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Birmingham: The Magic City

Director Emerita, Auburn University
Center for the Arts & Humanities

Down in the valley
The valley so low,
Hear the train whistle
Hear the wind blow.
Write me a letter
Send it by mail,
Send it in care of
The Birmingham Jail.

This version of an old southern ballad is well known in the hill country of northern Alabama, an area of ridges and valleys between the Piedmont and the Appalachian Plateau. The city of Birmingham is located in Jones Valley, below Red Mountain, surrounded by a mineral district rich in iron ore, coal, and limestone. There are no navigable rivers in the foothills, so raw materials could not be exploited until the trains came. Trains are an important part of the history of Birmingham, and anyone growing up in the city in the first half of the twentieth century would recall the train whistles and the sounds of clacking wheels and hissing and chugging steam engines. Birmingham was founded at a railroad crossing, and the rail lines that zig-zagged through the valley and across the hills connected mines, mills, and camps to the small core of the city and to the extensive rail lines that joined the area to the rest of Alabama, to the South, and to the world. This rowdy young city grew from the labor of entrepreneurs, miners, men on the make, who occasionally found themselves sobering up in the Birmingham Jail.

From the time when Alabama became a state in 1819 until the end of the Civil War in 1865, the valley where the city of Birmingham now stands was an area of small farms. The pioneers raised corn, and meat came from hogs and wild animals. Cotton was grown mostly for home use. Every house had a spinning wheel. Since little cotton could be transported to market by wagon, there were few slaves in the Alabama hill country, and many people living there did not support secession or the war against the Union.

But hostilities came, and men went into the Confederate army–some volunteered, some were conscripted. The iron ore that gave Red Mountain its name had long been used by county blacksmiths, but in 1861 it was needed for war materials. With Confederate money men built stone and rock furnaces to smelt the ore with a flux of limestone from the valley floor. Fired by charcoal made from the forests of the hills, furnaces produced pig iron. The iron was sent by wagons to the railhead at Montevallo and shipped to Selma for the Confederate manufacturing plants and arsenal.

A month before the war's end, Union cavalry invaded the valley, destroyed the furnaces, stole all the food they could eat or carry, and passed on, riding south to Selma. The war was over, but men had learned about the raw materials in the hills of "the mineral district" of northern Alabama, and they knew railroads were needed to bring this wealth to market.

And so the railroads were built. In 1871, Birmingham's square blocks were surveyed in a old corn field where the rail lines crossed. East and west, north and south, the trains ran, bringing people, mostly men, to the "Magic City" that had appeared so quickly from vacant farm land. In the beginning, Birmingham, which was named for the industrial city of England, was much more like a wild west town of shootouts, bars, and muddy streets than a southern city of grace and good manners. Immigrants from Europe joined northern businessmen, freed slaves, ex-Confederates, and county farmers to seek wealth, first from real estate speculation and the businesses and jobs it spawned, then from the opening of mines, the construction of mills, and the building of an industrial economy. Birmingham was a working town, the only southern city with such a blue-collar-labor base.

Birmingham was always different from other southern cities. Its Old South heritage was found only in the memories of its southerners. Birmingham was proud to be a New South city built upon industry, not upon agriculture. Its people were diversified long before anyone thought it politically correct to be so. Catholic churches, which represented German, Irish, and Italian immigrants, rose next to Jewish synagogues, and all were sprinkled among the city's predominant Methodist, Southern Baptist, and Presbyterian—and AME Zion and African-American Baptist—churches.

Despite the openness of its opportunities, the city settled down to a class structure that eventually had the wealthy living on the south side of town; the white middle class merchants and workers scattered along the street car lines, east and west; the black middle class occupying homes that faced the streets in segregated neighborhoods, while black laborers rented shotgun houses on alleys and white and black laborers lived in segregated mill villages that dotted the valley or mining camps in rural areas. By the 1920s, whites were moving farther south, over Red Mountain into Shades Valley, out of the city.

Violence often punctuated the life of the city–rowdiness and drunks, pistols fired into the air on Saturday nights. Company deputies or the state militia put down strikes and labor disputes. City police arrested violators of the peace, and the law filled the jail behind city hall. In 1885, the Birmingham Weekly Iron Age reported that "everything that ever got loose that was in the least wild flocked to Birmingham."

In the early twentieth century, when more space was needed, the city built a jail several miles into the countryside, a white-washed, larger facility where prisoners could work raising vegetables and chickens. Jimmy Tarlton claims he wrote the words to "The Birmingham Jail" when he was a prisoner there, probably in the 1920s. This was the decade when the Klu Klux Klan, born again in 1914, was at the height of its power, dominating the politics of the city. The Klan, whose members advertised themselves as supporters of morality, paraded down streets in white robes and disciplined those who violated their code, which included no drinking and no dancing. Recruiters for labor unions, immigrants, and Catholics were more often Klan targets in the 1920s than blacks, who, being segregated and denied the right to vote under provisions of Alabama's Constitution of 1901, were no real threat to white society.

The economy of the city moved to the rhythm of heavy industry. Iron, later steel, coal, and related by-products plus manufactured items such as rails and cast iron pipe brought money into Birmingham. Sounds of exploding dynamite, used to break up iron ore or open coal shafts, often echoed above the noises of the city. Smoke billowed into the air and smut and smog hung so thick that visibility was low. But this meant that the mines and mills were running, that people were working, so no one complained that barefoot children had black feet and no one knew the danger of black lung disease. Southern money, as well as some English capital, fueled the district–the Pratt Coal and Coke Company, the Sloss Furnaces, and the Tennessee, Coal Iron and Railroad Company (TCI). Northern investment capital came, too, especially after the Panic of 1907 when U.S. Steel purchased TCI's $1 billion assets in the Birmingham district for a little over $35 million.

Beneath this racially segregated, hard-labor, class-structured community there was another world, one of the heart that helped humans, especially the poor and the oppressed, survive. There was music–sacred harp, jazz, and country. There was church on Sunday and picnics and all-day singings, family reunions, and fishing at nearby lakes. And there was baseball: every company had its teams, black and white, playing in their segregated industrial leagues. Everyone could play baseball, and four flour-sack bases and a crude pitcher's mound were in many vacant lots and cow pastures. Willie Mays, who came out of Birmingham's Black Barons to become Major League Rookie of the Year in 1951, grew up playing in the city's industrial leagues.

The popularity of football came later. In the years following the University of Alabama's 1926 Rose Bowl victory, Birmingham called itself the Football Capitol of the South. High school football games filled Legion Field. In 1948, when games were resumed between Auburn and Alabama, the annual Iron Bowl drew thousands into the city.

In 1929 the Great Depression brought the city to its knees, iron furnaces went cold, and relief lines were long, but New Deal programs helped bring recovery. After the war began in Europe in 1939, orders for iron and steel stimulated the economy of the city, and when the nation went to war in 1941, steel mills went to three shifts a day. After the war ended, TCI with 35,000 people was the largest employer in the county. In the years ahead, however, its mills became obsolete, and foreign competition too tough; by 1980 little remained of the once vast industrial complex. The passing of iron and steel brought a more diversified economy.

During the war, the Alabama legislature noted that the state had no accredited medical school, and in 1943 it funded a University of Alabama medical college that was located in Birmingham, attached to the large new Jefferson Hospital and the city's old charity hospital, Hillman. The University offered courses in a Birmingham extension center as early as 1936 and in 1955 established a branch campus as the University of Alabama in Birmingham. Within four decades UAB, including the medical and dental schools, was the largest employer in the county, and medical services had become one of the major businesses of the city. With the EPA and economic diversification the smoke over the valley was gone.

In many ways, World War II cast the first blows against segregation, but few noticed immediately. When Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her seat on a Montgomery bus in 1955, Birmingham's black citizens watched, talked, organized, and went to court. As a result so many African-American homes were dynamited in one section of the city that the area was called "Dynamite Hill." The Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, among others, formed the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights to spearhead the civil rights struggle. The move to destroy segregation in the city reached its height in 1963 with sit-ins and marches. City Police Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor was determined to uphold the city's segregation code despite the fact that he had lost in the recent election, the results of which were being contested in the courts.

The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. came to town, marched in defiance of a court injunction, was arrested, and was sent to Birmingham's white-washed jail where years before a ballad writer had penned his plaintive song. Down at Kelly Ingram Park, Bull Connor met the marchers, many of them children, and used water from fire hoses and police dogs to turn them back.

From jail, King wrote a letter to the eight white religious leaders who had called for the demonstrations to be delayed until a new city government could be seated. His communication was smuggled out of the jail in bits and pieces. In the weeks ahead the pieces were put together in one essay. King's "Letter from the Birmingham Jail" became a significant document of the civil rights movement and a classic in protest literature. The jail known so well in song now was known in essay, too.

A few months later, in September 1963, a bomb was placed at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and four little girls were killed in the explosion. This was the beginning of the end to segregation in the city. The city's new leadership made a commitment to build a New Birmingham. In 1968, civil rights attorney Arthur Shores was appointed to a vacancy on the city council, and in 1979, Miles College professor Dr. Richard Arrington was sworn in as Birmingham's first black mayor.

In 2002 Birmingham is 131 years old, but what most people remember about Birmingham is what happened in 1963. For decades the Magic City was chafed by its segregationist reputation and haunted by its past. In Robert Penn Warren's novel All the King's Men, the narrator tells his lost love who is facing a new life:

I tried to tell her how if you could not accept the past and its burden, there was no future, for without one there cannot be the other, and how if you could accept the past you might hope for the future, for only out of the past can you make the future.

It has taken a while, but white and black citizens have finally come to terms with Birmingham's past. The new Civil Rights Institute is a memorial and a reminder of shared history. Southern historian Wayne Flynt once wrote that "we can mythologize and distort the past, we can fight with it and denounce it, or we can lie down with it easily, wrap it around us as comfortably as a shawl before a roaring winter fire. The one thing we cannot do is to escape its tenacious grasp." That is something Birmingham understands.

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