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.

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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.

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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.

Legendary broadcasters to discuss Birmingham’s golden age of radio

Doug Layton started his Birmingham radio career at WSGN, Birmingham’s first rock-and-roll station. From there he moved on to WYDE where he teamed up with Tommy Charles for Birmingham’s first “two-man” radio team. However, Layton may be best remembered for what took place in 1966 at WAQY, in which he was part owner. Layton participated in a Beatles’ boycott to protest John Lennon’s claim that the group was more popular than Jesus. In addition to banning their records, Layton and Charles asked listeners to send in their Beatles records and memorabilia to be included in a bonfire on August 19. The boycott garnered national attention and other stations, particularly in the south, followed suit.

Tomorrow, Thursday, Feb. 21, Layton will participate in a panel discussion on Birmingham’s golden age of radio, along with Shelley Stewart, Bob Friedman and Courtney Haden at Vulcan Park and Museum. Greg Bass will moderate. A cash bar opens at 5:30 p.m. and the panel’s discussion will begin at 6 p.m. Tickets are $10 if purchased in advanced online or $15 at the door.

In a year that’s filled with numerous nods to Birmingham history, Cristina Almanza, director of marketing and public relations at the park, says they want to offer a different perspective. “We are trying to unveil some historical aspect people may not be familiar with.” Tomorrow’s talk is the first of three events in the park’s 2013 “Birmingham Revealed” series. Music historian Bobby Horton headlines “Music, Migration, and Industrial Birmingham on March 21; the series will close on April 18 with “Crossing Lines: Birmingham and the Southern Conference for Human Welfare.” In 1938, the conference drew Eleanor Roosevelt, Hugo Black, Mary McLeod Bethune and Virginia Foster Durr to Birmingham to help bring the New Deal to the south.

See http://www.visitvulcan.com/eventInfo/BirminghamRevealed.html for more information.

Robert Chambliss and the Tale of Two Nieces

The Archives department of the Birmingham Public Library is making Robert Edward Chambliss’s jailhouse correspondence available to the public today, the 35th anniversary of the start of Chambliss’s trial.  The papers were given to the library by the FBI. In 1977 Chambliss was convicted to a life sentence for the murder of Carol Denise McNair, 11. McNair, along with Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, all 14, was killed in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.

Yesterday, I had an opportunity to review the letters, which were written on yellow legal paper and in cursive.  Chambliss wasn’t concerned with modern grammatical conventions as he disregarded many commas and periods and capitalized words at random.  Given the age of the letters, I was surprised to find that the ink had not faded.

Many of the letters are written to his niece Willie Mae Walker.  Chambliss addresses the envelopes with “To My Best Niece Mrs. Willie Mae Walker.” Within the letters, he would make numerous requests of Walker from sending him money for cigarettes to contacting “Good White” lawyers who could help get him released from prison either for good behavior or medical reasons. 

In one letter, Chambliss asked Walker to contact the local newspapers and place the following ad:

Who Will Help an 80 year old innocent convict to get out of Prison.

His Doctors Say He Will Never Be Well Again.  He is Being Held a Political Prisoner

Who needs to Be Free Before He Dies. Please Write R. E. Chambliss, 119771

St. Clair Prison Hospital P.O. Box 280 Odenville Alabama 35120

Sure enough, Walker sent a typed letter to the Birmingham News’s advertising director Harris Emmerson to find out ad rates for a two-week run. 

Chambliss also asked Walker to track down another niece, Elizabeth Cobbs or Libby Ann as Chambliss called her.  Many observers of Chambliss’s trial say it was Cobbs’s testimony that sealed his conviction.  Cobbs, a Methodist minister, was the prosecution’s star witness.  In Spike Lee’s 1997 seminal documentary, Four Little Girls, Howell Raines, the former executive director of the New York Times and Birmingham native, said “The old man [Chambliss] looked over his shoulder and sees this woman walking in and he turns around. His attorneys lean over to him and ask him ‘Who is that?’ And it’s clear they’re totally unprepared for this witness.” 

Cobbs testified that while watching news reports of the bombing, her uncle said, “It wasn’t meant to hurt anybody. It didn’t go off when it was supposed to.”

Chambliss wanted Walker to find Cobbs so she could “repent” of her testimony.  Chambliss blamed Cobbs for his conviction.   In one letter dated December 18, 1983, Chambliss wrote, “…She Swore Lies on Her Uncle and got Him Charged with 4 Murders and got Him a Life Sentence.”  He thought the Methodist church may have known of Cobbs’s whereabouts; he told his niece to contact them.  Chambliss never mentioned he knew that Cobbs underwent a sex change in 1981 and changed his name to Petric Smith. In 1994, Smith wrote Long Time Coming, in which he recollects about growing up with violent segregationists and how he felt during the trial. Chambliss died a prisoner on October 29, 1985.  Smith died in Birmingham in 1998 from lung cancer. He was 57.  

Historians and journalists have given no treatment to Walker.  I want to know more about her, this best niece. Did she believe in her uncle’s innocence? Did she feel a sense of relief after his death? Is she still alive?  As with any important find, we are left to discover answers through additional digging. If you were able to ask Walker one question, what would it be?

The Archives department is located in the Linn-Henley Research Building and is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday – Friday.  

One of the letters Chambliss wrote from prison

Envelope addressed to niece Willie Mae Walker

James L. Baggett, Birmingham’s History Keeper

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 almost 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 recently 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.

On the talk you’d be giving [this evening] on Louise Wooster [Birmingham’s most famous madam] and John Wilkes Booth, did they 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.