Birmingham Alabama has played a pivotal role in two diverse points in America’s history. It was a major steel-producing center. It also was the site of many battles in the Civil Rights movement. The city focuses on each of these events through historical sites, museums, and narratives.
Birmingham’s foundation and growth are deeply rooted in its iron and steel industry due to the area’s vast mineral resources. It became a major steel-producing center in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One place to learn more about this time in history is at Birmingham’s historic Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark.
The historic site consists of blast furnaces, stoves, and other structures for iron production. In addition to the structures, it provides information on the growth of the city, the crucial roles and unfair treatment of African-Americans, and the role of and process for producing pig iron in the 19th century.
Historic 20th Century Blast Furnace Museum
The experience begins when you first approach the premises and see the staggering views of dozens of huge metal towers, domes, and 3-foot diameter pipes.
The visitor’s center provides a film and exhibits that explain the timeline of Birmingham’s growth from pasturelands to a post-civil war vision that utilized the soil’s rich deposits of iron ore, coking coal, and limestone (all the key ingredients for iron and steel).
Colonel James Withers Sloss
The Sloss Furnaces was the first and most prominent of the dozens of iron-producing blast furnaces that transformed Birmingham from farmland into one of the fastest-growing cities and the country’s largest iron producer.
It was founded by a former railroad executive, Colonel James Withers Sloss who capitalized on the area’s minerals and location. All that was missing at the time was the railroad to carry pig iron (the foundation for making steel) to where it was needed. He remedied this by convincing the railroad to run a rail line to the town.
Sloss built a company town with housing, a company store, and even a baseball team. This turned Birmingham into the country’s fastest-growing and most polluted city. By the early 20th century, it was the largest producer of iron—50 percent larger than Pittsburg.
Working in a blast furnace was a hard and challenging job. It was intense physical labor under harsh conditions. And working with molten iron posed safety risks. But it provided needed jobs for German, East European, and Middle Eastern immigrants, and especially recently freed enslaved Blacks who flooded into the area to work. They were given the dirtiest, most dangerous, and most undesirable jobs, were paid less, and were confined to the lowest levels of the organization and the emerging society.
The Demise of The Blast Furnaces
While the company and the city grew through the post-WWII boom, it experienced a sudden collapse in the 1970s with the flood of low-priced imports and the passage of the 1970 Clean Air Act. Sloss shut its furnaces and the city began reinventing itself from a post-industrial economy into one that is currently based primarily on healthcare, finance, insurance, and medical technology.
Sloss Furnaces Today
This history was brought to a personal level through a video on the lives of the people and an explanation of how the site was preserved as a National Historic Site. Visitors could take an informative self-guided tour through, and into the bowels of the hulking facility. A pamphlet explained the role of each process and piece of machinery and the impacts on the humans who worked the various jobs.
The site provided a fascinating perspective and reference point for exploring the surrounding Design District in which several old factory buildings are being reinvented as a modern office and entertainment complex.
Birmingham’s Historic Civil Rights District
Birmingham also played a large role in the 1950s/60s Civil Rights movement. The Historic Civil Rights District is a historic African-American District located between 3rd and 5th Avenues and 15th and 16th Streets. It includes key sites of the fight for equity.
Birmingham’s research facility and museum traces the role of the South—especially Alabama and Birmingham—in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. It begins by discussing the Blacks’ contribution to the city’s original growth. They built the railroads and provided much of the labor at the iron furnaces (not to speak of women’s role as domestics).
Discrimination affected virtually every part of their lives including:
- Being born in back alley “clinics” rather than in hospitals
- Going to underfunded schools
- Limited access to stores, restaurants, and, movie theaters
- Discrimination in all aspects of employment, especially wages; and
- The ability to buy their own homes.
Even after the federal government finally began granting Blacks rights, their rights were subverted by states, local governments, informal color codes, and vigilantes such as the KKK. And since judges and juries were White, Blacks seldom received justice.
On top of this, they endured racial stereotypes including the perception of men as violent predators, women as being “loose”, and all being stupid—all of which also harmed their self-images.
The Black population responded by effectively creating their own towns within cities to build their parallel societies. The area between 3rd and 5th Avenues and 14th and 17th streets is one such area in Birmingham. They had their own black-owned stores, restaurants, bars, barber shops, beauty parlors, and schools.
By the 50s and 60s, Blacks and sympathetic Whites had enough. After years of foiled efforts, Rosa Parks sparked the 1955/56 Montgomery Bus strike which finally began to turn the tide in the civil rights battle. Years of additional protests followed:
- The 250,000-person 1963 March on Washington;
- Years of sit-ins (including 50,000 sitters in 78 cities in a single four-month period;
- Dozens of marches, including the march from Selma to Montgomery that ended in Bloody Sunday; and
- Hundreds of Freedom rides.
The Distasteful Legacy of Bull Connor
Even these didn’t end segregation or violence. In Birmingham, for example, Commissioner of Public Safety Bull Connor arrested a U.S. Senator for attempting to speak at a negro youth gathering and black ministers on charges including vagrancy. In 1961, he allowed klansmen to beat Freedom Riders and news reporters for a quarter of an hour before intervening—and blamed outsiders for the violence. He failed to intervene or seek justice after a series of bombings of Black churches, homes, and meeting sites. He closed city parks rather than allowing them to be integrated. Connor jailed hundreds, including Martin Luther King during a series of peaceful 1963 protests over the city’s refusal to honor previous commitments which resulted in MLK’s powerful letter from a Birmingham jail. A month later, he had hundreds of children arrested in a peaceful Children’s March.
Connor continually intimidated peaceful protesters with armored tanks and had police use high-power hoses and dogs on protesters. The scenes of a particularly brutal 1965 confrontation, shown on news channels around the world, were so powerful as to almost immediately led to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. This, in turn eventually led to the 1979 election of Richard Arrington as the city’s first African-American mayor. Arrington proved to be so popular that he ended up serving as mayor for 20 years.
The 16th Street Baptist Church was the focal point of most of Birhimgham’s Civil Rights planning, speeches, and planning meetings. It was the origin of many of the demonstrations, sit-ins, and other protests.
Across the street from the church is the site of many Civil Rights protests, including some of the most brutally repressed protests. It is also the location where Bull Connor ordered police to fire high-pressure hoses and unleashed vicious dogs on peaceful protesters..
Today the park is home to several poignant sculptures that commemorate the park’s role in the Civil Rights movement.
Our one meal in Birmingham was at a very nice dinner at Café Dumont. We began with an amuse-bouche of sweet cornbread with pork tenderloin, macerated blueberry, and balsamic vinaigrette. Next up was a shared appetizer of fried oysters and okra with cayenne beurre blanc, horseradish crème fraiche, and soy reduction. After an intermezzo of apple cider and clove sorbet, Joyce had giant seared sea scallops with butternut squash puree, cauliflower gratin, and brown butter vinaigrette. Tom had a huge dish of grilled quail and smoked pork tenderloin with mascarpone polenta and sautéed broccolini. Although our server made valiant efforts to help us find a suitable wine, we ended up with a consolation of disappointing 2022 Au Bon Climate Pinot Noir.