Growing up in the South, whenever I heard the city of Birmingham mentioned, my mind would immediately go to images of the Civil Rights Movement. From the nickname of “Bombingham” to the 1997 Spike Lee documentary, “4 Little Girls” to water hoses being turned on children protesting segregation, it just wasn’t a place on my radar to visit. Thankfully that changed last year when I had the opportunity to visit the city, not once but two times. Just in case others have some of those same preconceived notions like I used to, I would like to re-introduce you to Birmingham, Alabama.
Birmingham is the largest city in the state of Alabama with over 200,000 people, and a metro population over one million. Something that many people are not aware of is that Birmingham did not exist before the Civil War. It was founded in 1871. The rapid growth from farm town to bustling city during the railroad industrial revolution earned Birmingham the nickname: “The Pittsburgh of the South”. This is the time period when people, including freed slaves and immigrants, flocked to Birmingham in droves looking for new opportunities. As a result, the new city of Birmingham quickly became one of the major Southern hubs for the railroad, the other of course, was Atlanta, Georgia.
The Civil Rights District
The impressive thing about Birmingham is how the city has embraced its role in the Civil Rights Movement. They are ahead of many Southern cities that have recently began to embrace the movement as well as publicly acknowledging it instead of hiding it as something that happened in the past. Birmingham uses the past as a teaching tool to educate people today. If nothing else, visitors will understand that Civil Rights are human rights. History books only dedicate a few pages to the Civil Rights Movement. However visiting a place where several events that are well documented in those history books gives a person a different perspective.
By visiting the Civil Rights district visitors are able to take a trip back in time. They can go to the Civil Rights Institute where they will learn all about the movement and events that took place right across the street during heat of the movement. Both Kelly Ingram Park and the 16th Street Baptist Church are across the street within walking distance of the institute. Kelly Ingram Park is where images of young people being sprayed with water hoses and attacked with dogs in 1963 were broadcast across the world after Bull Connor gave his orders.
The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing is one of the more well-known events that happened in Birmingham. Four young girls (Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair) were killed while at church on September 15, 1963. The church was a meeting place for the leaders and participants of the movement and one of the primary reasons it was a target of the KKK. The church is still open and has services that are open to the public. Visitors are able to walk in and visit the church, however some areas are not available to have photographs. One interesting thing to note about the church, is that the clock that was on the wall the day of the bombing has been preserved and time shows 10:22am. That was how authorities were able to determine the exact time the church was bombed on the morning of September 15th.
Negro Southern League Museum
Anyone that may be a sports fan, should definitely make a point to visit the Negro Southern League Museum while in Birmingham. In 1920, the Negro Southern League was founded by a small group of African-American businessmen and fans of baseball. The league was an unofficial farm system to the Negro League and operated for 31 years. There are five Hall of Fame players that began in the Negro Southern League, including Willie Mays and Leroy “Satchel” Paige.
The museum features a large collection of original Negro League baseball artifacts as well as an on-site research center. Visitors are encouraged to take their time on the self-guided tour of the facility. While most items on display are from the Negro Leagues, some are more recent. Bo Jackson memorabilia were on site during my visit. One of the best things about the museum is that admission is free.
One thing that Birmingham is not short on are places to eat. If you are in the downtown area you must try out The Pizitz Food Hall and Trattoria Centrale. The Pizitz Food Hall is exactly what it sounds like, a food hall that houses 2 restaurants, 13 food stalls and a full bar. It’s a nice atmosphere to hang out in a small or large group with food options that will please nearly everyone’s taste.
Trattoria Centrale is your place for breakfast! This restaurant opened in 2009 and is known for its pizza. However, if you are looking for a breakfast spot in downtown do not overlook this place. On Sunday’s they serve a popular brunch, which has become a crowd favorite over the years.
There’s no way I could discuss food in the South and not mention barbeque. Birmingham has several places for barbeque and there are five that come highly recommended by locals. Saw’s Barbeque, Magnolia BBQ and Fish, Carlisle’s Barbeque, Rib-It-Up and Demetri’s BBQ are all favorites that serve some of the best dishes in the state.
Today Birmingham has quietly transformed itself to one of the South’s favorite cities. A diverse metropolitan area that is ranked as one of the largest banking centers in the country. Overall, it is one of the most important business centers in the Southeast, period. There’s a variety of things to do in order to keep all ages entertained. Whether it’s more family friendly things like going to the Birmingham Zoo or with friends to one of the annual music festivals. There is something for you in Birmingham.
All images by Tomeka Allgood
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