From Slave to Inventor

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 FOUR

Recently I’ve learned about a former slave who was perhaps this area’s first black millionaire. Andrew Jackson Beard, born in 1849, grew up a slave in Jefferson County. After gaining emancipation at 15, he became a farmer. However, farming did not appeal to Beard. After a while, he began working for the Alabama and Chattanooga railroad. Several reports state he lost a leg and a couple fingers due to the dangerous work of coupling cars (where a worker would stand between the cars and guide the link into a coupler pocket as the cars came together).  Whether these reports are true or not, it’s no secret that this work was risky. According to the African-American Registry, a website that promotes black history education, “Few railroad men kept all their fingers, many lost arms and hands. And, many were caught between cars and crushed to death during the hazardous split-second operation.”

Beard invented what would become known as the “Jenny” coupler. His invention took away the need for a man to stand between the uncoupled cars. A patent was issued for the device on November 23, 1897.  Beard is also credited with inventing a rotary engine and a plow. He also dabbled in real estate. The book “True Tales of Birmingham” states his inventions made him a rich man, and he is thought to be Jefferson County’s first black millionaire.

Unfortunately, Beard became penniless after suffering several losses. He died in 1921 and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in an unmarked grave. 

Andrew Jackson Beard

Andrew Jackson Beard

Lost Beauty

30 Things I Didn’t Know about Birmingham

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

Number THREE

Birmingham is filled with older, stately homes that seemed to have gotten finer with time. And many neighborhoods, from Avondale to Norwood, are experiencing a renaissance of sorts, where long-neglected structures with good bones are being handsomely restored. But only recently have I learned of a masterpiece of a house, a real beauty, that was eventually demolished to make way for the Elton B. Stephens Expressway in the early 1960s. 

Located at 1401 Beech Street (now 21st Way South),  architect Joseph C.Turner designed and built the house to serve as a showpiece, as a testament to his skills. It has been described as beaux-arts style and Greek revival; perhaps, Turner designed the house to be a bit of both. According to bhamwiki.com, the 20-room mansion featured “a circular entrance hall with a marble fountain at the center. A circular stair gave access to the second-floor bedrooms while the top of the rotunda had a stained-glass dome which was illuminated at night. Each room, including the bedrooms, had a fireplace with a unique, hand-carved mantelpiece and a crystal chandelier.”

Unfortunately, Turner and his family never got the chance to move in as his wife died from pneumonia after refusing treatment because of her faith in Christian Science. The architect sold the house to a prominent businessman in town, Richard Massey, founder and owner of Massey Business College.  Massey and his wife called the house Turner and hired an Italian gardener to create the city’s first Italian garden. The place was reknown throughout the city and the South.  The Masseys even hosted President Taft during his visit to the city 105 years ago today.

Click here for more information. 

The Massey Residence

The Massey Residence

The Massey Residence's Italian Garden

The Massey Residence’s Italian Garden

Margaret Walker – Native Daughter?

30 Things I Didn’t Know about Birmingham

Number TWO

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

You have probably read “Jubilee,” the beautifully written historical novel by Margaret Walker, but did you know that Walker was born in Birmingham in 1915? In her book, “Conversations with Margaret Walker,” she wrote that her father pastored a church in Enon Ridge (near Fairfield) and all four children were born here. Her family remained in Birmingham until they moved to New Orleans in 1925.

When she talked about what it took to write “Jubilee,” which is set during the Civil War, Walker recalled soaking up her grandmother’s stories about her mother’s time spent in slavery. It was in Birmingham where Walker first heard her grandmother’s stories that fueled her imagination and helped her create an American classic.

Click the following for more information on Margaret Walker: http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/face/Article.jsp?id=h-2430.

Vulcan and the Teacher

30 Things I Didn’t Know about Birmingham

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

Number ONE

Vulcan and the Teacher

Walk through Linn Park headed toward Birmingham’s world-class Linn-Henley Research Library and you’ll pass a statue of a handsome, studious woman. The statue depicts Mary A. Cahalan resting a heavy book on her lap; it’s a pose worthy of her position as teacher and then later principal of Powell School. The statue was dedicated on May 1, 1908, two years after Cahalan’s death, and restored in 2006.

Did you know that Giuseppe Moretti sculpted the piece? His name should sound familiar as Moretti (1857 – 1935) also designed Vulcan, the city’s much-loved iron man.

Statue of Mary A. Cahalan

Statue of Mary A. Cahalan

Giuseppe Moretti

Giuseppe Moretti