By Graham McKenzie
Named after the UK’s second largest city, Birmingham, Alabama is itself the state’s third most populous city after Huntsville and Montgomery.
It is in fact a relatively new city, formed as part of the post US Civil War reconstruction strategy.
Making the most of rail connectivity, a low-cost labour force and the presence of all the minerals required, Birmingham rapidly became a major producer of steel and steel by products. Today, although greatly reduced, that industrial legacy can still be seen with both active manufacturing plants but also heritage sites where visitors can look back into the city’s economic origins.
Birmingham, like much of Alabama, is also known for its role during the civil rights period of the fifties and sixties. The history of this period and indeed years since are covered very comprehensively in the Civil Rights Institute which is walking distance from the downtown area.
Here in a couple of hours you can learn the detail of Martin Luther King’s arrest and detention whereupon he wrote his famous ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ in which he details the struggle for justice. One can experience the scenarios in public places where ‘whites only’ was the order of the day.
Educate yourself and view evidence of the activities of the Klu Klux Klan within the Birmingham area. Sit in the office of the first Black Mayor of Birmingham, Richard Arrington, who served the city for 20 years between 1979 and 1999. You can also learn how other human rights struggles around the world took inspiration from the Civil Rights movement.
Perhaps most emotional of all is the details of the atrocities committed on September 15, 1963, as you view the shards of glass remaining from the 16th Street Baptist Church which is just across the street. Four young black girls died attending Sunday service due to a bomb placed by the Klu KLux Klan. In the aftermath, on the same day, two other black children died, one of whom was shot in the back by police as he fled down an alley.
Today the city is a much happier and peaceful place with lots going on and after the demise of steel and manufacturing enjoys a revived economy that supports lots of establishments suitable for visitors.
One of these is just outside the city boundaries but is pre-eminent certainly in the US and possible the world with its collection of motor bikes. Spread over several floors the exhibition is breath-taking even for a non-petrol head such as myself. Row and row of vintage and not so vintage motorbikes adorn the floors with a huge representation from British manufacturers the majority of which have sadly now disappeared. Barbers Vintage Motorsports Museum is definitely worth the time to travel the few miles out of town. The vast majority of the over 900 motorcycles are still roadworthy. Periodically, special exhibitions are on display, and I am pleased to say that whilst I was there our very own John Surtees was the focus. He’s the only man to have won world championships on both two and four wheels.
As with many cities Birmingham has a very vibrant music and food scene. I was lucky enough to combine both at an open-air Saturday morning market at Pepper Place. Here one can enjoy locally produced food and also regional specialities including ‘Nanas Puddin’ an original home style banana pudding made and sold by a father and sons combo. The longest queue was for the artisan bread and pastry stall which was, with no exaggeration, at least 100 yards long. It looked and smelt scrumptious, and, in the US, good bread is at a premium when you have experienced the standard store offering.
The market made me hungry for brunch so off to Automatic Seafood. Despite the name the restaurant has an extensive menu and I opted for oatmeal with a Banana Pecan topping sitting outside enjoying the October Alabama climate. Plus a cup of freshly brewed coffee. Delicious!
The Birmingham story is however incomplete without mention of the Golf. The Robert Trent Jones golf trail leads through the entire state of Alabama but nearby lies one of the finest examples – Oxmoor Valley. Two full championship 18 hole courses, the Ridge and the Valley, are supplemented by a nine hole par 3 that takes just over an hour to play as a foursome. All the courses have a choice of tees to suit all standards of golfer and as one would expect from an RTJ course, each hole has its own unique challenge. Playing on your own is not a problem and I hired a set of clubs and teamed up with three very friendly gents from New York.
As part of an Alabama tour, Birmingham is a must see destination.
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