Category: Reading Birmingham

Author Gives Gritty Look at Life Growing Up in Central City

“Central City’s Joy and Pain: Solidarity, Survival, and Soul in a Birmingham Housing Project”: (University of Georgia Press, 2024) by Jerome E. Morris.

Jerome Morris has written a book about home.

Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s in the Central City housing project on the northeast edge of downtown Birmingham, Morris came of age in a community that could be by turns brutal and nurturing.

It was, he writes, a place of “Block parties, freeze cups, shooting marbles … kissing in the hallways, fighting, borrowing butter and eggs, Powell School, my mama, five older brothers and a younger sister, the free summer lunch program, the Double Dutch Bus, Mr. Hook’s store, the Electric Poppers and the CC Poppers, free school breakfast and lunch, due bills, and the music of Frankie Beverly and Maze.”

Central City was a world of extremes — a world where many men were in prison, out of prison, or on the road to prison. But also it was a world where older people mentored and watched protectively over young people. Read more.

Birmingham’s Jazz Tradition and How It Shaped the Sound of America

“Magic City: How the Birmingham Jazz Tradition Shaped the Sound of America” (University of North Carolina Press, 2023) by Burgin Mathews

Mathews will speak and sign copies of “Magic City” at the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame on Saturday, 5-7 p.m., and at the Birmingham Historical Society on Sunday, 3-5 p.m.

Birmingham has been waiting for this book for a very long time. In my 30 years as an archivist, I directed many local students and out-of-town tourists to the site of Tuxedo Junction and shook my head no when asked, “Isn’t there a good book on jazz in Birmingham?”

Now there is, “Magic City: How the Birmingham Jazz Tradition Shaped the Sound of America.” Read more.

New Book Explores the Meaning of Birmingham

“Learning From Birmingham: A Journey Into History and Home” (University of Alabama Press, 2023) by Julie Buckner Armstrong

Birmingham is a place that requires explanation. The city’s racial past makes it a source of fascination and contempt. If you live in Birmingham, you know that outsiders often come at you with questions, and sometimes attitude. For African American residents, the attitude can come in the form of hillbilly jokes and a lack of respect. It was these type experiences that inspired Birmingham poet Dianne Mills to compose the wonderfully profane “Don’t Say S—t ‘bout Birmingham.”

White residents also experience a lack of respect from outsiders, a sense — sometimes said out loud — that we must be a bit backward or simply not smart enough to realize that we live in a terrible place and should probably leave. White residents can also experience suspicion regarding our racial attitudes. Call it the taint of Bull Connor. But for many of Birmingham’s white sons and daughters, there are no questions an outsider can ask that we have not already asked ourselves. Read more.

New Book Offers Glimpse Into the Life of Harper Lee

“Afternoons with Harper Lee” (NewSouth Books, 2022) by Wayne Flynt

Among the millions of documents preserved in the Birmingham Public Library Archives, there is a brief, handwritten letter from Harper Lee to a fellow writer. In the letter, Lee explains that she cannot read a book that has been sent to her and lists a variety of ailments that have made reading difficult. “As Gilda Radner would say.” Lee writes, “It’s always something.”

This is one of the items that archives staff regularly bring out to show visitors, although it is wasted on 21st century college and high school students, who rarely have a clue who Gilda Radner was or that she was one of the comic geniuses of the last century.

But what makes this letter intriguing is that it tells us something about the life and tastes of a widely beloved but intensely private author. Like many people, Harper Lee watched Saturday Night Live and quoted lines from the show.

Small nuggets like this are at the heart of Wayne Flynt’s new book, “Afternoons with Harper Lee.” Flynt, a professor of history at Auburn University, and his wife Dartie, befriended Lee after a stroke forced her to leave New York and return to her hometown in Monroeville. Read more.

New Book Explores Stories of Early African American Activists in Birmingham

Segregation in the New South: Birmingham, Alabama, 1871-1901 (Louisiana State University Press, 2023) by Carl V. Harris

Birmingham is known around the world as a place where African Americans fought and sometimes died to secure their rights as citizens and dismantle Jim Crow segregation. But Jim Crow did not spring up fully formed, nor was it a system that had always existed. It was the product of a long and tortuous push and pull between blacks seeking justice and whites seeking control.

At its birth in 1871, Birmingham was a Reconstruction-era city, and Birmingham came of age in a time when white Southerners and African American Southerners, many only a few years removed from enslavement, were struggling to find their places in a new post-war racial order. This is the story, and the stories of early African American activists who are largely unknown today, that Carl V. Harris tells in his new book Segregation in the New South: Birmingham, Alabama, 1871-1901.

Harris, who taught history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, died before completing this book. His colleague, W. Elliott Brownlee, edited and finished the manuscript. Harris’ earlier book, Political Power in Birmingham, 1871-1921 (University of Tennessee Press, 1977), was the first scholarly book on Birmingham’s history and it is still indispensable for anyone wanting to understand the political dynamics of Birmingham’s early decades. Read more.

Author Documents Police Killings of African Americans During Jim Crow

In the spring of 1941, outside a movie theater in Fairfield, John Jackson waited with his girlfriend to see a show. A white police officer ordered Jackson and the other people in line, all African Americans, to clear the sidewalk. But Jackson, laughing and joking with his girlfriend, did not hear the order.

When challenged by one officer, Jackson asked, “Can’t I laugh?” The police officers forced Jackson into the back of their squad car, beat him severely and shot him four times. He died before reaching the police station.

Three years later, in Donalsonville, Georgia, an “elderly Negro woman” did or said something (or perhaps, nothing at all) that displeased the white clerk in a general store. The 20-year-old clerk followed the woman outside and beat her to death with an ax handle.

Neither the Fairfield cop nor the store clerk, or countless other white killers like them, went to jail for their crimes.

White-on-black violence was both a result and a pillar of Jim Crow. For African American men and women, even “the most commonplace encounters” with whites could turn lethal. And it is this aspect of the Jim Crow system, in which whites could do violence to black people with impunity, all the while being empowered and protected by the legal system, that is the focus of Margaret A. Burnham’s new book “By Hands Now Known.” Read more.

Professor Explores Relationship Between White Police and Black Citizens Through the Years in New Book

In recent years, American cities have exploded in protests against police violence. Whether the protests were over the murder of George Floyd in 2020s Minneapolis or Bonita Carter in 1970s Birmingham, these Black communities’ reactions were about more than the killings of individuals. These communities were responding to a century of police violence and murder directed at African American citizens.

In his new book, “Race, Crime, and Policing in the Jim Crow South,” Brandon T. Jett, a professor of history at Florida SouthWestern State College, explores this long history of the fraught and dangerous relationship between white police and Black citizens.

“Jim Crow law enforcement officers and institutions,” Jett writes, “by rule and practice, were not created to improve the lives of African Americans.” The white community wanted police to prevent and solve crime, but whites associated crime disproportionately with African Americans and saw police as the frontline enforcers of Jim Crow.

Looking at three major Southern cities — Birmingham, New Orleans and Memphis — Jett finds that while African Americans had good reason to be wary of white police officers, they also needed the help and cooperation of the police to reduce or punish crimes in the Black community. Read more.