Thursday, April 10 Birmingham
In Birmingham, we set several targets of places we wished to visit and managed to complete them today. Like many towns, Birmingham has multiple attractions but we have started being more selective as over time we have been able to observe many facets of American life. We have considered this trip our Civil Rights and Civil War trip with a few beaches and gardens included.
Our first stop was at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Back in the 1950s, Birmingham was called the most segregated city in America. Great improvements have occurred over the last 60 years but just like visiting Revolutionary War sites, we believe it important to learn or re-learn aspects of American history that may be painful but are still instructional.
The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (again no interior pictures allowed) does a fantastic job of education without rancor. The facts are startling to recall; the violence and hatred, the legally mandated segregation of the races in all aspects of life, the disparate educational and housing opportunities, etc.
Yet over time, small steps to fight segregation gained momentum. Setbacks sparked renewed efforts. Violence was responded to with non-violence, public attention was gained across the country, and while Birmingham is not perfect, neither is America. But you can visibly see the differences and feel the attitudinal changes. While white flight in response to desegregation may have contributed, Birmingham (like many other towns) has black elected officials at all levels of government. The institute has numerous sections that recall life in the first half of the 20th century; the voices of individual blacks and whites sharing personal thoughts; the Montgomery March; the Birmingham protests and violent police responses; and the successful effort to gain voting rights and the result it brought about.
Across the street from the Institute is the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. It was one of the starting places for the marches and protests of the 50s and 60s. It is also the location where four young girls were killed in a Sunday morning bomb blast in September 1963. On the other side of the Institute is Kelly Ingram Park, the site where many of the marches were met by police with dogs, water cannons, and clubs. Several memorable statutes in the park remind one of those times.
For lunch we walked over to the Birmingham Museum of Art and ate in their cafeteria. We passed on the exhibits and went to see the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame. Not so great. Both the B.B.King museum and the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City are much better.
The third item on our list was the peanut depot, a small shop by the railroad yards that roasts peanuts. Just a whole in the wall but a piece of Birmingham tradition. I tried the boiled peanuts I had read about frequently. They taste like a cooked bean, which they kinda are. We stuck with the tried and true roasted salted peanuts.
After sampling the local ice cream store, we headed over to Aldridge Gardens. This had been described as a local, hidden gem. It is a small, newer park. Chris had pushed for this, I wanted to try the Birmingham Botanical gardens. Aldridge turned out to be a good selection.
We arrived at 3:50 p.m. Our advance planning had not made us aware that they closed at 4 pm. The security guard took pity on us and let us enter, noting that the park would be open for members only tonight until 7 pm and we could relax and walk around. We thanked him for his kindness and entered the garden.
Not more than a few hundred feet into the garden we met the executive director who also welcomed us and we explained our situation. He also invited us to stay past the normal closing hour and we discussed with him the founding of the gardens and part of Birmingham’s history. It turns out his father used to own the land and run a golf driving range where the Birmingham Botanical Garden is now located. The city acquired it, probably improperly during the tumult of civil rights era due to his employment of blacks. This was a time when Birmingham closed its public parks and facilities rather than desegregate them. Later the first black mayor of Birmingham reached out to his father to express his sorrow at the losses his father and others endured during those decades.
The gardens have a focus on hydrangeas which are not ready to bloom yet. The owner that turned over the land to the City of Hoover had a nursery and had maintained this property for the previous owners. When it came up for sale, he purchased it and developed it as a garden. He and his father discovered the Snowflake Hydrangea and spent years propagating it and making it well known. Since the hydrangeas are not out, we just walked the trails and enjoyed the blossoms of other shrubs and trees.
Dinner was at a local and small Bar B Q; this may be our last southern food for a while. Tomorrow we start the trek back north.
Ed and Chris 8:30 April 10