Birmingham native explores history of neglected landmark

30 Things I Didn’t Know about Birmingham

I am sharing interesting tidbits I’ve recently learned about Birmingham and some of her people. These items may be new to you as well or just a reminder. 

Number ELEVEN

On Mother’s Day in 1963, around midnight, the A.G. Gaston Motel was bombed. The motel’s guests were understandably shaken. And word soon reached the hotel that the house of A.D. King, Martin Luther King’s brother, was also bombed that night.

Destruction at the hotel following the May 11, 1963 bombing

Destruction at the hotel following the May 11, 1963 bombing

I knew about the bombs, but I’ve just learned that despite the movement’s commitment to nonviolence, many people who were gathered at the hotel began to throw bricks at the police, and some even knifed the tires of police cars, among other things.  “Blacks were tired and mad…the police and National Guard had to rope off blocks surrounding the motel. Folks were not let in or out. According to a New York Times article, the thunk of Billy clubs hitting skulls inside the motel could be heard from across the street,” says Marie Sutton, a local journalist, via email.

Sutton is also the author of “A.G. Gaston Motel in Birmingham: A Civil Rights Landmark,” a new book that explores the history and cultural significance of the motel.

The motel was named for Arthur George Gaston, whose rags-to-riches story has inspired many people in and outside of Birmingham.  Read on for more of my conversation with Sutton.

Why did you decide to write about the Gaston Motel? Although I grew up in Birmingham, I had never, ever heard of the motel. In 2004, I started working at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and learned about the Gaston, its revolving doors of celebrities and its history of having been the headquarters of the movement. The storyteller inside of me said, “That’s a book!”

What’s the most surprising thing you found during your research? Since I didn’t know about the motel, it was surprising that it existed and was part of our community for so long; for more than 30 years. And, even more surprising than that is that the city has allowed it to sit and collect dust when it meant so much to the community and was the site for many important meetings and strategies.

Marie Sutton

Marie Sutton

It’s no secret that Gaston was pretty conservative in his thoughts on how blacks should address Jim Crow in Birmingham; although he would rather the community take a slower approach, he still provided support for the movement. Did your research unearth any insight into this dichotomy? Truthfully, it was not his intent to make the motel the headquarters for the movement. Gaston was certainly against segregation but felt there was a more diplomatic way to do so rather than the seemingly radical approaches of King and his group. Keep in mind, he was much older than the young King and his group. [Gaston] also had established relationships with business owners.

What do you want the reader to take away after they’ve read the last sentence? I want them to take away that this motel has significance and should not be allowed to waste away. It served as the backdrop for the memories of many blacks in Birmingham and should be cherished like your grandmother’s antique strand of pearls.

Marie Sutton will be signing “A.G. Gaston Motel in Birmingham: A Civil Rights Landmark” at Brookwood Village’s Books-a-Million this Saturday, November 15, at 2 p.m.

Ethel Armes: Pioneer Journalist

30 Things I Didn’t Know about Birmingham

I’m sharing interesting tidbits I’ve recently learned about Birmingham and some of her people. These items may be new to you as well or just a reminder. 

Number TEN

In the early 1900s when Ethel Armes arrived in Birmingham, it was not common to meet a woman who made her living as a journalist. But the Washington D.C. native was an accomplished one, having worked at The Washington Post as a reporter and features writer as well as once working for The Chicago Chronicle. She became a member of The Birmingham Age-Herald’s staff upon her arrival.

In 1907, the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce hired Armes to write a history on the state’s coal and iron industries, according to the book “True Tales of Birmingham.”  Armes’ research reached beyond reviewing various books; she got in the trenches herself. “A diligent and meticulous researcher, she put on a miner’s cap and inspected coal and iron sites and communities across the northern Alabama mineral region,” stated “True Tales of Birmingham.”  Armes’ book, “The Story of Coal and Iron in Alabama,” was published in 1910.

You can download a free e-copy of Armes’ book here.

The Birmingham Age-Herald building where Ethel Armes briefly worked

The Birmingham Age-Herald building where Ethel Armes briefly worked

Mary Anderson invented the windshield wiper

30 Things I Didn’t Know about Birmingham

I am sharing interesting tidbits I’ve recently learned about Birmingham and some of her people. These items may be new to you as well or just a reminder. Please join me each day for a new fact.

Number Nine

I just learned that a Birmingham resident invented the windshield wiper. Mary Anderson was born in Greene County in 1866 but moved to Birmingham with her widowed mother and sisters in 1889.

It was during a visit to New York in 1903 that Anderson noticed “that the motorman drove with the front window open because of difficulty keeping the windshield clear of falling sleet. When she returned to Alabama she hired a designer for a hand-operated device to keep a windshield clear and had a local company produce a working model. She applied for, and in 1903 was granted, a 17-year patent for a windshield wiper.Her device consisted of a lever inside the vehicle that controlled a rubber blade on the outside of the windshield. The lever could be operated to cause the spring-loaded arm to move back and forth across the windshield. A counterweight was used to ensure contact between the wiper and the window.Similar devices had been made earlier, but Anderson’s was the first to be effective,” according to Wikipedia.

Click the following link for more information: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Anderson_(inventor).

Mary Anderson (1866-1953)

Mary Anderson (1866-1953)

Birmingham’s lady commissioner

30 Things I Didn’t Know about Birmingham

I am sharing interesting tidbits I’ve recently learned about Birmingham and some of her people. These items may be new to you as well or just a reminder. 

Number SEVEN

I just learned that Mary Echols was elected as Birmingham’s first – and only – female commissioner on this day in 1921, just a year after Congress ratified the 19th amendment which gave women the right to vote.

From 1911 to 1963 Birmingham was governed by commissioners. (Most of that time, there were three commissioners, but from 1915 to 1923, the commissioners grew to five.) Echols served as commissioner of health and education.

Her job ranged from listening plumbers complain about the dangers of Birmingham’s defective plumbing (Echols stated there was no definitive plan to correct the problem, but the issue would probably be brought before the entire commission) to weighing in on the possible vulgarity of photos of a “fight film.” Echols thought the film was fine and provided an endorsement. “The picture is as clean as can be,” she said. “I know as I have seen it. If I thought there was anything objectionable in it or anything that would in any way hurt the morals of our young men and women I would go hungry before I would vote for it.

Echols did not serve her full six-year term because the commission eliminated two positions. Tragically, she died in 1929 when her clothes caught on fire after she brushed against a space heater at her home.

Mary Echols

Mary Echols

Charity begins at home

30 Things I Didn’t Know about Birmingham

I am sharing interesting tidbits I’ve recently learned about Birmingham and some of her people. These items may be new to you as well or just a reminder. 

Number SIX

If you’ve been in Birmingham for some time, the Bruno name is quite familiar.  From their once-bustling eponymous grocery stores to their numerous charitable contributions, the family’s last name was as visible to residents as Vulcan’s bottom.

But I just recently learned about Vincent and Theresa Bruno’s, the family’s patriarch and matriarch, hardscrabble start.  The Brunos were a young couple when they made their way to Birmingham from Sicily in 1908. Vincent began working at one of the local furnaces while Theresa took care of the home.  Despite the family’s struggle to make ends meet during that time, Theresa still provided help to those in need.  There’s one story from “True Tales of Birmingham” that exemplifies this: “The Bruno kitchen was always open to homeless men who arrived daily on freight trains, begging a meal. Theresa fed them at her table, usually a zesty vegetable stew and fresh Italian bread. If one of her children asked who the stranger was, she would reply: ‘Chi sa. Non fa niente. Aveva appetito.’ (Who knows. It doesn’t matter. He was hungry.”)

Photo credit: Life Magazine Walking the rails during the Great Depression.  Date and location unknown.

Photo credit: Life Magazine
Walking the rails during the Great Depression. Date and location unknown.

The Long Hill of the Dyed Rock

30 Things I Didn’t Know about Birmingham

I am sharing interesting tidbits I’ve recently learned about Birmingham and some of her people. These items may be new to you as well or just a reminder. 

Number FIVE

Long before Birmingham was established in 1871, Native Americans around these parts referred to Red Mountain by the aptly descriptive name of “The Long Hill of the Dyed Rock.”  They and white settlers used the reddish rocks (iron ore) to dye fabrics. According to “True Tales of Birmingham,” in the 1800s, “a few bars of iron were priceless and several area blacksmiths tried, without success, to forge iron from the mountain’s rich supply of reddish ore.”

Baylis Earle Grace (1808-1893)

Baylis Earle Grace (1808-1893)

Enter Baylis Earle Grace, who, as a 12 year-old, came to Jefferson County in 1820 with his parents. As a grown man, he purchased a farm in the Oxmoor Valley. In the 1850s, Grace gathered a wagon load of iron ore from his land and drove it to a puddling furnace in Bibb County where the ore was turned into iron bars. Legend has it that Grace always kept one of the bars on his desk as a reminder of his feat.