Updated October 2017
Birmingham, Alabama (AL1), USA – not Birmingham, The Midlands, England2– is the largest city in Alabama as well as a regional hub of transportation, commercial, and cultural activity. This Birmingham has a diversified industrial base, with manufacturers that make railroad and aircraft equipment, chemicals, valves, automotive parts/equipment and plastics. It has a noted industrial heritage, much like its older English sister, and Sloss Furnaces National Historical Landmark commemorates Birmingham's industrial past. A 17-metre iron statue of Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and patron of metalworkers, dominates the city from the summit of Red Mountain.
How did an industrial centre come to be planted in the middle of a region known more for its agriculture than its manufacturing or urban growth? How did history shape the region's settlement? What role did Birmingham play in 20th-century US history? To answer those questions, we need to go back to before Birmingham was founded.
Who Came to Alabama, and What They Found There
Europeans – well, European Americans – first settled the future site of Birmingham in 1813 as the town of Elyton. That was during the War of 1812. At that time, there were still indigenous peoples living in the region. This would change soon: that rich farmland was too desirable not to be stolen. In the 1830s, the Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Keosati, along with the Alabama, who gave the state its name, were forced to move across the Mississippi River in an act of ethnic cleansing known as the Trail of Tears. Having secured the area, the invaders proceeded to the next stage: the one that would make many of them rich.
In order to make a lot of money in Alabama in the first half of the 19th Century, it was necessary to do one of two things:
- Acquire a lot of rich farmland and many forced labourers, aka slaves, to work said land. In this region, Cotton was king, and cotton-growing was labour intensive. The would-be rich people didn't intend to do the labour themselves.
- Become a slave trader. Since the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade in 1807, slaves had become more expensive. Getting them now depended on the domestic slave trade, a new process of buying, selling, and relocating individuals that produced unimaginable misery for some, and huge profits for others. This state of affairs lasted until 1865, when the slaveholder-backed Confederacy lost the US Civil War.
When the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution was passed, banning slavery, rich landowners and slave traders in Alabama were unhappy – and four million enslaved people rejoiced. But how was Alabama to prosper? Europe had found new sources of cotton, and labour cost real money now. Entrepreneurs looked elsewhere for their wealth – and found it in Red Mountain.
Industrial Wealth, and How It Grew
During the American Civil War (1861 – 1865) the area's rich iron-ore deposits were used by the Confederates to build a battery of three blast furnaces. 22 tons of pig iron were churned out daily to support the war effort. The furnaces were heavily damaged at the end of the war, but the supply of raw materials gave would-be captains of industry ideas.
The modern city was founded in 1871 at the intersection of two newly constructed railroads and named for another industrial centre, Birmingham in England, in the hope that the name would prove a positive omen. Besides iron ore, the area had deposits of coal, limestone, bauxite, and sand, all useful in the next stage of US industrial growth, which involved producing steel for railroads, bridges, and high-rise buildings. Steel production began in 1897. Birmingham was known as the Pittsburgh of the South – also as the 'Magic City'. Money was being made, even as the old agricultural kingdoms collapsed.
Birmingham got its own high-rises in the early 20th Century. The new buildings, all located in one spot at the corner of 20th Street and 1st Avenue North, were heroically touted as 'the Heaviest Corner on Earth'. The cause for excitement was moderate: the tallest building in the group was 21 storeys. Urban mushrooming was not without its cost. In 1916, the 5.1-magnitude Irondale earthquake shook the buildings so hard that frightened office workers rushed out onto the streets. Some damage was done, but the buildings stood.
Birmingham grew and grew: from small beginnings in 1871, the population swelled to its maximum of 340,887 by the 1960 census. Workers were drawn by higher wages and greater opportunities in a bustling urban environment. Many of these workers were African Americans, a lot of them descendants of those involuntary migrants from the cotton boom. By the 1950s, as suburban growth encouraged 'white flight', Birmingham became more and more a majority African American city. But in the 1950s and 1960s, the city's government and business life were still firmly in the hands of its white citizens.
Civil Rights Comes to Birmingham
In the 1960s, as one of the South's most segregated cities, Birmingham was a focus for the civil rights movement. In early 1963, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr and other civil rights leaders organised large demonstrations to protest against racial discrimination. When city police attacked the peaceful demonstrators with dogs and fire hoses, media coverage triggered a national outcry. Here King wrote his famous 'Letter from a Birmingham Jail', which set forth his theory of non-violent direct action, similar to that espoused by Gandhi.
Why did King and other civil rights leaders take to the streets and public venues to protest segregation? He explains the background of their struggle, and what it had to do with Birmingham, this way:
We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you. . . suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you. . . when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodyness" – then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.
'Letter from a Birmingham Jail'
Back in 1873, only two years after Birmingham was founded, African American Christians set up the First Colored Baptist Church. Later, the church moved premises and became the 16th Street Baptist Church. African American churches served a vital function in the community, both as spiritual centres and places for mutual support and organised protest. During the 1963 civil rights unrest, four members of the Ku Klux Klan – a white supremacist terrorist group – placed 15 sticks of dynamite in the church, which exploded during Sunday services. The bombing killed four girls, aged eleven to fourteen, who were attending Sunday School. Twenty-two other churchgoers were injured.
Although some of the perpetrators of the bombing were not brought to justice until the 21st Century (and one never was), the event was a turning point in the US civil rights movement. Outraged people of all races began to demand an end to segregation. The church itself is a National Historic Landmark and on UNESCO's tentative list as a World Heritage Site. Reaction to the church bombing made a difference. Birmingham changed because of the civil rights movement. In 1979, Richard Arrington became the first black mayor of the city. He served for twenty years. The city that began out of a desire to provide economic opportunities for a few entrepreneurs had finally begun to provide real opportunities for all of its citizens. As of the 2010 census, the population of Birmingham was 73.4% African American.
For More Information
If you'd like to go sightseeing in and around Birmingham, try the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau's informational site.
If you'd like to know more about Confederate foundries, try the Alabama Historic Ironworks Commission.
If you wish to read Martin Luther King's 'Letter from a Birmingham Jail' in its entirety, it's available online.
If you want to gawk at Vulcan and go zip lining on Red Mountain, check out this website.