The stunning secret of Mountain Brook’s first mayor

Frank McPhillips
Frank McPhillips

Today’s guest columnist is Frank McPhillips.

Charles Zukoski, Jr was Mountain Brook’s first mayor, elected in 1942, weeks after the City was incorporated.

He also was, without doubt, among the most brilliant and creative public servants in Mountain Brook’s history, lauded by the Birmingham Post-Herald as the City’s Thomas Jefferson “who established its law and precept [and] brought light and order to its human relations.”

Zukoski also harbored a secret that wasn’t revealed until after he left office.

A native of St. Louis and graduate of Harvard College and Law School, Charles Zukoski, Jr. was recruited by Oscar Wells, President of First National Bank of Birmingham to build a trust department for his growing bank on 20th Street.

The year was 1926 and Zukoski was just 27 years old. The Bank directors who approved Zukoski’s hiring included such titans of the business community as Crawford Johnson, Pascal Shook, Erskine Ramsay, E.H. Cabaniss and Robert Jemison, Jr.

When Zukoski left the Bank 34 years later, he had built a trust department from nothing to a half billion dollars in assets, making it one of the largest trust departments in the Southeast.

Zukoski faced many challenges during his tenure, including a panic that led to closure of many banks during the Depression. Zukoski’s salary was cut nearly in half during those days, requiring him to sell his Southwood Road house in the Mountain Brook Estates for less than half what it cost to build it. In 1938, Charles and Bernadine Zukoski built a more modest house on Old Leeds Road near Crestline, where they raised their two young sons.

Zukoski quickly became known as a man of action. He led an informal group of community leaders in the ‘30’s which lobbied the State Legislature on ways to promote economic recovery. This group, known as the “Zukoski Committee”, included such men as James Simpson, Mervyn Sterne, Rucker Agee and Hugh Kaul.

During the late ‘30’s, Zukoski’s attention shifted to matters closer to home. By 1940, 3,500 people resided in the area surrounding Mountain Brook Estates, yet the area lacked many essential services, including adequate police and fire protection.

Voluntary dues proved to be insufficient, so Zukoski organized a group to study whether to request annexation into Birmingham or seek to incorporate a new city. At an election held on March 24, 1942, the vote was 263 in favor of incorporation and 67 against. Two months later, he was elected mayor and then re-elected in 1944, 1948 and 1952 by substantial majorities.

There is no doubt that Charles Zukoski left his mark on this new City of Mountain Brook. Despite wartime restrictions during his first term, he oversaw the formation of its departments, the hiring of its first employees, the adoption of its zoning, planning and subdivision controls.

He established the policy that the mayor and city council shall serve without compensation, a policy that continues today. He implemented the first city manager system in Alabama.

After World War II ended, residential and business construction in Mountain Brook exploded and the villages expanded. When Zukoski left office in 1955, the city had nearly tripled in size, both in geography and population, and the city budget had quadrupled.

Zukoski was later asked what was the catalyst for that growth and he responded, “We established all of the basic principles of good government that the city has enjoyed ever since.”

Zukoski’s secret

The end of the war also was a watershed moment in American race relations, especially in the South. Zukoski was determined to speak his mind on the subject, but he faced a dilemma. In his position at the First National Bank, he knew that any public expression of his views on racial matters could be detrimental to the Bank and his career.

So, in 1948, he began writing under the pseudonym, “Button Gwinnett”. His friend George Watson published the opinion pieces in the Shades Valley Sun, maintaining the secret of its authorship. Thus began an extraordinary 10-year collaboration on a series of weekly columns penned by Zukoski.

Here’s what Zukoski wrote in October, 1948…

 “The world is now demanding and the majority of our people now recognize the fundamental rightness of equal opportunity for all, regardless of race, color or creed.

 These opportunities … stem from fundamental principles of justice which transcend even the Constitution and must appeal to us of the South as they do to men of every persuasion….

 There are many things we Southerners can do … We can speed the day when a majority of our people will confess that there cannot be one bill of rights for the white man and another for the black.”

There is insufficient space in this column to delve into all the opinions of Button Gwinnett, which ranged from “States Rights & the 14th Amendment” (October 1948) to “Negro Education in Alabama” (August 1949) to “The Smithfield Bombings” (June 1949) to a 5-part series on Brown vs Board of Education (December 1952 to June 1955). Each of these letters advanced positions that presaged future civil rights battles.

Zukoski attacks segregation and supports Birmingham consolidation

After Zukoski’s retirement from city government in 1955, Button Gwinnett picked up the pace of his writing, including a compelling attack on Birmingham’s segregation ordinances.

No longer constrained by his mayoralty, Zukoski expressed his support for the movement to consolidate Birmingham’s satellite cities into one great city.

In one column published on November 3, 1955, Button Gwinnett noted his concern for “… a decline in the quality of participation at the hub in the democratic process … to the disadvantage of those in the outlying areas whose life is dependent on the character of the central city.”

Zukoski forced into retirement

By late 1957, many people suspected that Zukoski was Button Gwinnett, which led to threats against Zukoski and complaints against the Bank. Ordered to do so under threat of termination, Zukoski published his final column as Button Gwinnett on December 12, 1957.

Even so, continuing fallout from the Button Gwinnett letters resulted in his forced retirement from First National Bank in early 1962.

That wasn’t the end of Charles Zukoski, however. He continued to advocate publicly for desegregation, including one September 30, 1963 Letter to the Editor of the Birmingham News, co-authored with James A. Head, former President of the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce and Rotary Club, which advocated the hiring of Black policemen in Birmingham and the desegregation of public facilities. That letter was published just two weeks after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.

In the 1960’s and ‘70’s, Charles and Bernadine Zukoski traveled the world on behalf of the Boston-based Pathfinder Fund, a leading international reproductive health nonprofit organization.

Charles also joined the Berkowitz, Lefkovits law firm with his friend David Vann, perhaps the most vocal advocate of the “one great city” movement who served the City of Birmingham as its mayor from 1975 to 1979.

Frank McPhillips is a retired attorney, devoted husband, and father of three adult sons. After graduating from Harvard College and the University of Virginia Law School with honors, Frank served as a law clerk to Hon. Sam C. Pointer, Jr. He then participated in the founding of the Maynard, Cooper & Gale law firm and practiced there for over 35 years.

In retirement, Frank has authored a popular Covid newsletter, and currently enjoys writing on matters of contemporary and historical interest. Frank is a dedicated volunteer for nonprofits, including Advent Episcopal School Impact America,  and MB Listens.

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).

Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

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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21 thoughts on “The stunning secret of Mountain Brook’s first mayor”

  1. Thank you, Frank, for researching and retelling the Zukoski story. What an inspiration!

  2. Thank you, Mr. McPhillips, for charting the courageous
    work of Mayor Zukoski. I was a young , but fascinated,
    employee at Engel Realty in 1952. My mentor was William Engel. I still remember fervent collaborators of the day – for progressive civic leadership and a prosperous Metro – James A. Head, Stern, Hess, Engels, Berkowitz, Chuck Morgan, David Vann, Pizitz, Chervis Isom, Peaches Taylor, Hobart Grooms, Gen. Ed Friend, and, of course, Mayor Zukoski! I was inspired by their dedication – and still believe our regions full potential will be achieved with unification of its many separately incorporated municipalities and villages… creating a powerful lobby of all its citizens dedicated to efficient governance, better education, safety, services, employment and business opportunities, transportation, and much more.

  3. PS I would be remiss in not acknowledging the Sher family. David’s editorial contributions follow their long civic- pride tradition. Also not mentioned are Jimmy Permutt, Morris Sirote, Mason Davis, Richard Arrington, Dr. J. Calloway, Dr.J. Kirklin, Sisters of Charity, Rabbi Milton Grafman, Paul Kassouf, Elton Stephens, Rev. James Shuttlesworth, and many more.

  4. WOW is all I can say. We need more men of courage and faith to continue to speak truth to power. While there will never be consolation with these 32 cities and 13 school systems in Jefferson County there is daily engagement among us!
    I saw Birmingham and Mountain Brook work together to pave the road that goes to the Zoo and Botanical Gardens! I have often thought of injecting myself into a Council Meeting with both Cities to see what else we can work on together?
    Anybody wants to join me in 2024 in public!

  5. I wonder if the Mayors that followed him each know about the good this man actually did? I have never understood how and why Mountain Brook became a city in the first place when Birmingham was already in the space? There location is critical to Jefferson County and Birmingham!!

    1. George, I’m really excited about this article. It shows there have been people with a desire to bring us all together for a long time. People in the suburbs weren’t all alienated from Birmingham.

      As for why Mountain Brook came into existence as a separate city, my guess is that at the time, it had nothing to do with race. There was just a group of people living in an area who decided they wanted to incorporate their own city. It’s hard to know what the reason was. Maybe Birmingham was reluctant to extend services and infrastructure to the area at the time.

      1. Good point Ted but in 1942 I just find it hard to believe that race was not a factor with some these thirty plus cities outside Birmingham?! I am not at all bothered by race if someone chooses to believe in race theory. The guy who helped to incorporate MB was not racist but clever enough to write about such under another name. He displayed courage to do such,
        I do remain hopeful that these 30 plus cities and 13 school systems will one day see the value of collaboration! I wonder what his descendants think of this giant of a man?

        1. George, I wasn’t sure what you meant by “I am not at all bothered by race if someone chooses to believe in race theory.” What do you mean by race theory?

          As for the founding of Mountain Brook, remember that Birmingham was segregated at that time (1942), so the original founders may not have been trying to get away from African Americans. The Jones Valley was known to have really bad air quality. Maybe they just wanted to be over the mountain where the air was better.

          1. Ted
            Great question just google
            Critical Race Theory to get the facts!
            It is an interesting theory associated with human behavior and how the law works to create options. I am ok with wanting clean air but know segregation was being practiced inspite of the 14th amendment !
            I just know the destiny of this county is tied to these 32 cities and 13 school systems are intertwined! The sooner we engage with each other in an honest manner to advance the economic development of this county the better off we all will be!

          2. A big problem with CRT is that if you say to someone in St. George that the creation of the city is racist, he might say “no, my best friend is black and will live across the street from me.” If you then say that this is still “systemic racism,” that is a kind of convoluted thing. Why not just say that it’s selfish for people in St. George to refuse to live with people who have less money?

            Now, it could be true, as the St. George advocates say, that Baton Rouge has poor schools and high crime. But why? Poor schools are pretty endemic to American society as a whole. We don’t hold the position of teacher in very high esteem. I understand that in Finland, you have to be in the top 15% of your college graduating class to become a teacher. In America we have the saying “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” That kind of attitude sets our schools up for failure.

          3. Ted makes a good point about us humans being selfish regardless of race! It is not just the teachers needed help but many parents do as well! Having middle and upper income communities in Jefferson County is good for all of us in my humble opinion!

          4. George, yes I wouldn’t expect everybody to live in the same neighborhoods. Real estate properties will have different values, and inevitably people will live close to people with similar incomes. But there should still be an expectation that the people with higher incomes contribute to the welfare of needier people. For example, in Alabama property taxes should be higher.

          5. Ted absolutely higher income people should contribute more!! I think most do given the charitable contribution they make. The property taxes are amazingly low in this state! Effort to raise such are always voted down?

          6. Well, the problem is it’s always easy to convince people their taxes are too high. I remember I had a conversation with a couple of friends about this. They both own homes. I have never owned one so I don’t have experience of property tax rates. One who is a person of modest means said, “no, don’t raise property taxes. Mine are too high.” The other friend asked how much he paid. Then he said, “in other states, you’d pay twice that much.”

            I think this is a legacy of our racial past. The Alabama legislature has gotten into the habit of marketing the state as a low tax and low wage place.

          7. Ted
            Low wages and low taxes are not going to play for ever! Notice what is happening at the Vance auto plant! Round One this!!!

        2. George, I think there are problems with critical race theory. it predisposes us to think that race is always at the bottom of problems when in many cases, the problems could be something different, like basic selfishness. You might have heard about the recent creation of the city of St. George, taking out part of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I think that’s a terrible thing. But as you might have heard, it’s a more affluent part of the old Baton Rouge. It will be hard to say this is really a racist move, because 12% of the population of St. George is black. Essentially it’s just a population of people with more money who don’t want to be bothered with the problems of the less affluent. I think you can say Detroit is the worst example of this kind of thing in America. The city was abandoned by people with money. Of course most of those people were white. But not all. I remember hearing that Berry Gordy of Motown left Detroit for Hollywood when he had enough money. This was a big blow to the people of Detroit.

          1. Ted correct every theory has problems and challenges. I do not accept crt hook line and sinker and only when the evidence is clear which it never is in a capitalist society like we have. There are plenty of examples like the ones you have provided . I never fault people for wanting to have safe and productive and prosperous communities to live in and it does work across racial lines as does poverty. Poverty and racism are very complicated and the solutions are never easy. Men like the 1942 Mayor of MB is one gem for going the extra mile to condemn the racism of that time. He understood that is was probably not good business either. Let a 1000 plus flowers blossom in this valley!

  6. A fantastic piece, Frank. I knew nothing about Mr. Zukoski. Your story makes me want to find out more about him, his family, his ancestors.

    Heroes are incredibly difficult to find and now, thanks to you, I now have a new one.

    Thanks for taking time to work with David on this!

  7. Frank, thank you for a wonderful, inspiring story! Mr. and Mrs. Zukoski were true trail-blazers.
    Can the City of Birmingham can ever muster enough participation from MB and Homewood to fashion a permanent solution for the decrepit lighting system on 280 that leads to two magnificent jewels, the Zoo and the Botanical Gardens?

  8. The city of MB and Birmingham jointly repaved Lane Park Road. I have no idea who took the lead but it done off the radar last year. Make an appointment to take with the city manager of MB!
    I suspect ALDOT will want to participate. These three cities and ALDOT are not always aligned with project priorities but you live in one of these three cities or in another city in Jefferson County you are paying taxes and deserve to be heard!
    Is it a public issue?

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