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BIRMINGHAM'S COLORFUL HISTORY: DEEP SOUTH BUT NOT OLD SOUTH

 

NEWS RELEASE

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT: Dilcy Windham Hilley
                        Vice President Marketing/Communications                      

                        800-458-8085 or dhilley@birminghamal.org



Birmingham, Ala---Birmingham has been through a lot for a city so young. Unlike many older cities, Birmingham, now in its 139th year, is still in the stages of becoming.

Local historians divide the city’s history into six epochs. The first, from the 1830s to the late 1860s, was a time when the area we now know as Birmingham was called Elyton and was just a small pioneer farm settlement. There was no town of any consequence---the great Alabama cities were Mobile, Selma and Montgomery. Though local residents fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War, little damage was done to the area because, as one Union general wrote in his diary, the area deserved no attack as it was just a “poor, insignificant Southern village.”

The second period, from about 1870 to 1880, was a time when railroads and land barons built a town that was named Birmingham, after England’s industrial giant. Formally organized in 1871, the new town became a commercial hub, with railroads crisscrossing throughout the community.

The young city sprang up, thrived and grew so quickly that many observers said it happened “just like magic.” Soon the nickname the “Magic City” was applied to Birmingham.

It also was a time when older Alabama cities began to resent the growth and success of their neighbor to the north. The city’s detractors, and there were many, started referring to the city as “Little Birmy.” Their scorn subsided somewhat when the town was nearly wiped out, first by a cholera epidemic and then by economic depression.

The natural abundance of coal, iron ore and limestone, however, assured the resurgence of the little boomtown, and Birmingham moved into its third epoch with remarkable vitality.

Beginning about 1880 and continuing through the Great Depression, this city used Yankee capital and an infusion of labor from former plantations and European emigrants. The mining and metals industries were the catalyst for other enterprises, from banks to barbershops. The controlling influences, however, belonged not to local citizens, but to wealthy industrialists from the North.

The fourth distinct period began with the Depression and ran through the late 1950s. During this time of wartime economy and shaky post-war recovery, the city suffered greatly. The mills kept producing, but not a single major commercial building was built downtown from the 1920s until the early 1960s.

The decade of the 1960s and early ‘70s was the fifth epoch. It brought events that would forever change the image of the city. This was the historic era of police dogs and fire hoses turned on civil rights demonstrators, of the bombed-out 16th Street Baptist Church. The city’s national reputation was near ruins.

The horrors of the 1960s still haunt the city today and have turned a permanent global spotlight on race relations---good and bad---in Birmingham.

But in the mid-1970s, the growing influence and reputation of the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) and the strength of a thriving business/service economy ushered in the sixth epoch. The old magic was back as smart, affluent people associated with UAB and other businesses took the lead in the community. Commercial construction drastically changed the skyline of the city, making it broader, more spectacular. Affluence and education brought with it more cultural and recreational opportunities. Birmingham was growing up.

The opening of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in 1992 did more to heal the city from within and in the eyes of the nation than any other single event. With the opening of the Institute, the city was able at last to tell its own story, and by telling, soothe the wounds of the past.

Mercedes-Benz opened its first American production facility in nearby Vance, turning out the enormously popular M-Class All-Activity Vehicle. Major attractions now open include Splash Adventure Waterpark and one of the country’s best science museums, the McWane Science Center. And Birmingham’s medical community continues to be recognized worldwide for its contributions to health care and healing.

About Our Southern Culture

Birmingham is a Southern city that is---all at once---young, traditional, vibrant, friendly, complex and, some even say, exotic. The eccentricities of the South and Southerners have been widely noted in literature and on film.

Unlike some larger Southern cities that have chosen to trade soul for growth and development, Birmingham has retained its true Southern character. It has been said that Birmingham is the last major Southern city in America. That is because it is impossible for this city to become like every place else.

Birmingham is a distinctive and comfortable place to visit and to live. While the city continues to grow more sophisticated, its people also treasure many of the ways of the small-town South. One can enjoy asparagus salad with roasted pecan dressing at an elegant salon for lunch, and look forward to supper at a cafe serving country-fried steak and butter beans. The audience at the symphony concert will discuss college football games coming up the next day. And the highbrow patrons of the Charity Ball will be elbow-to-elbow the next morning with workers on a Habitat for Humanity home.

It is diversity that is Birmingham’s greatest strength and strongest appeal. We are a spectrum of attitudes and cultures, all a part of the charm and exoticism that is the South. 

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Contact(s):
Vickie Ashford
phone: 205-458-8000
Dilcy Windham Hilley VP Marketing/Communications
205/458-8000 or dhilley@birminghamal.org