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.

    cyclorama-of-birmingham-history

    Bridges’ Cyclorama of Birmingham History

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

 

 

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_portrait_1933

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.

Bull_Connor_(1960)

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.

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)

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.