Invisible line down Birmingham street was potentially deadly

Jennifer L. Greer
Jennifer L. Greer

Today’s guest columnist is Jennifer L. Greer.

“Dynamite Hill,” I told my husband when he asked me where I was going on a recent Saturday morning as I readied for a walking tour in Birmingham, AL.

He raised an eyebrow. “Near Legion Field” he asked. I nodded.

He grew up in Midfield, a White working-class suburb in the 1950s and 1960s, during the height of desegregation and White Ku Klux Klan (KKK) bombings against Black homes, businesses, and churches in Birmingham. He had heard of Dynamite Hill.

“It was an open secret,” he said, shaking his head in embarrassment. “Enjoy your walk.”

I am not a native of Birmingham, but I know there are important truths in secrets. So, when a friend invited me on an educational walking tour of Smithfield/Dynamite Hill guided by local people and the city’s Vulcan Park and Museum, I grabbed a COVID-19 mask, a water bottle and headed downtown.

Growing up on Dynamite Hill

Our four guides were among the hundreds of Black children who grew up in Smithfield on Dynamite Hill/North Center Street in the 1950s and 1960s, when American childhood was idealized on television’s “Leave It to Beaver” as White, safe and secure.

Today, these four are Birmingham success stories in their own right:

Dr. Madelyn Coar, endodontist and retired faculty at the School of Dentistry, University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB);

Houston Brown, a graduate of Talladega College and Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law and a retired Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge;

Jeff Drew, son of leading activists, Addine “Deenie” and John Drew, who was among the first Black students to integrate Ensley High School and followed his father into the business at the Alexander Insurance Agency;

–and Barbara Shores, a daughter of nationally known Civil Rights attorney Arthur D. Shores, who earned a master’s degree in social work, led the county’s senior citizens office before retiring, and co-authored a book about her father, The Gentle Giant of Dynamite Hill.

From the beginning, they say, the parents tried to give them a normal childhood. The kids rode their bicycles, participated in school band, went to the movies, attended summer camp, and joined Scout troops — all segregated, of course.

Dr. Madelyn Coar
Dr. Madelyn Coar

“We were aware of what was going on, but my parents didn’t bring a lot of attention to the worst parts of racism,” says Coar, whose family lived on North Center Street where her father quietly left the house at night, armed, to patrol the streets with neighbors on watch for Klan activities. Never mind that he was tired from already working two jobs.

And yet, whether they were inside playing cards or outside playing tag, they were never very far from the sound of explosions, says Brown. “When I was 4 or 5, I heard my first bomb, and I got under the bed. I was too young to understand the specifics of what was going on, but I was scared as hell as a little boy.”

Walking Center Street today

More than a century old, Center Street lies in the heart of Birmingham’s Smithfield & Dynamite Hill neighborhoods, west of downtown and near Legion Field. A relatively new section of Birmingham’s Civil Rights Trail, the Dynamite Hill walk begins at Center Street North and Reverend Abraham Woods Jr. Boulevard.

Jeff Drew
Jeff Drew

As we walk, Drew explained that North Center Street has been home to leading Black public figures, such as Justice Oscar W. Adams, the first Black justice to serve on the Alabama Supreme Court. The street is lined with tall trees, cracked sidewalks and classic period homes, like the rambling Queen Anne-style house that was once home to Black activist/academic Angela Davis. There are also frame bungalows, brick ranch houses, a few striking mid-century modern homes, a library, and several churches. But this was not an architecture tour.

The Drew house, behind a protective wall, where Civil Rights activists Deenie and John Drew often hosted Martin Luther King Jr. Photograph by Jenifer L. Greer
The Drew house, behind a protective wall, where Civil Rights activists Deenie and John Drew often hosted Martin Luther King Jr.

We are reminded of this while passing the Drew residence on the west side of North Center Street. The sleek modern house is not visible from the street because a tall, stately stone wall – built to deflect bullets, bombs, and Molotov cocktails – runs the length of the sidewalk in front.

Drew, who still lives in the house, says his parents were friends of the Martin Luther King, Jr., whom he called “Uncle Mike.” King used to spend nights at their Dynamite Hill house strategizing with local Black leaders, especially during 1963. That year, Drew lost three school classmates — Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley – who died in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, along with the younger Denise McNair.

“Cynthia lived only a few doors away from me. I used to walk to school with her. She was a wonderful young lady,” he says, his voice trailing off.

Crossing lines of hate

Center Street was once the dividing line between two of Birmingham’s Jim Crow, or segregated, “racial districts” in a practice known as “redlining.” White families (including faculty at Birmingham Southern College) were forced to live on the west side of the street, which became known as College Hills. Black families were forced to live on the east side of the street in Smithfield, which included houses owned by Black professionals to the north and the Smithfield Court housing project to the south.

“You begin to see how absolutely ridiculous racism is,” recalls Coar, as we pause to consider an invisible line in the street. “As kids, we used to run over to the other side of the street, when we thought no none was looking, put our toes on the grass, and run back,” she says, laughing.

But the line in the street was potentially deadly.

From the late 1940s to the mid 1960s, almost a dozen Ku Klux Klan bombings occurred on North Center Street. The first reign of terror — from 1947 to 1951 – came when Black families tried to buy lots and build houses on vacant land zoned for Whites after the city’s Jim Crow laws were thrown out in state courts. The second wave of terrorism occurred from 1963 to 1965, when Birmingham was trying to integrate its schools (almost a decade after the Supreme Court declared segregated schools unconstitutional.)

The chief target during the 1960s was the Shores house. In the first bombing, Shores says her father was home alone, but uninjured by the bomb, which collapsed the garage and killed her beloved dog. A second bombing sent her mother, Theodora, to the hospital with a concussion. And in 1965, yet another bomb was discovered at the Shores house, but was dismantled by munitions experts. “They found 300 of sticks of dynamite in the bomb,” Shores, tells our group. “It was enough to level our house and the houses for blocks around.”

Perhaps because no one died in the Dynamite Hill terrorism, or because the burned-out and bombed houses were Black-owned, or because White authorities were in bed with the Klan, the serial bombers were never caught, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist/author Diane McWhorter.

And more innocents would pay the price. One of the Dynamite Hill bombers, Robert Chambliss, went on to make the bomb that murdered four Black girls – and seriously wounded a fifth — in the 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church .

Where to go from here

Those were “awful times,” recalls Coar, talking privately after the walk and admitting that she never intended to stay in Birmingham. “When I went to college in California, and people found out I was from Birmingham, they couldn’t believe that our houses were being bombed. They asked me: ‘How could you grow up in such a neighborhood?’”

Coar eventually returned to Birmingham to work and care for her aging mother; she now lives on North Center Street in her childhood home. Much has changed over the years, but more has not. “Racism is still so much a part of the fabric of our lives, on so many levels, that we (Americans) don’t see it,” she says.

While Brown has moved out of the neighborhood, he returns weekly to attend church there, and he tells the story of Dynamite Hill because he is hopeful that, on a personal level, people will change. “Someone needs to tell them the truth, the facts about what happened here. There is hope in that,” he says. As for systemic change, with equal justice and equal opportunity for Black Americans, Brown is less optimistic. “What changes depends on who changes. You know what I mean?”

Drew, who published a letter about his feelings during social justice protests this summer, says he is optimistic about change, but admits he may not see it in his lifetime. “I’m proud of how far we’ve come on civil rights. But the fact is many Black Americans still have no faith that the law will protect them. If I am a Black man in America today, I can’t call the police to come to my apartment for something because I can get killed.”

There has never been a public accounting of, or apology for, the Dynamite Hill bombings from the city. So, how does the healing begin for the children who grew up there, I ask Shores. By talking and listening, she answers.

“It was a long time before I could talk about Dynamite Hill, but that’s when the healing started for me, talking about it to friends first and then to groups of people. Many people don’t realize what happened here. When they hear about the bombings, they say they are sorry for what our families have gone through. I hope this feeling extends to other Black families who have been discriminated against in other circumstances, and that it starts to change our society, one person at a time.”

Editor’s Note: The “Birmingham Walking Tour Series” at Vulcan Park and Museum was sponsored by The Caring Foundation of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama, Protective Life Corporation, and Spire. The Museum plans to expand the series next year; tickets can go quickly, so sign up to receive notices.

Jennifer L. Greer is a freelance journalist and retired university instructor who lives in the Birmingham, AL. area.

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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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