By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
BIRMINGHAM, Ala., Jan. 16, 2014 — We loved our recent five-day stay here. We especially loved it that our football team, the Vanderbilt Commodores, won their bowl game. Beyond that, experiencing the historic portrayals of Birmingham’s place in America’s civil rights history was eye-opening and powerful. Sampling life in the “new” Birmingham was fun and impressive. But seeing the neighborhood around historic Legion Field, where the bowl game was played, made my heart ache.
When you are in a city that’s new to you, you’re fortunate if you have a local guide who really knows the place. We had an excellent one, Judge Caryl Privett, who spent most of her girlhood here, then enrolled at Vanderbilt, where she was a year behind me and a great ally on our student newspaper. She went on to law school at New York University, then returned to Birmingham as a civil rights attorney in 1973. Later she was U.S. Attorney here, then briefly in private practice before being appointed an Alabama Circuit Court judge in 2003.
Carla Offenburger and I, along with other Vandy pals Paul and Carol Kurtz of Athens, Ga., stayed with Privett in her cozy home in the beautiful Mountain Brook suburb. Of course, the judge seems to know everybody and every place in Birmingham, and she gave us a fantastic introduction, as you will see in the photos and captions below here.
Judge Caryl Privett outside her courtroom in Birmingham.
They call Birmingham the “Magic City.” That name came from how quickly the city grew as a prosperous industrial center in the late 19th century after it was founded post-Civil War, in 1871. Today the city itself has 212,000, with 1.1 million in the metro area.
You could call it a “miracle city” now, as in it’s a miracle that Birmingham didn’t get forever branded as America’s capital of racism from all that happened here during the 1950s and ’60s. Police dogs and fire hoses were turned on demonstrators for freedom by the notorious Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor. The Ku Klux Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing the four young African American girls who were putting on their choir robes for Sunday services — 11-year-old Denise McNair and 14-year-olds Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Addie Mae Collins. There were so many bombings that for a time, Birmingham became known as “Bombingham.” If you want to read how our friend Privett reacted to all that as she was growing up, you can do so in the blog I wrote before our trip here, which you can get by clicking here.
Fifty years after all that, one reason that Birmingham, as a city, avoids pariah status in the minds of Americans and other visitors is that its civil rights story is told so well every day here. The outstanding Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, located on the west edge of downtown, is an interactive museum that tells you what happened, and the details shock a lot of people today. But the institute also sponsors ongoing programs that emphasize reconciliation and community-building.
Across the street north from the institute is the 16th Street Baptist Church. Across the street east is Kelly Ingram Park, named after a World War I hero, which became the rallying and launch point for many freedom demonstrations in the ’50s and ’60s. The wall as you enter the park says the park is a “Place of Revolution and Reconciliation.” It wouldn’t be a stretch to have that be the slogan of the whole Birmingham metro area. From the park, the “Birmingham Civil Rights Heritage Trail” goes east, meandering through downtown on the same routes many of the freedom marches did — with informative historical markers along the way explaining what happened there.
Entrance to Kelly Ingram Park. In the background, obscured by trees on the left, is the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The building that is clearly visible is the 16th Street Baptist Church.
So Birmingham honors its civil rights heritage well. Ditto for its industrial heritage — with museums about the mining of ore and coal, the blast furnaces that made iron, and the steel production. There are museums about Alabama jazz, sports and railroading. The arts are showcased extremely well. Banking, healthcare delivery, automobile production and higher education are all thriving here.
What Birmingham is not doing so well right now is taking care of its football heritage, if you can believe that. Everyone knows that the whole state of Alabama is nuts for high school and especially college football, with the programs at the University of Alabama and Auburn University perennially among the best in the nation.
For nearly 50 years, when the two big state schools had modest stadiums on their campuses, they played many of their big games — including the “Iron Bowl” they play against each other — at Legion Field in Birmingham. It is located about two miles west of downtown, with pretty good access to Interstate highways to help get fans in and out for games. At one time, it would hold about 81,000 people, and you till see signs around it proclaiming that it is the “Football Capitol of the South.”
The stadium has also been the site of some major music concerts by such groups as the Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, U2 and others. And in 1996, it was a soccer venue when Atlanta hosted the Olympics and shared some events with other cities in the southeast.
They tried professional football of various levels several times over the decades in Birmingham, but it just never worked. Maybe it was that college football was so big here.
At the main entrance to Legion Field, with a plaque honoring the role of Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant in football in the state.
But the last 20 years or so, the neighborhoods around Legion Field — they’re known as Graymont and Smithfield — have been in hasty decline.
In that same time period, Bama and Auburn both enlarged their own stadiums and quit playing in Birmingham, even taking away their annual Iron Bowl game. The Southeastern Conference held its first football championship games here in the early 1990s, then moved them to Atlanta. About five years ago, the Alabama high school football championships that were always played at Legion Field were pulled, and I believe they’re now settled at Bama’s stadium in Tuscaloosa, an hour west.
Yes, the University of Alabama at Birmingham Blazers continue to use Legion Field as their home turf, but they usually draw only a few thousand fans, who are like BBs in a boxcar in a stadium that now seats 71,000 (the old upper deck has been removed).
The biggest college football event now at Legion Field is the “Magic City Classic,” which is held in late October each year with the teams from the state’s two largest traditionally black universities playing each other as part of a weekend-long festival in Birmingham. There’s a downtown parade, two great marching bands performing at halftime, and a big post-game concert in the stadium by some soul group. The feature of that weekend is the football game between the Alabama State Hornets, from Montgomery, playing the Alabama A&M Bulldogs, from Huntsville. I’ve now put the Magic City Classic on my bucket list.
But I worry that college football bowl games at Legion Field might be a thing of the past. The bowl game is currently “owned” by ESPN, and for the last seven years or so it’s been sponsored by the huge banking company BBVA Compass, which has its U.S. headquarters in Birmingham. Their sponsorship just ended with the 2014 game. It is apparently unlikely they’ll renew the sponsorship, and everybody is wondering whether ESPN will be able to find another sponsor, or indeed whether ESPN will want to continue with the bowl here.
Skydiver bringing in the game ball at the start of the recent BBVA Compass Bowl at Legion Field.
Remarkably, the 86-year-old stadium is in good shape. The City of Birmingham’s Parks and Recreation Department has obviously taken good care of it. While I know its proud history and find it charming, I imagine most younger people probably think it’s creepy.
Meanwhile, the blighted condition of the neighborhoods around it — reportedly now 75 percent black and 25 percent Latino and obviously 100 percent impoverished — will make anybody’s heart ache. I felt safe enough there in the daytime, but I don’t believe I’d be going to any events at the stadium at night. That’s sad, because around an important stadium in a major city, people should feel at ease overnighting at adjacent hotels or motels. And there should be nearby restaurants, bars, coffeehouses and entertainment venues for congregating before and after events. If such amenities ever existed around Legion Field in Birmingham, they’re gone now.
The neighborhoods need to be fixed, and so does Birmingham’s football predicament. Maybe those two development projects can be tied together, or maybe they shouldn’t be. Good people are working on solutions, and I hope they find one in time.
Otherwise this will soon be a city with a huge hole in it.
It will look wounded.
My sense is that Birmingham is better than that.
You can email the blogger at chuck@Offenburger.com or by using the handy form below here.
Entrance to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
Outside the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is this statue honoring Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, the Baptist preacher who led the civil rights movement in the city, and who was one of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., of Atlanta.
The 16th Street Baptist Church, which was bombed by the Ku Klux Klan on a Sunday morning in September, 1963, killing four young girls who are memorialized in this sculpture in the foreground.
The start of the “Freedom Walk” around statues and historic markers in Kelly Ingram Park.
A monument honoring “the Foot Solders of the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement” in Kelly Ingram Park. It recalls the use of police dogs on freedom demonstrators in Birmingham in the 1960s.
This “Kneeling Ministers” sculpture in Kelly Ingram Park recalls the Palm Sunday, 1963, moment when three pastors were going to lead a freedom march from the park through downtown Birmingham. When police began pushing the pastors and their crowd of marchers back, the pastors knelt in prayer before the police, and photos of that were published around the world, arousing the public conscience about the racial oppression being challenged in the American South. The three pastors were Rev. N.H. Smith, Rev. John T. Porter, and Rev. A.D. King, the latter the brother of the legendary Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
One of the historical markers on the “Birmingham Civil Rights Heritage Trail” that meanders through downtown Birmingham.
This is the “Vulcan” statue, a 56-foot-tall sculpture on a soaring stone tower, atop Red Mountain in Birmingham. The huge cast iron statue was made as a symbol of the city and its early iron and steel industries, for the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. After the fair, it was put on the mountaintop overlooking Birmingham. Why “Vulcan”? He was the mythical “god of the forge.”
At Vulcan Park atop Red Mountain, there is an interesting museum that gives a good, quick overall feel for the city, including this huge sculpture featuring steel and iron products once made in Birmingham. Caryl Privett and Carla Offenburger are shown in front of the sculpture.
On the night before the Vanderbilt football bowl game, Judge Privett took a whole gang of Vandy friends who had traveled to Birmingham, to dinner at The Club, which is located near the Vulcan statue atop Red Mountain. If you look in the background of this group photo, you might be able to tell what a stunning view of the city there is from the dining club.
Judge Privett also led us to some of Birmingham’s top — and most talked-about — restaurants during our visit. Here she introduced us to acclaimed chef Frank Stitt, who owns and directs three of the best — the Highlands Bar & Grill, Chez Fonfon, and Bottega Italian Restaurant & Café in the popular “Five Points” neighborhood south of downtown. Left to right are Paul and Carol Kurtz, of Athens, Ga., Chef Stitt, Privett and Carla Offenburger.
There has been extensive downtown redevelopment in Birmingham, and here is the first base side of the new stadium at Regions Field, the home of the Birmingham Barons, the AA affiliate of the Chicago White Sox. The Regions name is that of a major bank in Birmingham. The Barons formerly played in a south suburb, Hoover, where their former stadium is now used for college and high school baseball, including the annual tournament of the Southeastern Conference teams. The SEC, by the way, has its headquarters in Birmingham.
On Sunday morning of our visit, we Offenburgers accompanied Caryl Privett to the Independent Presbyterian Church, where she has been a member nearly her whole life. The church in recent years has installed a massive new pipe organ, made by the Dobson Pipe Organ Builders in Lake City, Iowa, less than an hour from the Offenburger farmhouse.
Our friends and weekend housemates were Paul and Carol Kurtz, of Athens, Ga. Both are retired teachers, Paul having been associate dean of the law school at the University of Georgia.
Caryl Privett had the entrance to her house decorated with Vanderbilt football balloons. Here are we Offenburgers, Privett and the Kurtzes.
One more photo from Birmingham — here are we Offenburgers with one of the sculptured lions which are on both sides of the entrance to Legion Field, site of Vanderbilt’s football bowl victory, 41-24, over the University of Houston on Saturday, January 4.
You can email the blogger at chuck@Offenburger.com or by using the handy form below here.