85 year old attorney muses about his youth, slavery, white flight, and Alabama constitution

J. Mason Davis
J. Mason Davis
Today’s guest columnist is J. Mason Davis.

I entered high school in January of 1948, at A.H. Parker High School.  I would have entered in September 1948, but the Principal, Bertrand H. Hudson, felt that I had accomplished all I would during the first semester of the Eighth Grade.  Hence, a social promotion, then known as “skipping”.

I entered Parker High School immediately after completing elementary school.  My father had been an instructor at Parker High School since his graduation from Wilberforce University, in Xenia, Ohio, in 1927.  Incidentally, my mother’s middle brother, Walter Wellington Harris, was also a member of the same graduating class as my father.

Walter then entered the Law School of Ohio State and graduated in 1933 and was awarded a brown walking cane with a gold band with his name and class date thereon.  My Grandmother Harris kept the cane in her clothes closet from the date of his death in 1945.

Walter suffered from cancer and his left arm had been amputated.  He drove his automobile – a 1939 Lincoln – with his left arm, while he shifted gears with his right hand. Walter succeeded his father, Charles M. Harris, Sr., at Protective Industrial Insurance Company and Davenport & Harris Funeral Home from the date of his father’s death in 1938 until his own, in 1945.

During my studies at Parker High School, courses in printing, tailoring, band, shoe repair, upholstering, carpentry, and auto mechanics were offered, in addition to the regular academic courses.  One period every day was devoted to whatever manual arts class the student had selected and that student went to the class and learned more about the chosen trade.

Similar programs were offered for female students, such as home economics, laundry, cooking, and typing.  (Some males also took the typing course.  I wish that I had taken the course also.)  I took the courses in printing and band, since my paternal grandfather was Principal of Thomas Elementary School, located diagonally across First Avenue on Second Avenue North from Sloss Sheffield Steel & Iron.  Thomas School is today’s Jimmy Hale Mission.

Grandfather W.C. Davis, for whom one of the Birmingham Public Schools was named, operated the Terminal Printing Company that he operated it from a small structure he had built behind his house. It had a small printing press and all forms of type, such as Schoolbook, Cheltenham, Invitation, and other forms of type.  Grandpapa would work in the printing shop before and after school.  Many of his printing jobs came from the Masonic, Elks, and Pythian Fraternal Orders, from the Birmingham Public Schools, and from individuals he knew in the African-American community in Birmingham.  That probably gave him the additional income he needed, since he sent all five of his children to college, and all graduated.

But back to the manual arts idea.  The manual arts courses prepared the high school students for employment in their selected trade, both during and after graduation from Parker High School.  Incidentally, Parker High School was the only four-year high school operated by the all-white Birmingham Board of Education that allowed African-American students to attend.  There were five high schools devoted to the education of white students.

I should advise the Reader from 1619 until 1867 – the Period of Slavery – the slave was not allowed to learn to read and write.  It was against the law to teach an African-American to read and write.  The person who taught would be subject to a large fine and the slave would be subject to death.  It was not until the establishment of Talladega College, Lincoln Normal, in Marion, Alabama, and Trinity, in Athens, Alabama, that blacks were allowed, without violating the law, to read and write.

African-Americans, at that point, were 248 years behind all other people in the country.  That was only 138 years ago that education began for blacks.

Additionally, today’s tests are given to test the academic achievement of African-Americans and white schools.  (Yes, in 2020, we still operate segregated schools that were outlawed in 1954 by the Brown decision, but is constantly fought against by white flight, as seen by the Gardendale v. Jefferson County Board of Education, and the continued new segregated systems in education and the continued segregated housing systems in Mountain Brook, Homewood, and Vestavia Hills.)

Desegregation of the public schools was effectively ended at the end of the 1972 school year, for that’s when white flight began in earnest.  That left the Birmingham public schools as almost completely segregated for African-American students.

As many of you may know, due to the concept of  “last hired, first fired” economic systems and the educational system, many black men are unemployed, thereby causing poverty in the many black communities.  Poverty also causes severe health problems and lack of academic achievements to a child.

It is my concept that every child needs to be taught the alphabet and fundamentals of reading, beginning at age 3.  The public schools operate few pre-K schools, if any, in the black community.  Most that are there are found in churches.  This failure is a cause of school dropouts unless the student has learned early in life to read and write from his parents.  He cannot pass the courses without having a good foundation in reading.  If he fails to pass his courses, he drops out of high school, thereby causing a need for employment.

All people must have income in order to pay for food, clothing and shelter.  None of this can be obtained without a high school diploma, for, as I understand, one cannot find employment today without a high school diploma.  It is my further understanding that even to “flip burgers” necessitates having a high school diploma.

One must exist, so he is driven to selling drugs.  The “law of the streets” says that unless the drug seller pays the drug distributor, all of the money called for by the sale of the drugs, the seller is made an example of, thereby causing the high homicide rates that one hears about on the news, written or audible, or severe wounding.  The homicide causes the necessity of burial.  His estate cannot pay the cost of burial, so it falls upon the parents, if any, to pay.  But, if not paid, a pauper’s burial paid by the County will be provided.  The cost of a pauper’s funeral is borne by the taxpayer.

It all goes back to a cause:  slavery.  That slave system flows into the failure to learn to read, which causes poverty, caused in part by the segregated school system and by a by-product of white flight.  Once the white student goes across the mountain or to one of the independent school systems, the average daily attendance amounts for every student in a school system is lost to the school system from which the student originally was educated.  That money goes to the new school system, thereby lessening the amount of money going to the school system from which the white student has left.

A school system cannot exist fully without sufficient monies coming from the City government in which the school is located.  Before white flight, the Birmingham Public School System operated all of the manual arts programs that enabled students to earn a living from the trades that they learned in high school, so that they could obtain employment upon graduation.

During my school days, hardly any boy or girl who sought employment who was a graduate that could not find it.  All of the foregoing must be faced by all of us, whether residents of Birmingham or the surrounding municipalities in Jefferson County.  Not only must it be faced, it must be understood.  There must be a solution unless we continue to go around and around the same circle.  It is a vicious circle that must be stopped.

One place to start is with a reform of the awful Constitution of 1901 that mandates that the appraisal of real property in a low, “as used” state, is made.  Low assessment on all property brings low funding for public education.  (All monies from the State of Alabama are gained through taxation on real property.)  Unless this is done, the vicious cycle continues.  It does not only affect black students; it affects all students.  “Highest and Best Use” appraisal is far better.

Again, all of this is traced back to slavery, and the Constitution of 1875 that eliminated the good of the Reconstruction Period that immediately followed slavery.  It was by the Reconstruction Era Legislators that the Public School System was created.

The problem is caused by the failure of the student to learn to read, and the ramifications of that failure haunt him for the balance of his life.  Many coming from lower socioeconomic communities face a choice of either death or long-term imprisonment.

It is my opinion that the cycle is lessened if the child is started early enough in life, age 3, to learn to read.  That ability causes all students to face life with a better head start than if they began school at age 6, and the process of learning only begins.  If the child learns to read early, it follows him for the rest of his life and allows for a complete education through college and a trained person for the labor force.  A trained person must be taught the job and assisted in doing it.  If a trained person is not taught, the job cannot be effectively performed.

This is as true in industrial work, as it is in higher forms of employment.  Breaking the cycle must be attained in order to effectively assist the economy.  We are now into an economy of computers, and one cannot learn to operate the computer unless that person has the ability to read and write.

Then, and only then, can we be expected to compete on the same level as those who have a head start.  It will aid in ending poverty.  It will assist the educational system.

J. Mason Davis has been practicing law for 60 years, 36 of which he has been a senior partner at Sirote. He has a long, distinguished career representing clients in business, antitrust, securities, and product liability litigation, as well as life, health, and surety company defense.  His appellate practice includes matters before the Supreme Court of Alabama and the Fifth and Eleventh Circuit Courts of Appeals.

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David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown.  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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3 thoughts on “85 year old attorney muses about his youth, slavery, white flight, and Alabama constitution”

  1. I met Mr. Davis on a number of occasions when I worked at the old Birmingham Chamber of Commerce. He is a treasured member of our community who worked tirelessly working for the common good in Birmingham and Alabama. Good on you Mr. Davis…thank you!

  2. Thanks J. Mason for such a strong, informative article. As I have teased you for so many years, not only are you a wealth of information, you will “tell it all!” Birmingham has been blessed to have had you here all of your life. J. Mason we love you!

  3. Just curious. How could Walter have driven his automobile with his left arm when it was written that the arm had been amputated?

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