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

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.


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.

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. 


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.


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


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. 

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. 


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.

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

Power to the People: A Poet You Should Know – John Beecher

As the end of National Poetry Month approaches, I want to introduce to John Henry Newman Beecher.


John Beecher has been called a political poet, the everyman’s scribe. Frank Adams, in the magazine “Southern Exposure,” once wrote:

 “John Beecher was a radical poet, perhaps America’s most persistent
for 50 years,The heir of an Abolitionist tradition and proponent of the
dispossessed seizing of power. His most enduring lyrics are about the
downtrodden’s fight for economic justice, human dignity and political
freedom. He heard the music in their voices with uncanny accuracy.”

Born in New York City on January 22, 1904, Beecher was three when his father, who was an executive for U.S. Steel, was transferred to Birmingham. When Beecher graduated from high school (at age 14), the elder Beecher put him to work in one of the steel mills until he became old enough to enter the military.

Beecher finally enrolled at Virginia Military Institute in 1919, but that experience did not last. He soon found his way back to Birmingham and its mills. During this second stint in the mills, Beecher worked 12-hour shifts.

Later Beecher left for Cornell to study engineering.  While there, an English instructor, William Strunk, Jr. (Yes, that William Strunk, Jr.) took interest in Beecher’s poetry.   Adams wrote, “He quit Cornell to return to the steel mills and writing. Eventually, he finished college at the University of Alabama in 1925, and that summer went to Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English, where he studied with Robert Frost.”

Beecher later returned to the mill but was severely injured.  Beecher had probably already known that working in a mill could be hazardous to his health, but after his injury he penned poetry that spoke of the dangers and management’s overall dubious behavior.  His “Report to the Stockbrokers” illustrated these points:


he fell off his crane
and his head hit the steel floor and broke like an egg
he lied a couple of hours with his brains bubbling out
and then he died
and the safety clerk made a report saying
it was carelessness
and the crane man should have known better
than not to watch his step
and slip in some grease on top of his crane
and then the safety clerk told the superintendent
he’d ought to fix the guardrail


out at the open hearth
they all went to see the picture
called Men of Steel
about a third-helper who
worked up to the top
and married the president’s daughter
and they liked the picture
because it was different


a ladle burned through
and he got a shoeful of steel
so they took up a collection through the mill
and some gave two bits
some gave four
because there’s no telling when


the stopper-maker
puts a brick sleeve on an iron rod
and then a dab of mortar
and then another sleeve brick
and another dab of mortar
and when has put fourteen sleeve bricks on
and fourteen dabs of mortar
and fitted on the head
he picks up another rod
and makes another stopper


a hot metal car ran over the Negro switchman’s leg
and nobody expected to see him around here again
except maybe on the street with a tin cup
but the superintendent saw what an ad
the Negro would make with his peg leg
so he hung a sandwich on him
with safety slogans
and he told the Negro boy just to keep walking
all day up and down the plant
and be an example


he didn’t understand why he was laid off
when he’d been doing his work
on the pouring tables OK
and when with less age than he had
weren’t laid off
and he wanted to know why
but the superintendent told him to get the hell out
so he swung on the superintendent’s jaw
and the cops came and took him away


he’s been working around here since there was a plant
he started off carrying tests when he was fourteen
and then he third-helped
and then he second-helped
and then he first-helped
and when he got to be almost sixty years old
and was almost blind from looking into the furnaces
the bosses let him
carry tests again


he shouldn’t have loaded and wheeled
a thousand pounds of manganese
before the cut in the belly was healed
but he had to pay his hospital bill
and he had to eat
he thought he had to eat
but he found out
he was wrong


in the company quarters
you’ve got a steel plant in your backyard
very convenient
gongs bells whistles mudguns steamhammers and slag-pots blowing up
you get so you sleep through it
but when your plant shuts down
you can’t sleep for the quiet

Beecher’s poetry also pointed to discrimination outside the mill.  Beecher wrote about the hypocrisy of the city’s racially-motivated bombings in “If I Forget Thee, O Birmingham!”


Like Florence from your mountain.
Both cast your poets out
for speaking plain.


You bowl your bombs down aisles
where black folk kneel
to pray for your blacker souls.


Dog-town children bled
A, B, O, AB as you.
Christ’s blood is not more red.


Burning my house to keep
them out, you sowed wind. Hear it blow!
Soon you reap.

Beecher attended Harvard from 1926-1927. He also attended the Sorbonne, University of Wisconsin, and the University of North Carolina.

A quest for fairness for all people drove Beecher’s actions and art, said Foster Dickson during a telephone interview. Dickson is a Montgomery educator who has written a book on John Beecher’s legacy. “John Beecher came from a long line of people who strove to do the right thing – Lyman Ward Beecher, Henry Ward Beecher, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. He had a passion for protesting unfairness,” he said.

In addition to using poetry as a weapon of protest, Beecher also wrote prose and worked on FDR’s Fair Employment Practice Committee to investigate discrimination.  Beecher worked as a journalist and anthropologist, too.

He suffered consequences, as “If I Forget Thee, O Birmingham!” alludes to. He was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee, and in 1950, Beecher refused to sign California’s state loyalty oath and was fired from his position as a sociology assistant professor at San Francisco State College.

Beecher briefly returned to Birmingham in 1967 as Miles College’s visiting professor of creative writing.

Foster Dickson is disappointed that Beecher’s work, especially his poems, has been essentially forgotten.  In fact, Dickson’s book, “The Life and Poetry of John Beecher (1904-1980),” criticizes keepers of the “canon” for ignoring Beecher.   But as Frank Adams wrote in “Southern Exposure” magazine, Beecher did not write to be praised by his literary peers. “Like Isaiah, or Bunyun, and even Sandburg for a time, his poems were for average people. Beecher seemed to know instinctively that poetry was not just for critics, but that people used it in one way or another every day, not to flatter but to survive…The poet’s task was to listen, to record, then to chant his poetry.”

On May 11, 1980, Beecher died of lung disease in San Francisco.

Want to know more about John Beecher? Click this link.

Have you already heard of Beecher before reading this piece? If so, what’s your favorite Beecher poem? Leave a comment, please.



Remembering the Holocaust

Robert May was seven years old when Adolf Hitler gained power in Germany in 1933.   Things were uneventful at first: People still shopped at his father’s dry goods store, he continued to play with the community’s children, their neighbors still acted neighborly.  But things changed in 1935 when several anti-Semitic laws (known as the Nuremburg Laws) were passed.  Discrimination became commonplace. Propaganda flowed throughout their hometown of Camberg.   A main vehicle of the propaganda was the Nazi Party’s weekly paper Der Stürmer.  The tabloid seemed to be everywhere.  Each week the latest issue was plastered on a bulletin board located near his father’s store.  Nazi Storm Troopers staged regular boycotts in front of the Mays’ business, and the family was banned from the neighborhood grocery store, a place where they had shopped for years.  His oldest brother moved to France, while another left for Switzerland. An uncle moved to Holland.

May told stories of survival and loss during Wednesday’s Brown Bag Lunch Series talk at the Birmingham Public Library.

He remembers being taunted at school.  The teachers were never mean, but the children were another story. “I remember two boys would throw rocks after school and call me a dirty Jew. I called them dirty Nazis. My parents, though, told me we did not do that,” he says.  In 1936, when school became unbearable, May moved to Frankfort with an aunt to attend a Jewish school there.  There, Mays encountered a challenging academic environment; his English teacher held a Ph.D. “I went from a small town to a sophisticated school.”  He remained at the school until Krystallnacht, which is also called the Night of Broken Glass.  On November 9 and 10 in 1938, Storm Troopers along with non-Jewish residents raided Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues, breaking windows and glass, and destroying furniture. Thousands of Jews were rounded up.   May and his aunt had been warned and were able to seek shelter. His parents were also warned in Camberg and sought safety in Camberg’s Jewish cemetery. After the terrifying event, May’s parents returned to the town and were placed in protective custody at the jail; however, they were released several days later and learned that their house and store had been demolished.  In Frankfort, May’s apartment was destroyed, his school and synagogue burned down.  May explains that the Nazis used the assassination of an ambassador by a Jew as a pretext for the violence.

Safety for May came in the form of the Kindertransport.  After Kristallnacht, the English Parliament passed a bill that would allow Jewish children under 18 from several European countries, including Germany, to enter England to attend boarding schools or live in English homes or farms.  One catch though: The children had to come alone.  In January 1939, May was sent to a Jewish boarding school in Brighton. His uncle in Holland funded his education.  His parents joined him in England in September.  A year later, on the eve of the start of World War II, May and his parents sailed for the U.S.  He remembers other ships being torpedoed by German U-boats.   However, they made it to Cuba, and then New Orleans.  Mays attended Tulane at 16 in 1942, and started LSU Medical School in 1944. By 1954, May was a practicing OB-GYN in Birmingham.

Not every member of May’s family was able to escape. His aunt who accompanied him to Frankfort was eventually captured and placed in a concentration camp where she died.  His uncle who moved to Holland died at Auschwitz.  His older brothers did make it safely to the U.S.

May says his experiences have taught him three things.

  1. Only in the US can a boy from Camberg become successful and have a family.
  2. Education helped save his life.
  3. Never again should anything like the Holocaust occur.

The library, in conjunction with the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center, will present two additional talks on the Holocaust. Next Wednesday, March 19, Max Herzel will speak of his experiences in Belgium.  On March 28 a film, “The Path to Nazi Genocide,” will be shown. Each free event starts at noon.

Dr. Robert May

Dr. Robert May

Dr. May chats with Billy Christie, a man he delivered in 1968.

Dr. May chats with Billy Christie, a man he delivered in 1968.

Civil Rights Trail expansion honors Smithfield heroes

The first child born to Jefferson County early settlers John Smith and Sallie Riley Smith grew up to become a physician. Joseph Riley Smith would later marry and father 12 children, and in 1882, after he had retired from medicine, Smith became a merchant and real estate developer. John Witherspoon Dubose, in his 1887 book, “Jefferson County and Birmingham, Alabama: Historical and Biographical,” wrote that Smith was “probably the largest individual real estate owner in Jefferson County.” Smith later developed a suburb for black professionals on one large tract of land, and he named this suburb Smithfield. Those in Smithfield were often called a “Number One Black” since they were members of Birmingham’s burgeoning black middle class. A.H. Parker, principal of Industrial High School (which today bears his name), lived in Smithfield.

However, with the passage of Birmingham’s race-based zoning laws in the early 20th century, by the 1940s, Smithfield, and surrounding areas, became ground zero in the fight to claim the American Dream of home ownership. It was not unusual for black residents to learn that houses that were once “black” were newly zoned for white residents or for them to be threatened if they dared to purchase homes on the white side of Center Street.   Arthur Shores, NAACP attorney, sued the city numerous times to contest the zoning ordinances. In 1947, a court judgment allowed Samuel Mathews to purchase a home in North Smithfield. Not long after, Mathews’ house became the first one of many to be bombed in and near Smithfield.

On Saturday, March 8, Rebecca Evans of College Hills, and a small crowd, stood in front of the Smithfield Public Library for the unveiling of a new extension of Birmingham’s Civil Rights Trail. Evans said she’s glad that now those who fought for fair housing are being remembered. The trail “will remind us of what we’ve been through,” she said.  Her friend, Lois Packer, who is a member of Smithfield’s Thirgood Memorial CME Church, agreed with Evans and was excited that there is now a safe place to walk. “It’s a great thing, what’s happening. It says a lot about who we are now. It’s a blessing, and I’m so proud of everyone and what they’re doing,” Packer said.

Birmingham Mayor William Bell led the ribbon-cutting ceremony that was also attended by Councilor Marcus Lundy, Barbara Shores, daughter of Arthur Shores, and Wendy Jackson, who is the executive director of Freshwater Land Trust, one of many organizations that collaborated on the project.

The 4-mile trail also winds its way through parts of the East Thomas and Enon Ridge neighborhoods. The trail, which is part of the Red Rock Ridge and Valley Trail System, was funded with $10 million from the federal TIGER program (TIGER stands for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery). Several local non-profits, in addition to Freshwater, contributed to the project.  According the Freshwater’s website, the Red Rock Ridge and Valley Trail System is a proposed network of more than 750 miles of trails, bike lanes and sidewalks that will connect communities throughout Jefferson County.

Mayor Bell sees the trail as a melding of the past with the present and future.  He said while the trail honors the contributions of those Smithfield residents who were vital in the fight for civil rights, “we also recognize how far we’ve come as a community, and the changes that have come to our community so that all people could be the best that they could be and live the type of lives they want to live.”

(l to r) Wendy Jackson, Barbara Shores, Mayor William Bell, Dr. Mark Wilson, public health officer for the Jefferson County Department of Health

(l to r) Wendy Jackson, Barbara Shores, Mayor William Bell, Dr. Mark Wilson, public health officer for the Jefferson County Department of Health

Sign located on Center Street North

Sign located on Center Street North


Bicyclists enjoy new Civil Rights trail extension

Bicyclists enjoy new Civil Rights trail extension

Who was Julia Tutwiler?

Julia Tutwiler

Julia Tutwiler

By now, you have probably heard about the problems within Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women. A recent Department of Justice report points out systemic sexual abuse and sexual harassment at the hands of the male guards.  The report asserts that the inmates’ Eighth Amendment right to be protected from harm is being violated. “Tutwiler has a history of unabated staff-on-prisoner sexual abuse and harassment. The women at Tutwiler universally fear for their safety,” the report states.  (The 36-page report can be read here.)

Investigation into the prison, which is located in Wetumpka, will continue, according to the DOJ.  Wetumpka is located about an hour and thirty minutes south of Birmingham.

Who was Julia S. Tutwiler?

According to the Encyclopedia of Alabama, Julia Strudwick Tutwiler was a writer, prison reformer and an outspoken advocate of education for women. Tutwiler worked with others to establish institutions that became the University of Montevallo and the University of West Alabama.

She was born to John and Julia Tutwiler. He was the University of Alabama’s chair of ancient languages, and she was the daughter of the university’s steward or business manager, in 1841 in Tuscaloosa. Tutwiler’s father believed in intellectual equality between men and women; he sent his daughter to a boarding school on the East coast.  During the Civil War, Tutwiler returned home to teach at a school her father had since started.

After the war Tutwiler attended Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., but had to drop out due to lack of money.  She eventually studied privately with professors at Washington and Lee and earned a teaching certificate.

After years of traveling and studying abroad, Tutwiler returned to Alabama where she advocated for the education of women.  In 1892, she persuaded University of Alabama trustees to admit women.

“Angel of the Stockade”

Tutwiler organized the TBA during 1879 and 1880 so like-minded women could work on reforming conditions at Alabama jails and prisons.  She and her team pushed to separate hardened criminals from less violent ones, and men from women; she also believed that literacy and religious training would lessen recidivism.  Tutwiler also worked to end the practice of leasing convicts to businesses. (The book “Slavery by Another Name,” by Douglas A. Blackmon, sheds great light on this horrific system.) Because of her actions, she earned the nickname as “Angel of the Stockade.”

But Tutwiler had her share of detractors. In 1881, Tutwiler became president of Livingston Normal College (which is now the University of West Alabama), but the school was placed under state control in 1907. She was criticized for mixing personal money with the school’s money and poor record-keeping. She was also accused of being impulsive and hard to work with.  She was eventually replaced in 1910. Tutwiler was also criticized for not speaking out against the segregation of blacks and whites in the classroom.

On March 24, 1916, Tutwiler died in Birmingham.  The state prison bearing her name was opened in 1942.

Tidbit: Tutwiler Hotel, located in downtown Birmingham, is named after Julia Tutwiler’s uncle, Edward.  Edward Tutwiler, who built the hotel, was the founder of Leeds.

Did you know?

Tutwiler’s poem, “Alabama,” became the state song in 1931. Here are the lyrics:

Alabama, Alabama, We will aye be true to thee,
From thy Southern shores where groweth,
By the sea thy orange tree.
To thy Northern vale where floweth,
Deep blue the Tennessee,
Alabama, Alabama, we will aye be true to thee!

Broad thy stream whose name thou bearest;
Grand thy Bigbee rolls along;
Fair thy Coosa-Tallapoosa
Bold thy Warrior, dark and strong,
Goodlier than the land that Moses
Climbed lone Nebo’s Mount to see,
Alabama, Alabama, we will aye be true to thee!

From thy prairies broad and fertile,
Where thy snow-white cotton shines,
To the hills where coal and iron
Hide in thy exausted mines,
Strong -armed miners -sturdy farmers;
Loyal hearts what’er we be,
Alabama, Alabama, we will aye be true to thee!

From thy quarries where the marble
White as that of Paros gleams
Waiting till thy sculptor’ss chisel,
Wake to life thy poet’s dreams;
Fear not only wealth of nature,
Wealth of mind has no fee,
Alabama, Alabama, we will aye be true to thee!

Where the perfumed south-wind whispers,
Thy magnolia groves among,
Softer than a mother’s kisses,
Sweeter than a mother’s song,
Where the golden jasmine trailing,
Woos the treasure-laden bee,

Alabama, Alabama, we will aye be true to thee!

Brave and pure thy men and women,
Better this than corn and wine
Make us worthy, God in Heaven
Of this goodly land of Thine.
Hearts as open as thy doorways.
Liberal hands and spirits free.
Alabama, Alabama, we will aye be true to thee!

Little, little can I give thee,
Alabama, mother mine.
But that little – hand, brain, spirit.
All I have and am are thine.
Take, O take, the gift and giver.
Take and serve thyself with me.
Alabama, Alabama, we will aye be true to thee!