Elitists, racists, and snake-oil salesmen built B’ham

Bill Ivey
Bill Ivey

Today’s guest blogger is Bill Ivey.

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This is a short tale of the founding of Birmingham, a New South city that would become the only large industrial-based metropolitan area in the Deep South.

However, the story of the early years is inherently inadequate unless, at some point, we jump forward several decades to understand how this 19th-Century experiment in Jones Valley, Alabama, steered Birmingham to the center of the 20th-Century Civil Rights Movement.

So many threads connect those early years to multiple mid-20th Century flashpoints in Birmingham. The Klan. Dynamite Hill. Bull Connor. Fred Shuttlesworth. James Bevel. MLK, Jr. The Childrens’ Crusade. Fire hoses and police dogs. 16th Street Baptist Church. Four Little Girls.

So: Why Birmingham?

The city of Birmingham is young–a post-Civil war experiment (established in 1871) that is still considered the “new kid on the block” by the traditional power brokers in Alabama. And Birmingham’s short history is complex and tumultuous.

Considering that what became known as the “Magic City” is less than 140 years old, it’s hard to believe that its crazy, tumultuous origins have largely been forgotten. Birmingham’s “growing up” years, filled with industrial and capitalist intrigue, helped create a socially and economically stratified city.

Nearly two centuries ago, it was well-known that the Red Mountain area of Alabama contained incredible mineral wealth. The small region contained the three essential components for producing iron and steel: iron ore, limestone, and coal. This unique combination occurs nowhere else in the world.

Until after the Civil War, those resources remained largely untapped (and the region sparsely populated) for two primary reasons: 1) Like the rest of the Deep South, rail service was almost nonexistent, and 2) The state was dominated by cotton planters who weren’t particularly interested in mining or heavy industry.

The first hint of industrialization in the area developed prior to the Civil War. Blast furnaces were producing pig iron in several Jefferson County communities, including Irondale, Shelby County, Oxmoor, and Tannehill. Those furnaces supplied iron to the Confederacy, and several were destroyed by Union troops in 1865.

Until 1871, the primary community in Jones Valley was the small town of Elyton, which had been established in 1820. By 1871, Elyton’s population was around 700, and the Jefferson County Seat was based there. Elyton, located in what is now the western area of Birmingham, included the Stephen Hall plantation (home of the antebellum mansion now known as Arlington).

Dramatic post-Civil War change was brewing in 1869, however, as 10 powerful men–bankers, industrialists, railroad men, and politicians–met in Montgomery to establish the Elyton Land Company. According to Alabama: The History of a Deep South State (Rogers, Ward, Atkins & Flynt), “What happened next…was a tangled web of interest, snake-oil promotion schemes, and solid technical experiment.”

John T. Milner (the 11th man), a brilliant surveyor, mining engineer, and a civil engineer for the South and North Railroad, was the central character in bringing Birmingham to life. He had been targeting the Jones Valley area since before the Civil War. Milner made sure that the South and North would intersect with the existing Alabama and Chattanooga Railroad in a particular spot in Jefferson County.

Milner’s relationship with Montgomery banker Josiah Morris had prompted the formation of the Elyton Land Company. And in late 1870, Milner convinced Morris to purchase over 4000 acres of land on which the new city would be laid out. Although Milner never owned stock in the Elyton Land Company (I’m not sure why), he was the primary catalyst in the founding of a city that would, in a relatively short time, become an industrial powerhouse. And, of course, no one could know then that the complex venture set in motion by Milner and a small group of opportunists would one day change the world.

 According to Birmingham writer Mark Kelly (Weld, 2/11/2014): “Milner was a visionary, possessed of the knowledge, confidence and financial and political wherewithal to build a great city from nothing. He was also a racist, steeped in Southern sectional pride, loyal to the Confederate cause, and firm in his belief that blacks were ‘fitted only for servile occupations,’ and that the black man was ‘a peculiar being [who] differs widely from all other races of men…an inferior being.’”

Kelly continued: “In a very real sense, the extraordinarily gifted and deeply flawed Milner is a perfect metaphor for Birmingham, a city beset by intractable dichotomies — of race, of class, of economic and political power — from the moment of its founding to the present day. On balance, his influence on the founding and development of Birmingham — to the extent that the city prospers today, it is in fulfillment and furtherance of Milner’s vision of more than 150 years ago — must be acknowledged as unequaled.” Kelly believes that Milner was the most influential person in Birmingham’s history.

Col. James Powell, the first president of the Company–and eventually the first mayor of Birmingham–was the most influential original stockholder. Powell had recently returned from Birmingham, England, and convinced the group to take that name for the new city. He also became a brilliant tactician and promoter for Birmingham, Alabama.

Powell and his cohorts were elitists. Here’s an odd but revealing example. Dr. Marving Whiting, a church historian who was the Birmingham Public Library’s archivist for over 20 years, once told me this story: The stockholders were, for the most part, Episcopalians. So, they gave the best piece of real estate to the Cathedral of the Advent, and then–in order–the Methodists, Catholics, and Baptists. And they sold the Emanu-El Jewish congregation their property at half-price. Finally, black congregations were given lots on the western edge of town.

By 1870 the Alabama & Chattanooga Railroad, which passed through Jefferson County between Chattanooga and Meridian, was completed. The South and North Railroad, which was set to connect Nashville to Montgomery, intersected with the Alabama and Chattanooga in the middle of what would soon be the new city of Birmingham.

Powell was a master promoter of the new venture. Centered around the proposed railroad right-of-ways, he laid out a street grid. By the end of 1871, over 100 lots had been sold and the population exceeded 800 inhabitants. In 1873, Powell published promotional articles in newspapers all over the country and even convinced the New York Press Association to join the Alabama chapter to meet in Birmingham. He brought industrialists and wealthy investors to see for themselves the incredible mineral resources in the area.

Powell, through subterfuge and underhanded salesmanship in Montgomery, arranged a successful referendum vote in Jefferson County to move the Jefferson County seat to Birmingham. Elyton residents were furious, but they’d been out-maneuvered. And the new town would soon absorb the old one.

Other events of 1873, however, nearly crushed Birmingham before it had a chance to take off. A cholera epidemic killed over 100 residents and caused many others to leave for good. The new railroads weren’t yet financially stable. In addition, the U.S. Panic of 1873 drained local capital and scared potential outside investors. Birmingham thus almost died before it could survive its infancy. Several years passed before the “Magic City” began its first boom.

Under new management in 1876, the Elyton Land Company de-emphasized real estate and focused on developing coal and iron resources. That year it formed a joint venture with the Louisville and Nashville Railroad Company to start an experimental furnace.

Also in 1876, pig iron was produced from Alabama coke (at the Oxmoor Furnace) for the first time. During the next ten years, Birmingham experienced an amazing period of industrial growth and development as existing companies expanded and new Northern capital streamed into Birmingham.

This outside capital-driven progress is best described as “dependent development,” a system in which northeastern companies and individuals became huge absentee owners in Alabama. Birmingham’s–and Alabama’s–destiny was set. Dependent development, which continues to dominate Alabama in 2019, is not a viable long-term solution.

Quietly, back in 1872, wealthy Montgomery industrialist Daniel Pratt and his son-in-law, Henry DeBardeleben, had acquired a controlling interest in the Red Mountain Iron and Coal Company and began rebuilding the Oxmoor furnaces. Pratt, the leading industrialist in Alabama, died in 1873, but DeBardeleben inherited a great deal of Pratt’s wealth and would use it to help develop Birmingham.

In 1878, the Pratt Coal and Coke Company, founded by DeBardeleben, Truman Aldrich, and James Sloss, began construction of a short rail line that connected their mines with the two main railroads. In 1880, the company also constructed the Alice Furnace and produced its first iron. They were so successful in selling to out-of-state markets that the company built the larger Alice Furnace No. 2, which began operations in 1883. A flurry of economic development followed.

William and Joseph Woodward established the Woodward Iron Company in 1881. Wealthy Memphis businessman Enoch Ensley moved to Birmingham and purchased the Pratt Coal and Coke Company from DeBardeleben, who–due to some kind of illness–temporarily moved out West. Ensley also purchased the Alice furnace and Linn Iron Works.

Sloss purchased 50 acres of land in 1882 and built the largest blast furnace in the district, Sloss Furnace. Sloss doubled its capacity by adding a second furnace in 1883.

A major turning point occurred in 1886 when the Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company (TCI) “purchased” (modern term: hostile takeover) the Pratt Coal and Iron Company from Ensley. Ensley would later be named the president of TCI.

Upon his final return to Birmingham in 1886, DeBardeleben went on a capitalistic binge. He and an out-of-state investor raised $2 million in capital for the creation of the DeBardeleben Coal & Iron Company. The new company purchased over 150,000 acres of mineral-rights properties in the Birmingham District. The new DeBardeleben Coal and Iron Company, in addition to founding the city of Bessemer, also acquired the old Oxmoor furnace and the Henry Ellen Coal Company. That same year Enoch Ensley purchased 4000 acres from TCI to form the town of Ensley.

By 1888 TCI had also purchased the Linn Iron Works, the Pratt Mines, and the Ensley works. In 1892 DeBardeleben sold his industrial concerns, then valued at over $13 million, to TCI and was made a vice-president. He failed to seize control of the company through a stock manipulation scheme and lost most of his assets in the process. DeBardeleben was forced out of TCI in 1893. TCI, by then one of the largest industrial companies in the South, relocated to Birmingham in 1895. The next year TCI became one of twelve firms listed on the first Dow Jones Industrial Average.

The men who built Birmingham were, for the most part, a rough bunch. The Progressive Era in the U.S. was in its infancy, but DeBardeleben and his contemporaries were anything but progressive. They operated in an era of unregulated capitalism and took full advantage of it. They resisted unions with violence. They established a harsh, hardened socioeconomic system with few rules and exploitative labor practices. They built a two-tier labor system through which whites got the best jobs, blacks the worst. The inertia of those early years helped to create an explosive powder keg of race/class tension over the next few decades.

The worst example of human rights abuse in Birmingham was convict leasing, a horrific system through which the state leased prisoners to private companies. Combined with an increasingly sophisticated Jim Crow system, blacks were being re-enslaved. Convict leasing, which had existed on a small scale in Alabama for decades, became big business–in fact, by the 1890’s–the major revenue source for the state. And at least 90 percent of state prisoners were African American. (According to local historian Pam S. King, John Milner was actually the architect of convict leasing. For details, check out Douglas A. Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II.)

By the 1880’s, the state had developed a corrupt partnership with Birmingham’s industrialists (by then known as “Big Mules”) that sent most of the thousands of leased convicts to work in coal mines in the Birmingham area. The tremendous growth of the Magic City was directly tied to this horrific form of forced labor. Due to horrible working and living conditions, the mortality rates were extremely high. And, at first, several local companies participated, but by 1888, TCI negotiated a 10-year contract that entitled it to all able-bodied state prisoners. In keeping with Deep South tradition, Birmingham was primarily building its economy on the backs of poor black laborers.

Birmingham’s growing ecosystem was shaped by antebellum traditions. Workplaces were segregated–and blacks worked in the worst and most dangerous jobs. Housing was segregated–and blacks lived in the worst conditions. A divided workforce, combined with the convict leasing system, helped the Big Mules limit union activity in Birmingham. As a result of the political clout held by industrial leaders, Alabama was the last state in the nation to outlaw convict leasing (1928).

Birmingham’s steel industry was born in 1899 when TCI began manufacturing it in nearby Ensley. Through the years, TCI had acquired almost 100,000 acres for mineral rights and had absorbed most of its competitors in Birmingham.

TCI, however, struggled with financial mismanagement and labor shortages. Leased convicts were an unstable workforce, and all workers–whether “leased” or simply employed–suffered greatly from poor working conditions, substandard housing, and from diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis.

The Panic of 1907 magnified those issues and set up TCI to be acquired by J.P. Morgan’s U.S. Steel, formed in Pittsburgh in 1901. In spite of his reputation as the great “trust-buster,” Theodore Roosevelt was misled by Morgan’s people and eventually approved the merger.

And what did Birmingham TCI and Birmingham offer U.S. Steel? 1) Cheap natural resources. 2) A low-wage labor force that would never unite because of racial divisions. 3) Low taxes. Great perks for the absentee owners, but terrible for Birmingham.

Steel production in Birmingham tripled by around 1920. And, since it was cheaper to produce here, U.S. Steel raised the price on Birmingham steel so it wouldn’t undercut that produced by the parent company. Birmingham had become an economic colony of U.S. Steel.

By 1910 Birmingham had annexed 19 peripheral towns/communities: Pratt City, Ensley, Avondale, Woodlawn, East Lake, North Birmingham, Wylam, West End, Kingston, Elyton, Smithfield, Powderly, Gate City, Irondale, Sayreton, Thomaston, East Birmingham, Lewiston, and Clifton. The city had suddenly grown from over 30,000 to almost 140,000 inhabitants. Birmingham became one of the largest cities in the Deep South.

Birmingham’s first two generations of founders had built the only large industrial city in the South. They also had created a boiling cauldron mixing privilege, race, class, and violence. And by the mid-20th Century that cauldron boiled over into a noisy revolution.

By the mid-20th Century, Birmingham had acquired a second nickname that wasn’t so “magic”: “Bombingham.” In 1960, after spending time assessing the racial tension in the city, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter Harrison Salisbury published “Fear and Hatred Grip Birmingham.” In 1963 Martin Luther King, Jr. called Birmingham “the most segregated city in the country.”

 So, why the Klan, Dynamite Hill, and Bull Connor? Why 16th Street Baptist Church and Four Little Girls? The Klan and Bull Connor, while doing all the “dirty work,” operated fearlessly because of the tacit approval of the well-established white elites. And the redneck terrorists had easy access to dynamite due to Birmingham’s mining sector. “Dynamite Hill” resulted from a post-World War II housing shortage for blacks. The Klan bombings were a response to blacks crossing Center Street to move into what had been the “white side.” There were dozens of bombings from the late 1940’s to the last one in 1963, the one heard around the world: 16th Street Baptist Church. And Four Little Girls. (16th Street Baptist was the target because it served as a gathering spot and staging ground for black protesters.)

Why Shuttlesworth, Bevel, King, the Children’s Crusade, fire hoses and police dogs? Shuttlesworth, the great local warrior who was minister at Bethel Baptist Church, for years had figuratively spit in the eyes of the local terrorists, invited King to Birmingham because he knew precisely how Connor would respond. King was ultimately alarmed by the violence he’d experienced first-hand. And many of the city’s older blacks knew how much they had to lose. In a radical move, James Bevel, one of the leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference,  provided the impetus for the Children’s Crusade. Connor’s response, which included the fire hoses and dogs, played right into the hands of the organizers. And, infamously, the film and photographs were on display on televisions and front pages of newspapers all over the world.

You could fill up several books with the critical events that occurred in Birmingham in 1963. That year serves as the most important turning point since its founding in 1871. We’re now well over a half-century into the post-1963 era–and the changes have been dramatic.

A million shiny new objects, however, can’t erase the scars and still-open wounds from the past. The pilot light lit by Milner and the 10 Elyton Land Company investors will never go out. They had no way of anticipating the eventual consequences of their grand experiment. In addition to creating a grid of streets for Birmingham, they unwittingly laid the groundwork for a city that, less than a century after its birth, would–for better or worse– provide a major turning point in the American Civil Rights Movement.

With the decline of U.S. Steel and the almost simultaneous dramatic rise of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the future of the metro area is much brighter. However, we must never forget our complex and turbulent past. We still have a long way to go.

Other Resources

*A must-read!

Bill Ivey is a retired coach and History/Government/Economics teacher. He’s currently president of the Birmingham Basketball Academy, which he founded in 2013.

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David Sher is Co-Founder of AmSher Compassionate Collections.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

Invite David to speak for free to your group about how we can have a more prosperous metro Birmingham. dsher@amsher.com

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12 thoughts on “Elitists, racists, and snake-oil salesmen built B’ham”

  1. This was such an excellent and concise summary of Birmingham’s formation. What came to my mind while reading it was the while Birmingham was formed because of our abundant natural resources available to produce steel, the profit motive was also abundant. Today, while steel is no longer our economic engine (thank you UAB), we are still very appealing because of other natural resources. The diversity of our living plants and creatures makes this area unique and so special. However, the profit motive is the primary reason these living resources are threatened. If we continue to neglect the land, water and air because of inadequate oversight, those living resources will go the way of our steel industry. And don’t forget our citizens in north Birmingham who have been so profoundly affected by profits over their ability to breath clean air.

    1. Thank you Quida! Fantastic, thoughtful comments. From you, I would expect no less. Don’t know if you’ve made this connection: Jennifer was at our first UAB girls basketball camp @ Indian Springs–and I later taught Michael @ Homewood!

      1. Hi Bill. I certainly made the connection and was so impressed at how intelligent and articulate you were. Not typical of a coach.. I think Jennifer played basketball with Mary, or was it Victoria? When I read your article, I wondered why you never got a PhD?

        1. Thanks, Ouida. Mary finished in ’03, so Jennifer may be old enough to be her mom! Why did I not get a PhD? It took me 3 years to get my MA @ UAB. Would’ve taken a lifetime to get the higher degree from UofA…

          1. So Victoria and Mary played together. Yes, Jennifer could have been Mary’s mother since there was 14 years between the two.

  2. Excellent! Well-said and well-written! Thanks

    Now I’d love to see you write something on what has happened to Birmingham since 1980. For example, one major catalyst was the lifting of the Shelby Sewer Moratorium and the Hwy 280 explosion.

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