By: David Fleming
REV Birmingham President & CEO
As we celebrate the milestone of Birmingham’s 150th birthday, we have a chance to reflect on how far we have come and what may lie ahead for the Magic City. I have always loved reading and learning about history, and I especially love when it’s Birmingham-related. Birmingham’s history has truly had an impact on the world.
In studying history we find inspirational stories of people and their achievements. We learn how people strive to help each other in tough times. However, we also find disappointing decisions and actions that lead to harmful impacts on other people or neglect of needs. I always say that history is full of the good, the bad and the ugly. In order to fully understand it, we must see it all and approach it with humility.
When I give my Birmingham history talks, I like to explain how we got here like this. There are four contributing factors that played a part in Birmingham’s birth: necessity, opportunity, vision and ambition. It was necessary because Alabama and the South had to recover from the devastation of the Civil War and build a new economy that was not based on the labor of enslaved people. The opportunity was here due to the abundant presence of iron ore, coal, and limestone – the three natural elements required for success in the industrial age. However, those natural resources needed a vision for a city that could draw on them and forge them into products that were building the country and world. This required the ambition of people willing to take a risk, promote their vision and invest in the potential of this place had to drive it forward.
While ambition fueled the vision and forged a new city, those original visionaries could not have done it without some help. They had to have people – who were willing to take a chance — to come to Birmingham and work in the mines and factories and start businesses to support a growing population. And people did take that chance! They left fields and occupied the mines and factories. They left their home countries and crossed the seas to establish a new life in a new world. Birmingham was officially in business and boomed into one of the most important and prosperous cities in the South by the turn of the 20th Century.
As with all human endeavors, it was bold, but far from perfect. In the early stages, it was a city with a character more like that of a Wild West town rather than a genteel southern metropolis. Interests competing for control of the town and the means of production created a tendency to keep our common community interests fractured. Our economy’s reliance on heavy industry intensified our hurt during the Great Depression when the world stopped building things and the demand for Birmingham product dried up. This caused massive unemployment rates resulting in Birmingham being declared “the Hardest Hit City in America” by the federal government. And the city’s opportunities for personal advancement were not available to all. As the city grew African Americans were strictly, and sometimes brutally, segregated from the majority. Birmingham became a “Tale of Two Cities,” one White and one Black.
However, at almost every crisis point in our history we have responded to these moments of necessary change and forged a way forward. And we are better for it. Today we have award winning parks and cultural institutions that rival any city. We learned to diversify our economy and offer jobs in health care, finance, technology and innovation. While still living with the remnants of historic inequality, we are working intentionally on becoming a city of opportunity for all.
As we look to the next 150 years for Birmingham and the region that is here because of it, the same things that created her will fire the future: necessity, opportunity, vision and ambition. We have different versions of those realities than those that greeted our predecessors 150 years ago. While not recovering from a civil war, we are still transitioning to a new economic order as we find ourselves recovering from the effects of a worldwide pandemic. There is great opportunity found in our current assets of UAB, Innovation Depot, Southern Research Institution and the entrepreneurial talent in our business community. That is coupled with a commitment to grow our city with the ability for all of its people to fully participate in its growth. We must, then, find and live into a common vision for the future and drive it forward with ambition equal to our founders.
As we reflect on our first 150 years, let us celebrate and recognize the good. While we do not forget the bad and the ugly, we will not let those things define us or bind us. In fact, we should let the good be what inspires us and drives us. No matter where we live, work, go to church or choose to socialize, we can recognize that we are interdependent. We need each other to build a better Birmingham. It’s time to get to work!
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