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.
During the traditional Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Birmingham produced iconic activists like the pastor Fred Shuttlesworth and the newspaper editor Emory O. Jackson. But Harris introduces readers to an earlier generation of African American ministers and editors like John Henry Thomason, an influential figure in the local and national Republican Party who was a delegate to the 1880 Republican national convention in Chicago. Thomason founded the Pilot, Birmingham’s first African American newspaper, and in its pages campaigned against lynching and the convict lease system. “Is it right and just,” Thomason wrote, “for the strong and powerful Anglo-Saxon to abuse and oppress his unfortunate colored brother?”
Thompson also campaigned for blacks to receive some share of government patronage jobs. In 1889, Birmingham’s postmaster appointed Thomason to be one of the city’s first African American letter carriers. The appointment was significant and a rare accomplishment for a Black person of the time. But when Thomason reported to work on his new job, he learned that almost all of the white letter carriers had resigned in protest, and the white press attacked and mocked Thomason as incompetent and unable to learn a mail route. Discouraged, Thomason resigned and left the city.
With Thomason’s departure, the pastor Isiah P. Welch stepped into a leadership role among Black activists. A native of Selma, Welch was “part of a steady stream of Black people moving from the plantation cotton country to Birmingham” when he brought his family to the Magic City in 1883. A minister in the African American Episcopal Church, Welch became an influential religious and political leader. In 1883, the U. S. Supreme Court overturned the 1875 Civil Rights Act, which had guaranteed Black Americans equal access to public accommodations, public schools, theaters, churches, cemeteries, and the right to serve on juries. Speaking at a Birmingham protest rally, Welch said the decision came “upon us like a peal of thunder from a cloudless sky.” Recognizing the danger of leaving Black people’s rights to the whims of whites, he asked, “Is this decision the advanced winds of a terrible storm …”?
Welch lobbied railroad owners to stop discriminatory practices against Black passengers, edited a new Black newspaper called the Magic City, and testified before Congress about the racial realities of the South. His activism drew the ire of powerful whites, and in 1884 he was arrested on a dubious charge of forgery. His reputation damaged and grieving the death of his wife, Welch also gave up on Birmingham and moved, with his four young sons, to Kentucky.
Lacking sufficient numbers to elect African Americans to public office, Black voters strategically supported white candidates who seemed most receptive to the needs of the Black community. In the 1886 mayoral election, Black voters supported the incumbent Alexander O. Lane because Lane had “continued to promote improvement of Black schools.” Black support had given Lane an easy win, and a newly arrived African American newspaper editor named Robert C. O. Benjamin believed the Black community deserved more than the mayor’s gratitude. Born in the West Indies and educated in England, Benjamin founded the Negro American newspaper and wrote editorials under the pseudonym “Cicero.” Pointing out that Birmingham had no African Americans in any city offices, Benjamin called for the hiring of Black police officers. At least one white editor agreed, calling for the hiring of a small number, or maybe just one, Black officer. But the white owned Iron Age attacked Benjamin as a dangerous radical making unreasonable demands. Benjamin left Birmingham the next year, and Birmingham did not hire its first Black police officer until 1968.
Birmingham’s early activists like John Henry Thomason, Isiah Welch and Robert Benjamin did important work by fighting for the rights of African Americans as American citizens. But they faced white backlash to even the most reasonable requests, and lacked meaningful support from the federal government or non-Southern whites. They could not hold back the onslaught of Jim Crow segregation, lynching, economic exploitation and disfranchisement. Those victories, however incomplete they would be, had to wait for a later generation.
History has become a culture war battleground today because understanding our past is essential to understanding our present. If the story Harris tells sounds like this morning’s news, that is because the consequences of these discriminatory policies are still felt today. And when white opinion makers and white political leaders wail against phantom issues like critical race theory it is because they know this history better than they let on. And they desperately want to talk about anything but the true state of our nation when it comes to race. Acknowledging an injustice creates an obligation to correct that injustice. There are still too many among us who, like their Reconstruction era forbearers, want no part of that.
Segregation in the New South gives long-overdue recognition to early African American activists who risked their lives to fight for fairer treatment and a better life for their communities. The book also, once again, illustrates the roots of our current racial inequalities. And in doing that, Carl Harris reminds us that if we want to understand the United States of America, we must understand Birmingham.
James L. Baggett is an archivist and historian in Birmingham. He can be reached at email@example.com.