Birmingham: Iron and Steel, Hatred and Reconciliation

By George Leposky

At the time of the U.S. Civil War, the city of Birmingham, Alabama, didn’t exist. It was established in 1871 where two rail lines crossed, to exploit nearby deposits of iron ore, limestone, and coal in the mountains of north-central Alabama. Almost a century later it was still a tough industrial town, fighting racial desegregation with steely determination while the nation and the world looked on in horror.

Birmingham today is a very different place. The smokestacks of heavy industry have given way to clean, high-tech pursuits, while bigotry has been vanquished by a celebration of diversity. Two unique museums – a vestige of the city's historic past, and a pantheon to its present and future – tell the story of this transformation.

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Credit George Leposky
Kelly Ingram Par

Sloss Furnaces

Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark, Birmingham’s museum of industrial history, preserves the site where an Irish farmer's son from northern Alabama, James Withers Sloss, established the Sloss Furnace Company in 1881. There his firm and its successors made pig iron for the city’s foundries and steel mills from 1883 to 1971. Between 1927 and 1931, the original furnaces were dismantled and replaced by those now standing. In addition to the furnaces, visitors see a mechanical loading system for raw materials, a variety of stoves and boilers, the power plant, and the engine house operating the blowers that forced blasts of air through the furnaces.

When the furnaces closed in 1971, they were deeded to the Alabama State Fair Authority, which planned to dismantle them. A public outcry ensued. Then the city acquired the furnaces, and voters approved a bond issue to pay the costs of preserving them as an historic site.

Today, extensive interpretive signage traces technological changes that occurred at Sloss Furnaces, and explains how the furnaces worked. In addition, the site functions as a community arts center where artists-in-residence produce metal sculpture and demonstrate iron-casting techniques. A sculpture yard and a small museum gallery display examples of their work, and concerts and festivals take place on the grounds.

Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

A center for education and discussion about civil-rights and human-rights issues, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute houses a museum portraying the era of racial segreation, the history of the civil-rights movement in Birmingham and the American South, and worldwide human-rights issues. For visitors old enough to remember the events depicted in the museum, a tour of its galleries can be a profoundly moving cathartic experience.

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Source: Birmingham Convention and Visitor's Bureau
Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

After a brief film tracing Birmingham’s early history, you enter the Barriers Gallery, describing life for blacks in a separate but unequal society. Dominating the next gallery, Confrontation, an 18-foot-tall cross burns at a Klu Klux Klan rally.

In a series of stark, powerfully realistic galleries, Movement plunges you into the maelstrom of the civil-rights movement in Alabama from 1955 to 1965. Rosa Parks is there, refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. So is a burned bus, a replica of the one carrying Freedom Riders that was firebombed in Anniston, Alabama. The resonant voice of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., reading his Letter from the Birmingham Jail, emanates from a replica of his cell built with the actual bars. Films shows the 1963 confrontation between violent police and non-violent demonstrators in Birmingham, and Dr. King's famous I Have A Dream speech the same year.

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Source:Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
Rosa Parks
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Credit: George Leposky Credit: George Leposky
Burned Bus King's Jail Cell

Finally, you join the Selma-to-Montgomery voting-rights march and move through a Processional Gallery into the Milestones Gallery, where steel obelisks commemorate the dates of significant civil-rights events. And lest you think that the experience in which you have just been immersed is unique to the United States, a Human Rights Gallery contains interactive video and computer programs tracing the broad international scope of the human-rights movement.

Park, Church, and District

Across Sixth Avenue from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Kelly Ingram Park, police in 1963 attacked civil-rights demonstrators with dogs and firehoses. Now sculptures in the park depict those events, and a Freedom Walk designed by sculptor Maya Lin leads to a fountain that represents an overflowing river of freedom.

Across Sixteenth Street from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, an infamous 1963 bombing that killed four little girls in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Now a museum in their memory occupies a portion of the social hall in the church basement. Visitors are welcome to tour the church.

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Credit HABS/HAER Photography
Source: ParkNet, National Park Service
Sixteenth Street Baptist Chruch

The institute, park, and church are part of a six-block Civil Rights District, which also includes:

The Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, honoring great jazz artists with ties to the state – including Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, and Erskine Hawkins – and featuring neon-lit displays of local memorabilia. The museum occupies the Art Deco-era Carver Theater for the Performing Arts.

The Fourth Avenue Business District, a center of black commerce and culture in the era of segregation.

Alabama Penny Savings Bank, the state’s first black-owned bank.

A.G. Gaston Gardens, a black-owned motel that was a gathering place for civil-rights leaders in the 1960s.

Smithfield, a neighborhood developed for prominent black professionals in the early 1900s.

Miles College, a small black liberal-arts college.

George Leposky is editor of Ampersand Communications, a news-features syndicate based in Miami, Florida.

For More Information

Birmingham Civil Rights Institute -

Birmingham Convention and Visitor's Bureau -

Miles College -

We Shall Overcome; Historic Places of the Civil Rights Movement National Register Travel Itinerary -

Ampersand Communications

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