Category: Reading Birmingham

Reading Birmingham: For Halloween, Birmingham Murder Story That’s ‘Grisly,’ ‘Hard-Boiled’

In his book “The Infamous Birmingham Axe Murders,” journalist Jeremy Gray has a hell of a story to tell. From 1919 to 1924, as many as 18 people were killed and 16 injured in a series of brutal attacks. A number of the victims were Italian grocers killed when their stores were robbed.

The killings were not the work of a single killer or group of killers, and not all the victims were attacked with axes (one victim was beaten to death with a shovel, another with a metal pipe) but the spree of murders panicked Birmingham and stirred the nasty specters of race, class and religious bigotry.

The police and the newspapers focused on African-American suspects and, because several of the victims were Italian, the Mafia. The Birmingham Age-Herald offered readers a completely made up serial killer, publishing a racist cartoon of an axe-wielding black man dubbed “Henry the Hacker.” With the approval of the police, the Ku Klux Klan paraded through African-American neighborhoods at night hoping to intimidate potential black criminals. Read more.

Reading Birmingham: Put Aside the Politics. This is First and Foremost a Story of People who Love Music.

About 10 years ago, while visiting rural England, I met a genuine Southernphile (and yes, that is a word I just made up). When a young hotel clerk learned I was from Alabama, he engaged me in a long and animated conversation about his love for Southern pop culture.

While his sources were dubious (his favorite movie was Smokey and the Bandit and his favorite television show was The Dukes of Hazzard), his fascination was sincere. What he loved most of all was the band Lynyrd Skynyrd. “I don’t care about the politics,” he said. “They just sound so bloody good.”

Historian Andre Millard found a similar lack of interest in politics, especially the politics of race, among many of the musicians interviewed for his book Magic City Nights. Read more.

Reading Birmingham: In Birmingham 1931, a Man Went Out for Cornbread, Died in Prison

Murder on Shades Mountain: The Legal Lynching of Willie Peterson and the Struggle for Justice in Jim Crow Birmingham by Melanie S. Morrison (Duke University Press, 2018)

By James L. Baggett

UPDATED: Victim’s daughter challenges book’s view.

Willie Peterson just wanted to pick up some cornbread for supper. On a hot September afternoon in 1931, Peterson boarded a streetcar near his home in the Woodlawn neighborhood of Birmingham and rode to Southside.

After visiting his mother-in-law, Peterson walked up Avenue G (now Seventh Avenue South) toward Beamon’s Café. A slightly built African-American man, Peterson suffered from tuberculous and followed his wife’s instructions not to overexert himself. Before Peterson reached the café, three white people in a car — a man and woman in their 20s and an older woman — stopped and began to question him. As the young man held Peterson at gun point, the young woman said, “Yes, it’s him. I know it’s him.”

When three police officers arrived, they beat and handcuffed Peterson and drove him to jail.

“You’ve got the wrong Negro,” Peterson told the officers. Willie Peterson lived in a time when being the “wrong Negro,” or just any black man in the wrong place at the wrong time, could be deadly.

In this new book, Melanie S. Morrison, a United Church of Christ minister and self-described social justice educator, researches and retells a story she heard as a child in Michigan from her Birmingham-born father. Read more.

Reading Birmingham: An Introduction
Today, BirminghamWatch begins a new feature spotlighting books about Birmingham and Alabama. Read more.