Boricua: Puerto Rican Life in the United States,” a documentary project that takes a look at Puerto Rican life throughout all 50 states of the U.S. Click here for the museum’s daily admission rates.

Birmingham Museum of Art
2000 Rev. Abraham Woods Jr. Blvd. 

Birmingham Museum of Art

Birmingham Museum of Art

The Birmingham Museum of Art has been in existence for almost 65 years. It’s a great place to view the galleries alone or bring the kids along to participate in the museum’s fun drop-in art programs and tours. On this Saturday (March 28) from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., families can drop by to make an African necklace or bracelet with the museum’s mascot, Bart. Later that day (from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m.), adults and teens can enjoy a public tour of BMA’s new exhibition “Small Treasures: Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals, and Their Contemporaries.” Tickets are free to BMA members and $12 for non-members.

McWane Science Center
200 29th Street North

If you have children, then chances are you’ve been to the McWane Science Center. But it may be time to visit again this week, on your own or with the kiddies in tow. The center was designed to foster a life-long love of learning for folks of all ages. In addition to the permanent exhibits, there’s the temporary exhibit “Mindbender Mansion,” where visitors can try to master brain teasers and more.

McWane

The center is also home to the city’s only IMAX cinema. Click here for general admission prices. 

Southern Museum of Flight
4343 73rd Street North

If you’ve never been to the Southern Museum of Flight, this is the week to find out what you’ve been missing. Located a stone’s throw away from Birmingham’s airport, the museum will open your eyes to the region’s rich aviation history. Right now the museum is featuring an exhibit on the Tuskegee Airmen called “Enduring Legacy.”

Tuskegee Airmen

Some of the other exhibits include “Korean War Jets,” Vietnam War Helicopters,” and the “Lake Murray B-25,” which features the aircraft that was recovered from the South Carolina lake in 2005. During WWII, the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) conducted exercises there. Contact the museum at 205-833-8226 for admission costs.

Vulcan Park and Museum
1701 Valley View Drive

Vulcan

Designed by Italian sculptor Giuseppe Moretti and cast from local iron in 1904, Vulcan, the world’s largest cast iron statue, is definitely the museum’s star. But a trip there should consist of more than just a visit to the observation deck. The museum offers a riveting look at events that helped shape Birmingham. Did you know that Ensley was once home to Little Italy? If you haven’t checked out “La Storia: Birmingham’s Italian Community,” visit the museum this week to learn more about early Italian residents. Click here for admission costs.