I moved to Birmingham in May 2009. As a newcomer from Canada, I found myself somewhat befuddled – Canadians grow up consuming a lot of American media and we like to think we have a good grasp of American politics and how business is done south of the border. Guess what? We don’t! There are many local subtleties that don’t make it through the media filter, especially about the American South. There’s also a lot of implicit knowledge that doesn’t get written down – or conveyed to younger generations.
This is the reading list I wish I had when I arrived. Run through this and you’ll have a good sense of why things are the way they are in the State of Alabama.
If you’re new to Alabama:
Alabama: The History of a Deep South State, by William Warren Rogers, Dr. Leah Rawls Atkins Ph.D., Robert D. Ward, and Professor Wayne Flynt. Good survey of what the region was like before it became a part of the United States, the circumstances and developments leading up to the founding of the state in 1819, the economics of plantation life and slavery versus the states northern Appalachian hill country, how the divides between the white and black population developed, banking, the state’s early industrialization through to the American Civil War, Recontruction, power struggles, and how the state’s early divides echo through current events to present day.
Alabama in the Twentieth Century, by Wayne Flynt. A good backgrounder regarding major political and industrial developments in the state.
Dixie’s Forgotten People: The South’s Poor Whites, by Wayne Flynt. “Poor whites have been isolated from mainstream white Southern culture and have been in turn stereotyped as rednecks and Holy Rollers, discriminated against, and misunderstood. In their isolation, they have developed a unique subculture and defended it with a tenacity and pride that puzzles and confuses the larger society. Written 25 years ago, this book was one scholar’s attempt to understand this class of people and their culture. For this new edition, Wayne Flynt has provided a new retrospective introduction and an up-to-date bibliography.”
Slavery by Another Name, by Doug Blackmon. A history of the convict labor system in Alabama. Convict labor was used in Birmingham’s coal mines up until the 1930’s – and the records of how many labor contracts were sold by local county sheriffs into the system were only in local county courthouses until fairly recently. They still aren’t available in online databases. It’s a story that, until Doug Blackmon’s research and subsequent book, was fading from the collective memory as those who knew about it, or had lived through it died of old age. Many men, almost all African-American, died while in custody and are buried in unmarked graves close to the former city mine sites. A documentary, based on the book, first aired in February, 2012. The current high incarceration rates of African-American men are a modern day echo of this system.
Many white Americans from the South are reluctant to talk about this history and have therefore been slow to fund transfer of the records to digital media.
The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, by Edward E. Baptist. I recently finished listening to the audiobook version of this economic history of slavery – and am still a bit stunned. I was left with a lot to think about, a lot of history which has been carefully buried or not written about in most histories of the United States – or North America.
Key things I was left with:
- After the Louisiana Purchase, New Orleans was running close to New York in terms of banking and financial deals. Not only was it was becoming the banking center of the American South – it was also a banking center for the Caribbean, with a strong focus on Cuba. That role began to diminish after the bank failures of the late 1830s and a widespread failure within the Southern cotton industry to repay loans during the subsequent credit crisis. At that point, New York, with ties both to London and Amsterdam, and a stronger regional manufacturing economy, began to take the lead.
- The strong hand of the planter elite – especially in Louisiana – and their resistance to being forced to repay loans is what lead to the non-renewal of the governing legislation of the first US central bank.
- Mortgage-backed derivatives are not a new concept of the 1990s – they were used to raise cash based on the value of chattel slaves owned by the planters. Slave mortgage-backed derivatives (based on the anticipated value of the cotton a given field slave could harvest) were sold – and held both in the northern United States and by many investors in Great Britain and Europe. These were sophisticated investment instruments – and they came into existence in 1828.
- The world price for cotton peaked in 1830 and then, due to the increase in available cotton planted to meet the demand of the northern Lancashire spinning and weaving mills, slipped into a long gradual decline.
- One of the side effects of declaring Confederate independence was that many planters were able to refuse to repay operating loans from northern banking interests. This had a side effect of allowing plantation owners to not plant cotton for two years (done in an attempt to drive the world price back up and to better finance the war). British cotton mill owners were having none of that, and worked to make arrangements to open up new cotton plantations in India and in the Egyptian Delta. When the American Civil war ended, these additional plantations ensured that the American South would never again have a stranglehold on the world cotton supply. At this point, the American South entered the colonial resource supplier arrangement with northern industrial interests, an arrangement from which portions of the South have worked for sixty years to exit. Except that without some population unity and greater investment in education, it’s been difficult to do. The society elites have been quite happy to invest in their own children, but not those of the greater society around them. Especially not African Americans (or poor whites). Hence the delay in regional industrialization as compared to the northern part of the country.
New Lights in the Valley: The Emergence of UAB, by Tennant S. McWilliams.The history of how UAB came to be, in spite of resistance by the existing industrial leadership, and lack of interest at the state level.
A Powerful Presence: The Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce and the History of Birmingham, by Mark Kelly. This is one of the better histories of the city’s economics I’ve come across so far in that it traces how the local economy developed beyond the coal, iron and steel industries and who the important people were – and still are. The bibliography will also lead you on to more relevant work. May be hard to find.
Politics and Welfare in Birmingham 1900-1975, by Edward Shannon LaMonte. Traces the development of Birmingham’s civic institutions.
Carry Me Home : Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution, by Diane McWhorter. I first read this just after I met my husband, in an attempt to learn about the city to which he had just moved.
From the Amazon page: “The Year of Birmingham,” 1963, was a cataclysmic turning point in America’s long civil rights struggle. That spring, child demonstrators faced down police dogs and fire hoses in huge nonviolent marches for desegregation. A few months later, Ku Klux Klansmen retaliated by bombing the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and killing four young black girls. Diane McWhorter, journalist and daughter of a prominent Birmingham family, weaves together police and FBI documents, interviews with black activists and former Klansmen, and personal memories into an extraordinary narrative of the city, the personalities, and the events that brought about America’s second emancipation.”
Back to Birmingham: Richard Arrington, Jr., and His Times, by Jimmie Lewis Franklin. Biography of the first African-American mayor of Birmingham. Tells the story of how he became first a city councillor and then Mayor. Also useful in terms of understanding some of the current long-standing players at the civic level.
There’s Hope for the World: The Memoir of Birmingham, Alabama’s First African American Mayor, by Richard Arrington. You’ll get more out of this memoir if you also know the backstories of the people and community organizations mentioned. (Remember that trope about Alabama history being deep!? And white people with power having long memories?) There are additional details not found elsewhere regarding the shooting of Bonita Carter (the handling of which damaged the reputation of the previous mayor, David Vann), reform of the local police service and the FBI surveillance and monitoring that most African-American politicians and leaders were subjected to from the fifties forward to the eighties.
Arrington also provides inside details as to how decisions were made within the city, as well as some of the political backroom deals that had to be made in order for projects to move forward. He also provides additional background information driving a number of regional initiatives and plans that moved forward successfully, and for those (MAPS) were turned down by voters in regional referendums. He details key civic accomplishments while in office, including the the building of the Civil Rights Institute. These included getting more minority businesses started within the city, improving the schools, securing a new economic development base after massive U.S. Steel layoffs, and dealing with white flight.
One Great City, by Marvin Whiting. Details the late sixties/early seventies effort to consolidate municipal governance in the region. It failed, mainly due to racial politics. Will write more when I’ve finished reading it.
An article from the Atlantic on the differences in development patterns between cities that started as mining towns and ones that started as centers of commerce.
The Birmingham wiki: In its ninth year, the city wiki continues to evolve as a cluster of dedicated locals continue to add and edit entries on the intricacies of city life.
Birmingham Transit – A Trail of Tears: A history of the city’s transit system and why it is such a horrible system to use today. Also spells out what the city has done to date to prepare for improvements and what needs to happen to make those possible.
Birmingham visions unfulfilled:
The Olmsted Vision – “A Parks System For Birmingham” republished by Birmingham Historical Society. Recommended by Mary Jean Baker LaMay.
This book details the plans drawn up for BIrmingham and published by the Olmsted partnership in 1925. It would have required clearing some floodplains (still settled and with residents living there) and would have created a beautiful park system, but foundered on city politics. Parts of the plan will finally be created (in a revised form) as part of the new regional Red Rock Trail System.
On the racial divides within the United States:
Some of My Best Friends Are Black by Tanner Colby. Colby grew up in Vestavia Hills, the suburban majority white municipality south of Birmingham. In answer to his question as to why where he grew up was so lily-white and why he knew so few black people, he started from ignorance and educated himself as to the history of racial separation within the United States. In this interview with WBHM in Birmingham, he talks about some of the major points covered in his book. They are:
- The history of post-segregation educational integration in the region.
- White flight from that.
- The structural effects within the real estate industry, an explanation of “block-busting” and how structural inequalities continue to be perpetuated through current mortgage lending practices. As part of that, he explores the use of white-only sales covenants in J.C. Nicholl’s development of Kansas City’s Highland Park neighborhood, and how that served as a model for the development of Mountain Brook and exclusive upscale suburbs throughout the United States.
- Why the advertising industry is predominantly white.
- The history and continued effects of racial separation in religion.
He doesn’t offer any one solutions, but makes the point that understanding that the divides are there and developing the skills to bridge them is going to be critical to business and societal success for all people going forward.
Southern football culture:
Friday Night Lights – read the book to learn about football culture in the southern United States. Bissinger takes one through one season with the Odessa Permian Panthers, the best high school team in Texas As he tells their story, he walks the reader through the intersection of class, race, and money in a town where the oil-driven boom and bust economy doesn’t leave room for much else.
African-American students with football potential are recruited to the town’s main high school for only one reason – football. Desegregation was done by closing the formerly predominantly black high school – because changing school boundaries would mean messing up the football program. These students aren’t served well by the accommodations made to their learning to allow them to focus on football. They’re given workarounds in class to ensure that they meet the required minimum grades. They’re not encouraged to focus on academics.
The book was the basis for a movie and a TV series.
Recommended primer on life in the American South.
Recommendations from friends:
Since letting local friends know about this list, I’ve received recommendations for further reading.
The A.G. Gaston Motel in Birmingham: A Civil Rights Landmark, (2014) by Marie Sutton. Recommended by city resident Mary Jean Baker LaMay.
This is Birmingham, (1969) by John Henley Jr. Recommended by Mary Jean Baker LaMay.
Sloss Furnaces and the Rise of the Birmingham District, (2011), by W. David Lewis. Recommended by Weld publisher, Mark Kelly. According to Mark, this is the “[b]est history of Birmingham written, bar none.”
From the book’s Amazon page: “This pathbreaking book tells the dramatic story of a unique manufacturing complex and the city that it helped to create. The events recounted and interpreted by W. David Lewis are of more than local or regional significance. The rise of Sloss furnaces and Birmingham epitomized the emergence of the United States as the world’s foremost economic power. Similarly, the closing of a once-profitable ironmaking installation amid social and technological changes that convulsed Birmingham nine decades after the city’s founding typified challenges that were facing America at the dawn of the postindustrial age.”
Leaving Birmingham – Notes of a Native Son, (2000) by Paul Hemphill. Recommended by Sherri Nielson. According to Sherri, “(a) [g]reat book about the differences between white experience and black experience in the 60’s. I was incredibly moved by this book. Very well written.”
From the book’s Amazon page: “Birmingham’s history of racial violence and bigotry is the centerpiece of this intense and affecting memoir about family, society, and politics in a city still haunted by its notorious past.
In 1963, Birmingham was the scene of some of the worst racial violence of the civil rights era. Police commissioner “Bull” Connor loosed dogs and turned fire hoses on black demonstrators; four young girls at Sunday school were killed when a bomb exploded in a black church; and Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote his famous letter from the Birmingham jail, defending his activism to fellow ministers.
Birmingham native Paul Hemphill, disillusioned with his hometown, had left home to pursue a journalistic career, so he witnessed these historic events with the rest of the world through newspaper and television reports. “That grim old steel town,” he writes, “was the most blatantly segregated city of its size in the United States of America, and most of us regarded it with the same morbid fascination that causes us to slow down and gawk at a bloody wreck on the highway.”
Thirty years later, Hemphill returned to Birmingham to explore the depths of change that had taken place in the decades since the violence. In this powerful memoir, he interweaves his own autobiography with the history of the city and the stories of two very different Birmingham residents: a wealthy white matron and the pastor of the city’s largest black church. As he struggles to come to terms with his own conflicting feelings toward his father’s attitudes, Hemphill finds ironic justice in the integration of his childhood neighborhood and a visit with the black family who moved into his family’s former home.”
The Amazon review is a good summary. I’ll add that Hemphill distills a lot of facts into anecdotal poetry as he recounts his conversations with those who worked in the steel mills, the changes wrought in the industry by the introduction of the electric arc furnace (which allowed for less expensive recycling of existing steel and iron), the de facto glass ceiling which was ever present for many African-American professionals and degree-holders in the early nineties (and which, is still present in subtle ways within parts of the United States) and the sheer stubbornness and complacency of a state oligarchical culture which doesn’t support churn and change from below (unless it is churn and change which they control).
This was a good read. I enjoyed it — and along the way, learned more about this place (and the people) where I now live.
About the first peoples to live in Alabama:
They Say the Wind Is Red: The Alabama Choctaw-Lost in Their Own Land, (2002) by Jacqueline Anderson Matte. Recommended by region resident Trae Watson.
William Bartram on the Southeastern Indians (Indians of the Southeast), (2002) by William Bartram (Author), Gregory A. Waselkov (Editor), Kathryn E. Holland Braund (Editor). Recommended by region resident Trae Watson.