Birmingham at 150—Part 2

Black and white digital photo of the Pantages Theatre with a line waiting outside the movie theatre.
Lines wait outside the Pantages Theatre. Photo from the BPL Digital Collections

The New South

With state debt on the rise and the economy at a standstill, several railroad investors envisioned a rail crossroads just a couple miles from Elyton to create a growing economic and industrial city in the heart of Alabama.

These ideas became a reality in two years as 4150 acres were purchased from East Elyton farm owners in January of 1871. That same year, on December 19, the City of Birmingham was incorporated into the State of Alabama. 

Because of its proximity to iron ore, limestone, and coal, people recognized that Birmingham was on the rise.

Local waterworks were added in 1872, a fire department in 1873, and—by May of that year—the citizens of the area voted on making Birmingham the county seat for Jefferson County. 

With help from a little deception, Mayor James Powell pursued the vote of the free black persons.

He hosted a massive picnic, invited black freedman from miles around to attend, and rode through the picnic dressed as General Ulysses S. Grant, telling them a vote for Birmingham was a vote for the Union.

This tactic helped his agenda succeed but also began a long struggle for black voting rights that many would say is still a struggle today1

Birmingham's growing importance in the Alabama industrial and political spheres and its booming population earned its nickname—The Magic City—for how it seemingly appeared overnight.

Over the next twenty years, Birmingham continued to grow industrially and socially. 

In 1873, The First Colored Baptist Church (later renamed the 16th Street Baptist Church) was founded. In 1874, the first newspaper arrived, and Sloss Furnace began operating in 1882.

During this time, the first baseball team, additional furnaces, the public transportation system, a pair of competing amusement parks, and hundreds of businesses would sprout up as well. 

By the 1890s, Birmingham was in full swing, becoming one of the South's major hubs of society and culture. 

A Tale of Two Cities

For the next 70 years, Birmingham continued to grow as a unified city, even as its everyday workings resembled two separate communities. 

Black residents—disenfranchised at the polls, terrorized by violence, and restricted by red-lining and racist beliefs—created their own communities and opportunities despite providing a large portion of the industry's workforce. 

As white citizens of Birmingham were creating social clubs and concerning themselves with the "Who's Who" of the reconstruction South, black citizens of Birmingham were finding their own way with or without help from the establishment.

The creation of the Penny Savings Bank by Rev. Williams Pettiford in 1890 2 marked the first black-owned and operated financial institution in Alabama.

It was necessary because black citizens and citizens of African descent were not allowed to use the already existing banks. This cut their community off from loans, mortgages, and safe storage options.

In 1898, the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church founded the Miles College, and in 1903, Carrie A Tuggle founded the Tuggle Institute and School, the first orphanage to accept black children. 

At the same time that black citizens built up their own communities, Birmingham's white residents were making their everyday lives the envy of the other southern cities.

The Southern Club and Birmingham Athletic Club represented southern culture and membership in those organizations became more difficult to acquire. Coincidentally or not, the Ku Klux Klan's first headquarters in Alabama moved into the old B.A.C. building next door to The Southern Club in 19263.

The steady growth also created a boom in the building industry with some of Birmingham's first skyscrapers and a glut of hotels, clubs, and restaurants popping up around town. The Caldwell, which at the time of its construction was the largest hotel in the state, opened in August of 1889.

Construction began on the ten-story Woodward Building in 1901 and Alabamians from all over the state came to watch its girders be set. The intersection where it still sits today is known as "The Heaviest Corner on Earth" due to the size of the skyscrapers lining it. 

Meanwhile, the combined thrift and business experience from members of both of Birmingham's communities continued to drive growth and profit for the area. By the end of 1910, over 48 square miles of land were annexed to Birmingham4.

The industrial revolution showed no signs of slowing down. 

In 1912, the John Hand building was erected, and in 1913, the City Federal building opened, giving Birmingham the two tallest structures in the southeast. 

As war engulfed the planet, Birmingham's industry grew in importance. Despite politics prohibiting Birmingham from selling its refined metals at a cheaper price than those produced in Pittsburg, WWⅠ still represented a boom for the local economy. 

On a local level, the city was trying to find itself. 

Racial divides between black and white citizens worsened in the Jim Crow South. Thousands of Birmingham residents, politicians, and officers—including future Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black—publicly joined the Ku Klux Klan.

White society openly and actively worked to uphold segregation and the southern apartheid5.

Even when The Lyric Theatre opened in 1914 as the first performance venue to allow white and black customers at the same shows, black patrons had to enter through a separate door and sit in the unfurnished balcony.

To this day, the back door where black patrons were forced to enter is kept as a remembrance of a time when "American Humanity" was not a concept that we applied to all citizens6

Over the following three decades, Birmingham continued to expand, gaining several newspapers, radio stations, and even outfitting the city with traffic lights. 

The Great Depression, which began in 1929, would affect the entire country. But few areas had their economies upended more completely than Birmingham.

With new construction at a standstill across the country, the iron and steel that Birmingham built its economy on would be next to worthless until Word War Ⅱ. In 1930, the Birmingham Industrial District boasted more than 100,000 factory and mine workers. By 1940, that number dropped to 15,0007.

This reduction in the workforce leads to Birmingham becoming a leader in labor unions.

In a twist of fate, poor white workers needing the numbers necessary to organize began to integrate unions, likely the first time that equal protections for both white and black workers were fought for in the state8

The Vulcan Statue was installed atop Red Mountain in 1936, and by 1940, the city counted more than 267,000 citizens as its own. 

Still, there was more smoldering in the City of Birmingham than just the iron industry.

Since the end of The War of the Rebellion, the status of the city could best be described as separate but in no way equal. Segregation was the law of the land, and that law looked unlikely to change. 

Throughout the 1940s, movements to challenge this status quo formed with varying degrees of success.

All of them were met with heavy resistance in the form of intimidation, destruction of property, and in many cases, bombings and murder. It was clear that a tipping point was coming.

In 1949, Birmingham's first two television stations began broadcasting.

Who could have known at the time that those video cameras would end up amplifying the most powerful and painful struggle for civil rights that our country has ever seen? 

Continued in Part 3. Follow the BPL on Facebook (Meta)InstagramTwitter, and LinkedIn to see more updates on this story. 

By Caleb Calhoun | Library Assistant Ⅱ, Powderly Branch Library

1 Atkins, Leah Rawls. 1996. The Valley And The Hills. Woodland Hills, Calif.: Windsor Publications. P58

2 Bennett, James R. 2008. Historic Birmingham & Jefferson County. San Antonio, Tex.: Historical Pub. Network.

3 Bennett, James R. 2008. Historic Birmingham & Jefferson County. San Antonio, Tex.: Historical Pub. Network. P78

4 Atkins, Leah Rawls. 1996. The Valley And The Hills. Woodland Hills, Calif.: Windsor Publications. Pp. 102-103

5 Bennett, James R. 2008. Historic Birmingham & Jefferson County. San Antonio, Tex.: Historical Pub. Network. pp 107,108

6 Simon, Scott. 2021. "A Birmingham Landmark With A Storied But Segregated History". Npr.Org. ).

7 Flynt, Wayne. 1987. Mine, Mill and Microchip: A Chronicle of Alabama Enterprise. Northridge, CA

8 Bennett, James R. 2008. Historic Birmingham & Jefferson County. San Antonio, Tex.: Historical Pub. Network. pp 121, 122