My childhood memories of Birmingham may be different than yours

Janice Wilson
Janice Wilson

Today’s guest columnist is Janice Wilson.

There is a popular Facebook group entitled, “You knew you grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, if:

It’s filled with fond memories and photos of such fun and happy places like Cascade Plunge, Kiddieland, and Joy Young.

I grew up in Birmingham in the ‘50’s, but my memories are much more conflicted.

Having moved to “the big city” from a small town, I was excited about the move.

We lived in a very nice neighborhood. Most families were professionals who also had children my age. Fun family times. Chasing June bugs, lightning bugs, playing cowboys and Indians, hide and seek, etc.

However, my excitement quickly changed to one of confusion, sometimes anger. There were so many “don’ts” and “cants”

Family fun

Amusement Parks, the State Fair, and swimming pools were off limits. We were given “special obligatory” days to attend. I never took advantage of the “invitation”. Even after integration I never wanted to go to many of the places that had excluded me. Hurtful memories.

We used to enjoy going to a drive-in theater in Bessemer on the weekends. Our drive took us past Kiddieland Park. I’d see the Ferris wheel, merry-go-round, children eating cotton candy, clowns, etc., and wondered when I could go. I was so disappointed to know I would never be allowed inside.

We traveled through Midfield, which we were told was a city filled with members of the Klan. I was always afraid and would hide on the floor of the car until we were past Midfield.

We were always told not to have direct eye contact, not to drive close to a car in front or beside us, and to always use correct hand signals when driving. Otherwise we would be pulled over.

So many “rules “.

Going to the movies downtown was a challenge. The Lyric Theater had a fire escape on the outside of the building that I had to climb to get to the balcony of the theater. The Alabama Theater was off limits entirely.

Shopping

Shopping was frustrating. When I shopped at the large department stores downtown, I’d be directed to the basement floor to try on clothes. Sometimes I couldn’t try them on at all, just purchase, hope they fit, and go home. Other times, a gruff salesperson would make me put a cloth shield over my head when trying on a dress so I “wouldn’t soil” the garment. Otherwise, I’d have to buy it. I felt so demeaned and dirty.

When shopping for shoes, there were some stores that wouldn’t permit me to try on the shoes. I’d watch other children try on their Buster Brown shoes and wonder why I couldn’t try on shoes in the store. I loved the smell of new leather shoes! So, the salesperson would use the measuring contraption to measure my feet, and bring the shoes to me.

In all of my ventures away from my neighborhood, I hated hearing “them”, everywhere we’d go, call my mother by her first name. I’d be furious and question her about it but she would caution me against saying anything.

In stores, when I would hand the cash to the salesperson, they wouldn’t touch the money, I would just have to lay it on the counter. If change was due they’d drop it on the counter, or throw it, never wanting to come in physical contact with my hand.

My mother developed great sales relationships with the salesmen at Blach’s and Burger Phillips department stores who treated us the same as other shoppers. That relationship lasted through my college years. They kept in touch with my mother and when I needed shoes or clothes, she would pay for them and give them my sizes and they would mail them to me.

Riding the bus

On occasions when I had to leave my “safe cocoon “to go into town, I had to ride the bus.

There were signs on the bus that read “Whites Only“, which meant I had to find a seat behind the sign. If more whites boarded the bus, the bus driver would get up and move the sign and I’d have to give up my seat, sometimes having to stand. I didn’t understand this, nor did I like it.

Other times I’d pay my money at the front door and then have to board from the side door of the bus. Sometimes the bus might slow up and appear to be stopping only to just speed up and pass me by. When I’d pay up front and have to walk the aisle to the back of the bus, the mean stares of the passengers were frightening.

Schools

You don’t know what you’re missing if you have no way of comparison. I thought everyone had ragged, outdated textbooks. Leftovers!

I didn’t realize the books were biased and outdated which kept us ill informed.

In music class we sang songs like “Old Black Joe” and “Dixie”. “I wish I was in the land of cotton “, said no one! Making me think “slaves” were somebody else and they were happy “all the days.”  Nothing really related to me.

We spent years rehashing/reading about the same five Negroes for our One Week’s observance of Negro History WEEK! I never realized there were any more “Negroes” who had excelled or contributed to America until so much later. They would never again be mentioned until 51 weeks later. The same five.

In my readers, Dick and Jane never had friends like me and I never paid it any attention. Just loved diving in the fall leaves, of which we had none. LOL.

A potbelly stove stood in the middle of my classroom! We’d arrive early enough to start the fire. How dangerous was that!

Doctors

Doctors’ offices had a front door and…. you guessed it… a back door with separate waiting rooms. I remember asking my mom why. She would always warn me against asking questions and to be quiet.

I imagine Emmett Till must have been on her mind a lot during those years.

When my mother was hospitalized, I recall visiting her in a dimly lit basement with pipes hanging from the ceiling, and several other patients in the same room. They called them “Wards”. It had smells of disinfectant, urine, formaldehyde.

I was in a similar ward, a Children’s Ward, when I had my tonsils removed. So eager to go home.

Oh, by the way, my mother was happy I chose to attend a college outside of Alabama because of my questioning the “climate.”  I left just before the “sit ins” and demonstrations.

Plus, the subject I wanted to major in was only offered at a university in Alabama that didn’t accept students who looked like me.

Love my life in Birmingham

I made the decision to move back home to Birmingham and I love living here.

But I think it’s important for future generations to understand that life in Birmingham was much different for many of us.

Birmingham may have a way to go, but we’ve certainly made progress.

Janice Wilson, ED.S is a retired principal and music educator. Post retirement she authored “This Is Our Song”, and enjoys performing with the Seasoned Performers of The Red Mountain Theatre”.

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).

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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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16 thoughts on “My childhood memories of Birmingham may be different than yours”

  1. Thank you, Dr. Wilson, for your memories, as those of us who did not grow up here, or look like you, need to hear a first person narrative of what it was like for you. I recall TV footage of the hoses & snarling dogs, but no personal experience.

  2. All of your memories and examples ring true, because they are true. As a white person growing up in this era, I had privileges that so many others didn’t. When KiddieLand closed, I didn’t understand why. When Roosevelt Park in Bessemer closed its public pool, I didn’t understand why. When i was told that Black people were different than, less than, white people, and so we must remain separate, I didn’t understand why. Fear and the idea of it infect us so deeply. Thank you for reminding us of who we all were then and who we are now.

    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the article. I believe we all grew up in our “ separate bubbles “ and were shielded from images that were “different.” Unfortunately, truths were never explained to us as children.

  3. Thanks Dr. Wilson, Those were the most hideous days I’ve ever had. I remember those days! These were my memories and experiences also. I too left Birmingham Al, with intentions to never return. However, as my parents and other family members aged, I decided to return to assist them. Upon my return during the early 80s, Birmingham had changed somewhat, but not as much as needed, and today the state of Alabama is still in decline rather than progressing, and worse than any 3rd world country.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience growing up here.
      We’re still in the process of building.

  4. I grew up in Atlanta in the 1950s and 1960s, then went “up north” to college and grad school. I was generally aware of the Civil Rights Movement and its issues during those years, but I didn’t understand them until I lived in Birmingham many years later. I was shocked by deeply disturbing things I learned in Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma.

  5. Dr. Wilson, your oral history of life for Black citizens in Birmingham during your childhood is both much-needed and heartbreaking. Thank you for sharing it. However, if you’re invited to tell your story in certain schools here in Tennessee (Florida as well), you might politely decline unless you want to find yourself in hot water among local parents. A bill passed two years ago by the Tennessee legislature and signed into law by the governor makes lesson plans illegal if students “feel discomfort, guilt, or anguish.” If you tell your story, especially in wealthy suburban Williamson County outside Nashville, I can foresee a representative from the local “Moms for Liberty” calling you out publicly and calling for heads to roll at the school. As for my home state of Alabama, I’d advise you and others to keep your eyes on the legislature there, too. These kind of radical bans for teaching the real history of the African American experience is all the rage in conservative Southern states.

    1. Oh my!!! This is so unsettling, yet honest . Tragic that we are not supposed to make some feel “discomfort???) when we, through no fault of ours, are the ones who were mistreated. We do have feelings. Historically, minorities have had to dilute their truths.
      It’s happening in movies, books, schools, etc
      Thanks for your candid comments however. We learn through sharing and having our conversations.

  6. Janice, Thank you for sharing what you experienced growing up in Birmingham. In your story, a few things suddenly made a lot more sense than have up to now. My parents both worked full time so when I came along in 1964, and was adopted, because they couldn’t just take off work all the time, Mama and Daddy needed some help. That help came in the form of the woman I loved as much as I did my own Mama. my other mama Dorothy Swanson. For me, the sun rose and set on Dorothy. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I realized what a true gift and blessing my mom and dad had given me, and more importantly, what they prevented.
    One of my earliest memories is when I was 4 or 5 years old and I was starting what we now call Pre-K at Southside Baptist Church. I distinctly recall Dorothy taking me to Burger-Philips to get me clothes to wear to school. Whenever Dorothy took me there, the people working there as well as at Blach’s, were always so nice to both of us. I never really thought much about it, but Mama would always want to go to these two stores first and I even remember once when Mama was telling one of the employees that another store was selling something she wanted to buy cheaper than they were. Over the years, I’ve wondered what made Mama prefer these two stores above the rest. But reading your story, it all makes sense now. Burger-Philips and Blach’s treated ALL of their customers the same and were glad you came there. Janice Thank you for sharing your story and jogging my memory. Everything makes so much more sense than ever. God Bless

  7. People “who look like me” need to read this kind of thing for it to be ‘real’. Thank you for writing this and David for posting it.

  8. When my 24-year-old white nephew was in elementary school, his mother was telling him about the racially separate restrooms, blacks made to sit in the back of the bus, not being able to go to restaurants and movie theaters, going to all-black public schools, and more. He incredulously exclaimed to her, “You’re lying!!!” He could not believe these things. And now most all of that is usually not the case, at least openly and in most places, but there’s still another couple of generations that are going to go through what still goes on overtly, covertly, and systemically. It’s hard to believe so much change is still ahead of us. Racism makes life sour and dangerous for all races, for ALL of us…

  9. Thank you, Dr. Wilson, for this reminder of the damaging rules of living that were in place as I grew up. It’s sad that confrontation was required to make changes.
    You described the pain and confusion you experienced instead of the hatred and vitriol that would have been justified.
    This was a generously kind reminder for those of us living here who didn’t experience these injustices.

  10. I am sorry that you and your mother had to experience such unfair treatment. Although those days are gone, we are not entirely over with prejudice and discrimination. Since I moved to this area three years ago, I have been asked the same question with a derogatory tone and look: “Where are you from?” However, there are also many kind and loving people like you who are standing up against the fanatics and ignorant individuals. Congratulations on your achievements, Dr. Wilson

  11. reading your article was enlightening but being born in Birmingham in 1959 much of the overt stuff was gone an 2 yrs 67an 68 we moved into a house an was some of the 1st AA to attend about 10 students per classroom out of 35 after going to all Black school culture shock but by 69.70 school was all AA even though my Parents was going thru things actually we spent our time just being kids I Never thought I was denied anything to young to an later everything was open to us it was bad but just want people to understand for kids an Parents we wasn’t sitting around in dispare we had fun lots of it cook outs Xmas was great so my experience in Bham wasn’t bad from a kids eyes in 60’s

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