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Tell us something we DON’T know (and win)

July 31, 2014

John Morse, publisher & contributor,

John Morse, publisher & contributor,

Much (really, all) of the rock-solid historical information you’ll be absorbing at the History Center’s quiz show, Can You Repeat That? has been mined from the website and then painstakingly tested for accuracy by the History Center and double-verified by bhamwiki’s publisher, Birmingham infomaniac John Morse (pictured here).

There is very little information of significance about Birmingham that has escaped mention in Morse’s online encyclopedia. But our dogged pursuit of historic truth requires that we admit that possibility. If you can tell us a significant fact or story of about Birmingham that has not yet appeared in, send your reply to for a chance at a discounted* ticket to Can You Repeat That? at the Virginia Samford Theatre Aug. 7!

Can_You_Repeat_InstagramBut maybe you aren’t aware of the show? Can You Repeat That? is the premiere of our first ever Birmingham history game show, featuring a dozen celebrity panelists, Mayor William Bell, and offering audience members chances to play along for some really great prizes. Tickets are $25 and available online at

Disclaimer – Discounts for stumping John Morse start at 20%.

Feb. 9, 1964 – The Beatles debut, and how Birmingham managed to miss it.

June 19, 2014
The Beatles American TV debut came on Feb. 9, 1964 on The Ed Sullivan Show. Not in Birmingham, though.

The Beatles’ American TV debut came on Feb. 9, 1964 on The Ed Sullivan Show. Not in Birmingham, though.


















What’s a 50th anniversary without witnesses to the original event, without the stirring personal narratives to remind us that, yes, that really happened? Such was the situation at the approach of Feb. 9, 2014, when reporters everywhere sought personal memories from those who watched the Beatles’ live debut 50 years earlier on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Here in Alabama, tributes and retrospectives were everywhere, with’s digital news running an “Alabama Perspective” of the Beatles’ influence on musicians across the state. But what about Alabama’s largest city? Strangely absent from’s or any news feature were witnesses  from Birmingham. Wasn’t there anyone in Birmingham on that day in 1964 who can remember the TV moment when Ed Sullivan gestured to the band’s wildly anticipated performance and announced: “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Beatles?”

The answer, if history tells us anything, is no.

“Unless they had a house with a very tall antenna. I mean incredibly tall,” those people don’t exist, said broadcaster and historian Russell Wells. Wells, a Birmingham native and public radio operations manager now working in Louisville, said the nearest CBS affiliates to Birmingham were broadcasting in UHF from Huntsville and Montgomery. To pull a VHF signal from neighboring states, he said, “would have been the stuff of Ripley.

In fact, idiosyncracies of the Magic City’s TV business from 1961-1966 were to blame for creating a virtual black hole for the nation’s dominant network, CBS, the home of The Ed Sullivan Show. Which is why, if friends claim to have actually witnessed the Fab Four’s  performance from their Birmingham living rooms, you can say–

Oh No You Didn’t!

On Top of Red Mountain–

Contrary to what may be imagined, the situation had nothing to do with “teeming anti-Beatle sentiment” in Birmingham, or a reaction against CBS’s 1961 Freedom Riders documentary, Who Speaks for Birmingham?

The real reason, said Wells, is that Birmingham entered the 1960s with only two local TV stations–WBRC-6 and WAPI-13—which had to juggle  programming from all three national networks. In 1961, Channel 6 took the unusual step of aligning itself with the weakest network of the three, ABC, and dropping all but a few CBS daytime soap operas. This left Channel 13 with a dual affiliation to both NBC and CBS, a position the station held even after the December 1965 entrée of Channel 42. (To his knowledge, Wells knows of only one other instance where one station had first pick of both the “Peacock and the Eye,” in Raleigh/Durham North Carolina.)

Only in 1970 did  Channel 13 choose to affiliate exclusively with NBC, apparently moved by fears of FCC involvement. “Therefore, between September 1961 and December 1965, it was a sad inevitability that a number of network programs would not be seen in Birmingham,” Wells said. And falling into that category was the Sullivan show.

The Ed Sullivan Show wasn't a choice for Birmingham viewers in 1964. At 7 p.m. CST when the nation was preparing to see the Beatles debut, Birmingham viewers had a choice between Grindl or Disney's Wonderful World of Color.

The Ed Sullivan Show wasn’t a choice for Birmingham viewers in 1964. On Feb. 9, at 7 p.m. CST, when the nation was preparing to watch the Beatles first performance,  Birmingham viewers could watch Grindl or Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.

A glance at Birmingham’s TV listings for that date, published in the “The Tuscaloosa News” bears that out. Kids i Birmingham households with no high antenna were watching either the second half of Disney’s Wonderful World of Color at 7 p.m. or the one-season sitcom Grindle, starring Imogene Coca.

Or maybe doing homework.

If there were teenager complaints in the lead-up or aftermath of that first show (The Beatles were signed for three consecutive Sundays in February) there’s no recorded history of it. In retrospect, that’s hard to believe. But Wells said adults at the time weren’t concerned with teen fads and the phenomenon barely registered on the radars of those making decisions, at home or on Red Mountain.

It is also speculation that provides a reason why Birmingham’s top local station, Channel 13, decided against affiliating with the nation’s dominant network. In an aside relevant to Birmingham today, Wells said that station owners Newhouse Broadcasting (now Advance Media, owners of the Birmingham News, sister papers and were said to have “loathed CBS chairman and founder William Paley. So NBC it was,” he said.

And the fate of Ed Sullivan in Birmingham? The popular variety show returned to the Birmingham airways in 1966 after Channel 42 signed on. However, the station barely got signal as far as Warrior, Wells jokes, and its arrival came four months too late to air the Beatles’ final (taped) performance on Ed Sullivan in September 1965.

Wells said a curious legacy of the 1960s lasted into the 1990s when Channel 13 slipped in a syndicated show at 10 p.m. and delayed The Tonight Show one hour– a juggling trick it learned from its dual-affiliation days. The benefit? The station got to keep 100% of the commercial revenue!

Russell Wells is the creator and webmaster of with collaborator Tim Hollis. Active in broadcasting since the 11th grade, in 1982, he has worked for the last 24 years at public radio stations in Montgomery, Troy, Savannah, and now Louisville. He frequently returns to Birmingham to visit an aunt living in East Birmingham.  


“Can You Repeat That?” The History Center lays down a challenge

June 10, 2014

GAMESHOWIMAGEPlease save this date: Thursday, Aug. 7, at 7:30 p.m., and join the Birmingham History Center and its community partners in a live game show on stage at the Virginia Samford Theatre.

A dozen of Birmingham’s best known, or should we say “best knowing,” figures from politics, media, academia, and culture have agreed to play “Can You Repeat That?” the game where history repeats itself in the form of questions, bluffs, riddles, and puzzles, all having to do with the Magic City’s varied history.

Here are the 12 Birmingham leaders who have agreed to go the four rounds with us. Pound for pound, we think they are equally ranked:

John Archibald, Kyle Whitmire, Frank Stitt, Laura Kate Whitney, James Spann, comedian Chris Davis, Glenny Brock, Richard Arrington, Jay Roberson, and from two major Birmingham universities, Randy Law of Birmingham-Southern College, and Pam King of UAB.

You can play along, beginning now

One of the game rounds will be based on guessing the top answers to survey questions about Birmingham. This is where our readers can help. Please click on the orange banner to take our survey and share it with your friends. Then come to the show August 7 and see how well our contestants perform.

bhamwiki logoThe show is being generously assisted by the Virginia Samford Theatre, museum supporters, and the abundant knowledge and expertise of publisher John Morse.


Whales, Franklin and Daylight Savings Time

March 6, 2014

The small tea-pot shaped lamp (pictured) is one of several coal miner’s lamps in the collection of the Birmingham History Center.  It is different than all the rest, however.  It uses a different type of fuel – whale oil, to be specific, spermaceti.  It is found in the head of sperm whales (a large whale could yield as much as 500 gallons).  Marine biologists don’t really know why the liquid is found there but speculate that it has something to do with either buoyancy or the whale’s motion-sensing sonar.OldSmokey

The lamp, known as “Old Smokey” because when lit the oil does give off a great deal of smoke, has a hook in the back which attached it to a miner’s helmet or cap.  Young boys were employed to carry buckets of whale oil in the coal mines to refill the miner’s lamps.  Whale oil production reached its peak in the 1850s, at about the same time as Herman Melville’s book, Moby Dick, was published.  Then it was replaced in lamps by petroleum products.

Benjamin Franklin, perhaps the most famous American scientist, philosopher and statesman of the 18th century, was very much concerned with the whale oil industry.  As the American ambassador to France during the Revolutionary War, Franklin headed the American delegation during the talks which led to the Treaty of Paris of 1783 and the winning of American independence.  One particular item on the agenda was to determine the fishing rights in the Atlantic Ocean, specifically the area off the coast of Newfoundland known as the Grand Banks, an area rich in cod fish and whales.  Franklin wanted the U.S. fishing fleet (including whalers) to have the right to fish in this area, a concession which was granted in the treaty.


Benjamin Franklin, Ambassador to France

However, reports from home indicated that the whale population was declining off the Grand Banks, due to over-harvesting.  Franklin, a native of New England, knew how much the economy of the region depended on this trade.  But the problem was how to reduce the number of whales harvested in order to replenish to supply.  The answer seemed obvious to Franklin . . . use less whale oil.  But how?

The story goes that one day Franklin was out on a balcony overlooked the rooftops of Paris as the sun was going down.  He noticed that as it got darker, people in homes began lighting their whale oil lamps.  If only there was some way to delay the beginning of night – to save time.  That’s right, Benjamin Franklin invented Daylight Savings Time.  Well, sort of, the idea actually goes back to Roman times but it makes for a good story (Franklin did publish a short pamphlet telling the Parisians that they should be getting up earlier each day to take advantage of the sun light, an proposal that did not go over very well).


World War I Poster

In the early 20th century the idea finally began to gather momentum.  An English sportsman named William Willett, upset that the sun was going down during his round of golf, was able to get a bill to the British Parliament in 1908, but it was tabled.  Finally, it was the Germans in 1916 who went to Daylight Savings Time to save coal use during World War I.

In the United States, the Standard Time Act of 1918 put DST into effect for the first time, and it was an on again, off again affair through most of the 20th century.  The energy crisis of the 1970s brought the idea back.  The Uniform Time Act in 1986 began DST on the first Sunday in April to run until the last Sunday in October. This was modified by the Energy Policy Act of 2005, under President George W. Bush, to our present state of affairs, starting DST on the second Sunday of March through the first Sunday in November.

So when you change your clocks ahead one hour at 2 AM on March 9th this year, think of Benjamin Franklin and his attempt to save the whales back in 1783.  Then, of course, go back to sleep.



Moretti or forgetti it? An unidentified artwork wants to know

December 12, 2013
Marble head taken from the Elyton Cemetery circa 1978.

Marble head taken from the Elyton Cemetery circa 1978.

There exist only a few remaining landmarks that precede the establishment of the Magic City. One often neglected one is the Elyton Cemetery. Being the oldest cemetery in Birmingham, it holds much history. But, for some, the question lingers, did it also hold a priceless work from the most famous artist to work in Birmingham?

Late this summer a visitor arrived at the History Center, carrying something heavy in a flannel bag with a drawstring. He said he had a story to tell, and wasn’t sure if he was in the right place. It all happened 35 years ago, when he was riding his bike with friends in the Elyton community in West Birmingham, not far from the Arlington House. He ran across an overgrown cemetery, later identified as Elyton Cemetery, which was in ruins at the time and still is, he said. With that, the visitor pulled open the drawstring and carefully lifted out a marble head. As he explained, the head was all that remained of a statue of a young girl he had found broken and scattered in that cemetery all those years ago. He had decided to “rescue” it and, given the further decline of the cemetery, had no misgivings about that decision. Now, late in his 50s, he wanted to know what he had always suspected, Was this head possibly the work of Guiseppe Moretti, sculptor of Vulcan who worked in marble and fashioned the prized “Head of Christ?”

The History Center turned that question over to intern Michelle Mandarino, a Jefferson County International Baccalaureate school student assigned here fall semester.  And here is what she found out.       

The story of the Elyton Cemetery begins in 1821, 50 years before the city of Birmingham was officially established. This was the year the federal government granted a tract of land in Alabama to the American Asylum for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb, located in Connecticut. This tract–located in what is now west Birmingham but known then as “Frog Level”–, was to be sold off and the profits used for the asylum to expand the education of the deaf at its Connecticut campus.  William H. Ely, a federal land agent and attorney for the asylum,  negotiated the land sale to Alabama speculator Col. John Dupuy and donated a separate parcel to Frog Level’s citizens for a courthouse, with the requirement that the new community be named after himself. Thus, 1821 was the year that the city of Elyton was founded. Col. Dupuy, who purchased 40 acres of the tract, later established the Elyton Cemetery on one of those acres,  most likely in 1834. And, though most of the gravestones are indecipherable with age, the oldest marked grave, that of Mrs. Nancy E. Scott, is from that same year.  

The 1950s-era postcard, left, shows the meticulously kept cemetery, with the Laughing Girl statue intact. On the right, the cemetery as it stands today.

The 1950s-era postcard, left, shows the meticulously kept cemetery, with the Laughing Girl statue intact. On the right, the cemetery as it stands today. (Click for larger image of postcard.)

However, even in its early years the cemetery quickly fell into disrepair, and in 1891 a group raised $450 for a cleanup effort. From then to 1965, there would be three more major cleanup efforts, which were never effective in the long term. Perhaps the one bright spot in the overgrown plot was the Laughing Girl – an elegant marble figure of a young girl, mouth open in perpetual laughter, delicate curls tucked behind her ear. In 1974 the figure was still whole, according to newspaper articles. But by the late 1970s, she was falling apart and being used as a base for a neighborhood baseball lot. While her smile remained wide, the rest of the figure bore signs of abuse – a piece of gum stuck to her forehead, both arms now missing, dress crumbling apart. The Laughing Girl didn’t have much of a reason to laugh anymore.

The Moretti connection

The story of Giuseppe Moretti begins in 1857, the year of his birth, in Siena, Italy, more than five thousand miles away from the one-acre

Guiseppe Moretti Birmingham Public Library archives

Guiseppe Moretti
Birmingham Public Library archives

Birmingham cemetery. From a young age, Moretti knew that he wanted to be a sculptor, and that Florence was the art capital of Italy. At age 15, he attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence under the tutelage of Giovanni Dupre. He was schooled in the style of Beaux-Arts, a style inspired by the elegance and symmetry of French and Italian Renaissance art. Moretti went on to work in Carrara, Italy, and in Budapest, where he was given several distinguished commissions before he moved to New York City. There, he opened a studio with artist, Carl Bitter. He spent a few years in the city, working on some notable commissions, including a few for members of the prestigious Vanderbilt family. He moved to Pittsburgh in 1895, which he described as a “the fine home for the artist–strong, mighty, rugged-so!”

In 1903, Moretti caught the attention of James A. MacKnight, the secretary of Birmingham’s Commercial Club (the city’s first “chamber of commerce”). MacKnight had been tasked to hire a sculptor to design an iron rendering of mythological Vulcan for the St. Louis Exposition. Moretti was competing against three other sculptors for the commission and beat them by offering to do it for $6,000–half the amount the others were quoting, and for agreeing to complete it within the 40-day time frame the Commercial Club desired.  

Upon completing the sculpture, he discovered a marble quarry in Sylacauga–just thirty miles from Birmingham–and became fascinated with it. He was amazed by its quality, so much like that of his native Carrara, and sought to develop a quarry company there. It was this marble that would lead to the creation of his most cherished work, “The Head of Christ.”

In 1905, Moretti would marry Dorothea Long, a young Boston socialite 12 years his junior. Two years later, he would take on a young, gifted Alabama sculptress, Geneva Mercer, as his apprentice and the three of them would travel and live together for nearly three decades until Giuseppe’s death in 1935 in San Remo, Italy.

Laughing Girl in the ruins

These two historic subjects meet in the form of a now-crumbling and dismembered statue – the Laughing Girl. Today, the cemetery lies barren and unkept. The Laughing Girl no longer exists – at least, not in one piece. The last burial took place in 1919, and the cemetery is surrounded by abandoned buildings and a variety of “gentlemen’s clubs.” Although still in one piece as late as 1974, the statue would be broken apart and its parts scattered just a few years later; the cemetery itself would be found in worse shape than it is today, having become essentially a playground for the neighborhood children. This was the scene in 1978, around the time Demedicis rode his bike past the cemetery and decided to rescue the head while it was still in one piece. In her prime, the Laughing Girl stood in a brick courtyard in the center of the Elyton Cemetery, arms stretched out, mouth slightly opened in a smile, eyes focused on the scenery. Still pristine in the 1950s, she was featured on a postcard from an Arlington Antebellum Tour series, which included a stop at the Elyton Cemetery when it was still a meticulously maintained historic resting place for the city’s first residents.

Moretti’s work or someone else’s?

Could the same artist who rendered the Head of Christ, left, and Miss Alabama, center, have created Laughing Girl? [The Christ bust is at the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery; Miss Alabama is at the Comer Museum in Sylacauga.]

Could the same artist who rendered the Head of Christ, left, and Miss Alabama, center, have created Laughing Girl? [The Christ bust is at the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery; Miss Alabama is at the Comer Museum in Sylacauga.] Click image for larger version.

During the time Moretti was in Birmingham — roughly 1904 to 1916–the cemetery would be recovering from its latest big cleanup effort in 1891. Could the statue possibly be his? He was, after all, varied in his sculptures, and completed at least 14 documented cemetery memorials. Moretti was also known for his fascination with Alabama marble, and the Laughing Girl was sculpted from some sort of marble, although the source isn’t obvious. Also, she is sculpted in the same Beaux-Arts style that Moretti used.

However, while it is tempting to think it is an undiscovered Moretti, there remain questions to be answered. The cemetery was likely in poor condition during Moretti’s tenure in Birmingham. There are style questions, too.  The Laughing Girl’s mouth, for example–which is open in a laugh with the teeth and tongue clearly visible–doesn’t match the mouths of other busts and sculptures of Moretti, which have always been closed, showing only lips. In addition to this, Moretti’s apprentice, Geneva Mercer, kept a scrapbook throughout her life with the sculptor. It is with this scrapbook that historians are able to identify Moretti’s works, and while it shows most of his works either in progress or completed, there is no sign of the Laughing Girl, or anything that might resemble her. Neither is there any entry that seems to fit her n all the records kept of his works. Finally, most of the burials date back long before Moretti came to Alabama in about 1904. Would he have been commissioned to sculpt a piece for a cemetery that, although historic, was small and relatively obscure?

Regardless of whether the Laughing Girl was really the work of the esteemed Moretti, there remains the bigger issue that has been cause for concern for over a hundred years, the same that troubled the concerned citizens of 1965. The Elyton Cemetery is one of the last remaining relics in Birmingham that predates its 1871 founding. While the Laughing Girl was ultimately broken apart, its body pieces scattered, it is not too late for the cemetery itself to be restored. As one citizen was quoted in the 1956, “we have so little of the past generation left in Birmingham, we ought to do what we can to preserve it.”

Postscript: The starting point for Michelle Mandarino’s work began after BHC consulted with Birmingham Museum of Art professionals, who said the statue was done in the Italianate style, but was unlikely the work of Moretti himself. Ms. Mandarino found dozens of newspaper references in her research on the piece. She also relied on the scrapbook of Geneva Mercer. The physical scrapbook documenting all of Moretti’s works is at the University of West Alabama in Livingston, but a digital copy was available at the Birmingham Public Library.  If anyone reading this knows information about the Laughing Girl, please contact us in a reply, by email, or by calling 205-202-4146.

The head remains in the possession of the finder, David Demedicis.

Stormy weather

October 4, 2013
Storms are part of Birmingham's history. This photo looks down on I-65 traffic on March 14, 1993, the year of Birmingham's last great winter storm. Photo by Birmingham News photographer Joe Songer.

Storms are part of Birmingham’s history. This photo looks down on I-65 traffic on March 14, 1993, the year of Birmingham’s last great winter storm. Photo by Birmingham News photographer Joe Songer.

The Great Blizzard or “Superstorm” of March 1993 buried Birmingham in 17 inches of snow and left indelible memories for Birmingham the state and entire region. But guest blogger Art Black gives us the following accounts of two equally historic winter storms — both hitting in Februarys. In 1923, news organizations found work-arounds for downed presses, essential workers walked to work, and most kids had a snow day off from school. The immense span of the 1899 blizzard–known as The Snow King–completely iced over the Port of New Orleans and sent Tallahassee’s temperature to minus 2 degrees–“the only recorded instance of a sub-zero Fahrenheit temperature in Florida to this day.”* One notable fatality of the 1899 storm in Birmingham was the city’s now-forgotten Mardi Gras celebration, which at one time drew some 50,000 revelers to the streets of the Magic City.

The Great Blizzard of 1899, the Snow King or Valentine’s Blizzard
During the early evening of Saturday, Feb. 11, 1899, it was 21 degrees outside as snow began falling. The night grew steadily colder and snow continued to fall until daylight Sunday, when the temperature was 10 degrees Fahrenheit.

All day Sunday it was “fearfully cold” as The Birmingham News put it. Coal dealers broke Sunday rules and worked their wagons and teams of horses. In outlying areas, such as Woodlawn, the coal supply gave out entirely.

On Sunday night it grew colder, and the mercury fell to 10 degrees below zero. By 8 a.m. Monday, the temperature had risen only slightly–to minus 5 degrees. Anniston reported 15 below zero.

Monday’s Birmingham News carried the following headline:

A U.S. Department of Agriculture map showing the weather conditions on Feb. 13, 1899. Taken with thanks from ABC 33/40 weather blog. For more information on the map and storm, visit

A U.S. Department of Agriculture map showing the weather conditions on Feb. 13, 1899. Taken with thanks from ABC 33/40 weather blog. For more information on the map and storm, visit

Birmingham in the Blizzard’s Grasp

Ground Wrapped in Mantle of Snow; Sleighing and Skating Possible; White Plumbers and Coal Dealers Reap a Harvest; Street Cars Ran All Night to Keep Tracks Clear; East Lake Frozen Over.

Associated Press dispatches told of “the entire country shivering and great suffering in many places.” The Birmingham Post office would not receive mail from the East for an entire week.

Perhaps the most lasting– but least memorable– damage done to the city was the end of a wildly popular Mardi Gras celebration. The famous French Bachanal on the eve of Ash Wednesday was started in Birmingham by the German Society in which 30 organizations hosted floats and pretzels were thrown instead of coins. Snowfall dampened two of the city’s six parades but the 1899 blizzard canceled the February event, despite fully occupied hotel space. The city would hold only one more Mardi Gras, in 1900.

Henry Key Milner and his sister, Mary Clare Milner, as King and Queen of the foiled 1899 Birmingham Mardi Gras. Weather would do away with the annual celebration in Birmingham the next year.

Henry Key Milner and his sister, Mary Clare Milner, as King and Queen of the foiled 1899 Birmingham Mardi Gras. Weather would do away with the annual celebration in Birmingham the next year.

The News said that “water pipes froze and burst with the regularity and sound of July 4 firecrackers, and it is no improbable that the telephones of plumbers will need new bells when the freeze is over.”
The denouement began Tuesday morning.  It was 16 degrees at 7 a.m., but the sun shone warmly all day, melting most of the snow. Still, there was a large crowd of skaters at East Lake. Wednesday morning’s temperature was 34 degrees, and the emergency was over.


“Birmingham, Isolated, Center of Sleet Storm” was the headline in The Birmingham News of Monday afternoon, Feb. 5, 1923.

The most disastrous sleet storm in 50 years, according to the day’s news, had visited north Alabama the day before and Birmingham awoke Monday in a straitjacket of ice.  Western Union, the Postal Telegraphy Company, and Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph Co. all lost service into or out of Birmingham.
Newspaper press wires stopped sending news. For the first time in the history of the Birmingham bureau of the Associated Press every wire was silent. Early Monday morning The Birmingham News finally attempted to reach the outside world through the new medium of “radiophone” or radio for short. Alabama Power Co. had erected the state’s first radio station, WSY, primarily to communicate with workers in the field, and would later donate the equipment to new station WAPI. But for now, it used the radiophone to relay this message on behalf of The News:

“To All Radiophone Stations Everywhere: Birmingham, Ala. is isolated.  Owing to the storm of the past 48 hours, all press wire communication with the outside world is paralyzed. Radiophone transmitting stations are requested to send to WSY any news of importance in their territory.”

Footing it to work

With streetcars not working, cars not operable and streets impassable, people everywhere walked to work Monday morning. Every teacher in the public school system was at his or her post, but due to crippled heating systems, only three high schools and five elementary schools were in session the entire day.

Even the meteorologist performed under hardship. Marooned in his observatory in Fountain Heights, E. C. Horton of the U.S. Weather Bureau was without telephone communication and made his readings by candle light.

In all, the city’s isolation lasted 20 hours. But as The News put it, “Above the ice and slippery sidewalks, however, there was one thing especially noticeable.  In the way of real Birminghammers there was a general prevalence of smiles Monday morning despite many cold toes and red noes. Everybody was taking the inconveniences with the best of good humor.”

Taken primarily from The Birmingham News and Age-Herald Newspapers, Bhamwiki, and Mental Floss* trivia magazine.

[This article is second in a series of relevant but dated news stories written from Birmingham newspaper archives. Guest contributor Art Black is a technical writer for KBR engineering firm in Birmingham. He is currently conducting research on Rickwood Field.]

He said what?

August 28, 2013

Fifty years from its founding, Birmingham inspired a presidential visit. But Warren Harding’s speech surprised a Roaring Twenties audience ignorant of the city’s future in matters of race.   

President Warren G. Harding, just right of the flag, on the Tutwiler Hotel balcony during the city's first 50 year anniversary festivities, 1921. Courtesy Birmingham Public Library Archives [collection i.d. OVH119]

President Warren G. Harding, just right of the flag, looks out from the Tutwiler Hotel balcony during the city’s first 50 year anniversary festivities, 1921. Courtesy Birmingham Public Library Archives [collection i.d. OVH119]

In October of 1921 Birmingham was 50 years old–old enough to be sensible, young enough to be carefree.

On Wednesday morning, Oct. 26, Birmingham was all dressed up and awaiting the crowning event of her Golden Anniversary – the visit of President and Mrs. Warren G. Harding.  The skies were as blue as a day in June, with not a cloud in sight. Though it was autumn, the day was hot – plenty of bright sunshine.

The presidential party arrived on a special train over the Southern Railway at 8:45 a.m. As it turned into the Terminal Station, the President was accorded a 21-gun salute by gunners of the Alabama National Guard. At that moment, all industrial plants, shops, fire engines and train engines – anything that could make noise – sounded their whistles and engines through all quarters of the city.

There were 32 people in the presidential entourage, including Secretary of War John Weeks, Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall, Alabama Sen. Oscar Underwood, reporters from New York and Washington, D.C., the Associated Press, United Press and International News services. They proceeded down Fifth Avenue North to the Tutwiler Hotel with thousands of people lining the streets. At 10 o’clock a grand civic parade of 10 marching bands looped the entire downtown business district for more than an hour.

Around noon, Mr. Harding began an address from a rostrum at Woodrow Wilson Park [now Linn Park], in front of one of the largest gatherings in Birmingham up to that time, as many as 40,000 people. A large section of the park, bounded by a wooden railing, was set aside for black people.

Outside the park, the voices of newsboys called out the noon editions of the newspapers: The News! The News! All About President Harding!

The crowd listened to the president with great interest. At the beginning of his speech, he praised Birmingham: “Mr. Mayor, Citizens of Birmingham, and People of the South: . …We have come here to pay tribute to the marvelous achievement of a brief half-century to which this city and its industries stand as a monument. They testify to us how far the South has progressed in a single generation; the generation since slavery was abolished and the role of free labor and unfettered industrial opportunity became the rule of all our great republic.”

Then the president spoke frankly, turning to his left to address many of his remarks to the “Negro” section. He appealed to the nation to “lay aside old prejudices and old antagonisms” and to support a constructive policy of racial relationship. In his soothing voice of “velvet” as the newspapers called it, he spoke of the right of the American Negro to broad political, economic, and educational advantages. When he called for economic equality, a thunder of applause came up from the segregated section.

Then Mr. Harding turned to the white section. Above the din of the crowd, he departed from his prepared remarks to say: “Whether you like it or not, unless our democracy is a lie, you must stand for that equality.” There was another roar from the black section when Mr. Harding looked to them again, laid down his manuscript, and said: “I want to be looking in their direction when I say these things because I am speaking to North and South alike, white and blacks alike. I am never going to say anything that I can’t say in every direction and to all people exactly alike.”

At the close of the President’s address, more cheers broke out, and a band played “Dixie.” Mr. Harding shook hands all around and walked to his automobile. His day was filled with more activities and he didn’t depart Birmingham until after midnight.

The city was startled by the president’s remarks. Most thought he would deliver the usual gushing speech, mixing in just enough substance to give it national scope.  No one expected such affirmative support of black and white racial equality.

 When news of the speech reached Washington the next day, it was the talk of that town as well. Many politicians believed that Harding, in mentioning the issue of race, had tarnished the most enthusiastic reception he had received since his inauguration. Southern Democrats privately criticized the speech. Republicans commended it as “Lincolnesque,” a courageous address delivered in the heart of the South.

Sources: The Birmingham News and Birmingham Age-Herald newspapers.

[This article is first in a series of relevant, dated news stories written from Birmingham newspaper archives. Guest contributor Art Black is a technical writer for KBR engineering firm in Birmingham. He is currently conducting research on Rickwood Field.]



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