30 Birmingham Neighborhoods in 30 Days – Smithfield

During the month of November, I will be blogging like crazy to bring you great tidbits on 30 neighborhoods in Birmingham. Check in daily to see if you learn anything new about where you live. 

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.


Joseph Riley Smith

However, with the passage of Birmingham’s race-based zoning laws in the early 20thcentury, 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 Matthews to purchase a home in North Smithfield. Not long after, Matthews’ house became the first one of many to be bombed in and near Smithfield.


Smithfield home after bombing

But those who chose to call Smithfield home were not scared off. Notable residents of the city once lived in Smithfield. Among them:

Angela Davis – activist, educator, and author
A.H. Parker – first principal of Industrial High School (now A.H. Parker High School)
Oscar Adams – Birmingham Reporter publisher


Fairfield native and Motown star, Dennis Edwards, dead at 74

Dennis Edwards, who was born Feb. 3, 1943 in Fairfield, has died in a Chicago hospital from complications of meningitis. In 1968, Edwards joined the Temptations (where he would share lead vocals with Birmingham native Eddie Kendrick) after the talented but temperamental David Ruffin had been dismissed from the group. Edwards sang on and off with the Temptations until the late 1980s. He embarked on a solo career in the mid-80s and had a big hit with “Don’t Look Any Further.”

Edwards revisited his hometown in 2016 to perform in a fundraiser with his group “The Temptation Review.” In 1989, Edwards was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall  of Fame, along with the original members of the Temptations.

Virginia Foster Durr

Virginia_Foster_DurrOn February 24, 1999, Virginia Foster Durr, a civil rights advocate, died in Carlisle, Pa. Durr was born in Birmingham on August 6, 1903 to a Presbyterian minister, Sterling Foster, and his wife Anne. Various accounts state Durr was raised as a typical Southern girl, one who accepted racial segregation. But as a sophomore at Wellesley College, Durr began to question that aspect of her upbringing. The school’s dining hall had “rotating tables” where the coeds were required to dine with random groups of students, including blacks. At first Durr balked, but was told by school officials she could either comply or leave. Durr chose to stay (until she had to leave due to financial reasons). There she began to step outside of her “magic circle,” as the quote below (taken from her autobiography) explains.

“She [the Southern white woman] could be the actress, playing out the stereotype of the Southern belle. Gracious to ‘the colored help,’ flirtatious to her powerful father-in-law, and offering a sweet, winning smile to the world. In short, going with the wind. If she had a spark of independence or worse, creativity, she could go crazy—on the dark, shadowy street traveled by more than one Southern belle. Or she could be the rebel. She could step outside the magic circle, abandon privilege, and challenge this way of life. Ostracism, bruised of all sorts, and defamation would be her lot. Her reward would be a truly examined life. And a world she would otherwise never have known.”

She married Clifford Durr, a lawyer, in 1926. In 1933, they moved to Washington, D.C. where her husband served in the Hoover administration, and then later Franklin Roosevelt’s. They eventually had five children.

While in D.C., Virginia Durr worked hard to eliminate the poll tax, a tax Southern blacks had to pay before being allowed to vote. The Durrs moved to Montgomery in the early 1950s and soon became involved with the civil rights struggle there. She and her husband helped bail Rosa Parks out of jail after she refused to give up her bus seat to a white man. Throughout the civil rights movement, the Durrs provided invaluable support.

After her husband died in 1975, Durr continued to work for progressive causes, including the eradication of poverty.  At the time of her death, President Bill Clinton stated, ”A white woman, born to privilege in the Deep South, Mrs. Durr refused to turn a blind eye to racism and intolerance in our society. Her courage and steely conviction in the earliest days of the civil rights movement helped to change this nation forever.”

Read more on Durr’s life here.

Birmingham’s WWI Gold Star Soldiers

On April 6, 1917, Congress declared war. Before the war would end in 1918, the U.S. acquired an army of 4 million men (2 million had been sent to France).  Within these numbers were brave men from our city. Over the next few days, we will highlight some Gold Star soldiers who lost their life while in uniform. (Gold stars were awarded to the mothers.)

This information was taken from the World War I Gold Star Database found on the Alabama Department of Archives and History’s website.  The information, which varies in length, was given by a family member of the deceased in preparation of a book that was never published. The site cautions that the information has not been verified “including spelling of names.” The text below was taken verbatim from the “Biographical Memoranda” the family member completed. (It may have been edited for grammar.)

This biography was prepared by the soldier’s mother, Mrs. W.R. McGavock who lived at 1021 St. Charles Street, South in Birmingham. 


Sergeant Leon Ragsdale McGavock

“The McGavock family is a very old one, and one prominently identified with military and political affairs of the country for nearly 200 years. James McGavock, Sr., the great-great-great grandfather to Sergeant Leon Ragsdale McGavock, was the first of his family to come near Glenarm. In 1754 or 1755 he landed in Philadelphia, later settling in what is now Rockbridge, Virginia, and settled at Fort Chisell, Virginia. Here he filled with credit high offices, both in civic and church affairs, and also served as Magistrate and agent responsible responsible for disposal of provisions for the Continental Army. Mr. McGavock came of that remarkable people, the Scotch-Irish, who have done so much for the liberties of this country, and for education generally, and the dissemination of Presbyterian principles, especially in Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee.

Hugh McGavock, the son of James Sr. and Mary Cloyd McGavock, was the great-great grandfather of Sergeant Leon Ragsdale McGavock. He married a Miss Nancy Kent of Montgomery County, Virginia, in March 1785. He was in a volunteer company under Colonel Joseph Crockett in the Revolutionary war to repel an invasion by the Indians on the Ohio frontier.

Robert McGavock, son of Hugh and Nancy Kent McGavock, was the great grandfather of Leon Ragsdale McGavock. He was born October 20, 1794 at Max-Meadow, Wythe County, Virginia. He married Anne Hickman, daughter of Colonel Thomas Hickman, March 9, 1819, at Howard County, Missouri, where he engaged in the practice of law for a number of years, having graduated at Washington College, now Washington and Lee University.

It is not surprising to find an enviable Army record on file for Leon Ragsdale McGavock, for his ancestors on both sides had set the example for him. His grandfather, Robert Ragsdale, fought all through the Civil War, together with three brothers and three brothers-in-law.

He was born at Athens, in Limestone County, Alabama on October 7, 1893. [McGavock] started school in Birmingham, Alabama, at Powell School, under Miss Mary Callahan as principal; for five years he attended Ullman School in Birmingham, under Mrs. Dabney as principal. He then entered St. Bernard College at Cullman, where he studied for five years. [He was a] member of 11th Avenue Methodist Church, Birmingham, Alabama.

On February 8, 1914, Leon Ragsdale McGavock enlisted in Battery E, 4th Field Artillery, in which company he stayed for three years at Texas City and Brownsville, Texas. Leon R. McGavock had just gotten out of college and had not entered into any profession or occupation before making his enlistment in February 1914.

Beginning September 17, 1917, he was stationed at Camp Mead, Maryland, in the 312th Machine Gun Batallion, 79th Division, where he was engaged as an instructor for about nine months. He sailed for France July 8, 1918. Leon Ragsdale McGavock fought in the Meuse-Argonne battle from September 13, 1918, until October 6th, 1918. While engaged in battle, he was promoted to the rank of sergeant. On the victory medal of Leon Ragsdale McGavock are two bars inscribed as follows: Meuse-Argonne and Defensive Sector.

He died at Revigny, Meuse, France on October 15, 1918.







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.

Women You Should Know #9 and #10

If you’re a bibliophile, then this story is probably one you’ve daydreamed about: throwing caution to the wind to open your own bookstore.


Virginia and Anna Praytor

For sisters Anna Linton Praytor (1914-1989) and Frances Virginia Praytor (1899-1974), this dream became their reality when they purchased Smith and Hardwick Bookstore in the early 1950s. According to a profile featured on the Alabama Hall of Fame website (to which both sisters were inducted in 1991), Virginia, as she preferred to be called, served as the store’s president and Anna as secretary-treasurer.

Both women attended Birmingham-Southern College and taught English and Latin at various Birmingham high schools.

Virginia went back to school (to Vanderbilt) in her 40s to complete her master’s degree. Her thesis contributed to Clyde Pharr’s seminal translation of the Theodosian Code, a set of laws under the Roman Empire.

If they had a motto, I’m sure it was “Age ain’t nothing but a number,” or maybe not. But we all can agree we can learn to give caution the old heave-ho to follow our dreams, just as the sisters had.



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 #2

Bessie Sears Estell was the daughter of a baptist preacher who brought his family from Green County, Al. to Birmingham around 1918. Milton Sears had been called to pastor Bethel Baptist Church in Collegeville, a working-class community north of downtown Birmingham.

estellEstell once called her father a pioneer in promoting civil rights in the city, but she was a pioneer in her right, having been the first black woman elected to the city council in 1975.

Estell also worked in what she called “the greatest profession in the world” – teaching.  By the time she retired in the mid-70s, Estell was a principal, but she still cherished her work on the front lines. “Well, the greatest joy in my life is to have [students] come back to me, and say, ‘I remember when you tried to instill this [lesson]; [you don’t know] how much I appreciate it.’ That’s a reward you can’t measure in dollars.”

Listen to Estell describe her life in her own words. 

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 #1

One of my favorite movies is “Auntie Mame” (which is based on the 1955 Patrick Dennis’ novel of the same name and Broadway production “Mame”).  The film follows Auntie Mame as she dashes from one adventure to the next. She’s free-spirited and eccentric.

When I first learned about Birmingham’s Eleanor Massey Bridges, I was struck by how much she reminded me of Auntie Mame. Like Mame, Bridges blazed her own path. Born in Columbus, Ga. in 1899 to Richard (founder of Massey Business College) and Bessie Massey, Bridges grew up in the famed Massey residence on Red Mountain.  (The Masseys had moved to Birmingham when Bridges was three months old.) Some interesting points in Bridges’ life:

  1. From an early age, Bridges declared she wanted to be an artist, over her father’s objections. She was able to train with the local artist Hannah Elliott.
  2. She roomed with Amelia Earhart at boarding school.
  3. She met her husband George Bridges in Birmingham at a debutante party. They were engaged within a week later.
  4. The couple were married in 1920 in her family’s home. Her disapproving parents remained upstairs. The Bridges honeymooned at a camp on the Warrior River.
  5. They studied at the Cincinnati Academy of Fine Arts. Eleanor studied painting while George studied sculpture.
  6. The couple lived in France, Greece, and Spain before returning to Birmingham.
  7. During the Great Depression, she and her husband took in as many as 18 abandoned children over a decade.
  8. She taught in Vassar College’s art department and gave free art classes to students from Parker High School and the Homewood school system.
  9. Eleanor’s “Cyclorama of Birmingham History,” a free-standing collage she began when she was 80, was installed (unfinished) at Bell South, although it was commissioned for the lobby of the Brown-Marx building.


    Bridges’ Cyclorama of Birmingham History

Eleanor died in 1987. (George died in 1976.)  Read more about this fascinating woman here.