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

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Bicyclists enjoy new Civil Rights trail extension

Bicyclists enjoy new Civil Rights trail extension

How Far Have We Come?

A panel discussion on “Lessons from the Past: Civil Rights Today” will take place tomorrow, March 12, at Birmingham Southern College at 6 p.m. in the Bruno Great Hall. Odessa Woolfolk, president emerita of The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, will moderate.

Panel includes the Honorable William Bell, mayor of Birmingham; Carolyn McKinstry, eyewitness to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing; Scott Douglas, executive director of Greater Birmingham Ministries; Isabel Rubio, founder of the Hispanic Coalition of Alabama; Howard Bayless, LGBT civil rights leader; and the Honorable Helen Shores Lee, judge of the Tenth Judicial Circuit.

Many will agree that blacks in Birmingham, and the U.S., have made great strides in 50 years, but we are far from a post-racial society as some would have us believe. Read the comments that follow any story related to race or one that features a person of color in the Birmingham News, New York Times, USA Today, etc., and you could see that this country is far from being color-struck.

In an editorial for The Minnesota Daily, Trent Kays said the last presidential election proved to him that our country was still in the throes of racism. “Equally disheartening is that we still don’t know how to deal with it. This sickness is symptomatic of a culture and society beginning to embrace 1950s ideologies again rather than moving forward with an eye on the future horizon,” wrote Kays.

I think conversations about race, like the one scheduled for tomorrow, help to foster meaningful interactions, but do these talks reach the people who are holding fast to their antiquated thoughts on race and diversity? Do they help us move a step closer to “dealing with it?”

I doubt if the person who commented on AL.com that giving blacks the right to vote has been the downfall of this country will be in attendance. I doubt if the many commenters who routinely disrespect President Obama for any little perceived offense (but swears they are not racist) will want to have this conversation.

I am all for people sharing their opinions, and so be it if they don’t line up with mine, but the racial discourse in this city, in this country, has taken an ugly turn. (Look at this awful attempt by Philadelphia magazine. The writer says he wanted to have an honest dialogue about race, but ended up with a story that’s full of negative stereotypes and the worst kind of race-baiting.) I pray that tomorrow’s discussion can do some good in getting us to talk about why are we still talking about race in 2013.

What do you think?

How far have we really come?