30 Women You Should Know

Over the next 30 days, The Birmingham Buff will feature 30 remarkable women who have made their mark on Birmingham’s history.

A Woman You Should Know #4

When Nina Miglionico graduated from the University of Alabama’s law school in 1936, with a stellar record, she received only one job offer from a law firm – as a secretary.

But Miglionico did not let that deter her dreams; she opened up her own law firm.

Born in 1913 in Birmingham to Italian immigrant parents, Miglionico refused to be limited by the expectation of others.

For decades she worked on behalf of women’s rights. Miglionico worked tirelessly to overturn the law that barred women from serving on juries. In 1966, 30 years after she earned her law degree, women were allowed to serve.

nina-miglionicoThree years earlier, Miglionico was elected to the newly-formed city council, becoming the first woman to sit on the council. In addition to fighting for women’s rights, Miglionico was also a vocal critic of the treatment of blacks in the city.  Because of this she became a target of white supremacists who placed a bomb under her porch in 1965. (Her 80-year old father was able to defuse it.) Crosses were burned in her yard as late as 1974.

Miglionico retired from politics in 1985, but before doing so she served as president of the city council.  Miglionico practiced law for 73 years, making her the longest-practicing female lawyer in Alabama. She died in 2009.

Want to learn more about Miss Nina (as her friends called her)? Click here.

 

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.

 

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.

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. 

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.

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

image

Bicyclists enjoy new Civil Rights trail extension

Bicyclists enjoy new Civil Rights trail extension