Reading Birmingham: Miss Fancy Tells Sweet Story of Jim Crow’s Harsh Reality

“Meet Miss Fancy” by Irene Latham; illustrated by John Holyfield (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2019).

Miss Fancy the elephant is a Birmingham legend. In her children’s book “Meet Miss Fancy,” Birmingham author Irene Latham uses that legend and the truth behind it to tell a story of race, exclusion and hope.

Bought from a circus in 1913 (no, she was not won in a poker game), Miss Fancy was the main attraction at the Avondale Park Zoo.  Miss Fancy gave rides to thousands of children and often wandered the neighborhoods near the park, sometimes accompanied by her trainer and sometimes alone.

Many adults were amused and fascinated by Miss Fancy’s consumption of alcohol. This has become a central part of her legend, but it isn’t as interesting as it sounds. Elephant keepers in circuses and zoos often poured alcohol — usually whiskey, not beer — into elephants’ food to help keep their digestive systems regular. For Miss Fancy, a pint of whisky wasn’t an evening cocktail. It was her version of probiotic yogurt.

The financial pressures of the Great Depression forced the city to close the zoo in 1934 and Miss Fancy was sold. She toured with a circus for two years and was then sold to the Buffalo Zoo, in New York, where she stayed until her death in 1954.

That’s the backstory.

The fictional hero in “Meet Miss Fancy” is Frank, an African American boy who “loved elephants.”  Excited to learn that an elephant might come to Birmingham, Frank collects pennies from his classmates to help pay for her. (Birmingham school kids did, in fact, raise $500 in pennies to help cover the cost for Miss Fancy.)

But when Miss Fancy arrives, Frank is disappointed that he cannot visit her because Avondale Park is racially segregated and black people are not allowed inside.

“Meet Miss Fancy” tells a sweet story that illustrates a harsh reality of life under Jim Crow. Black children were (and are) forced to accept realities that make no sense, like not being allowed to visit the zoo. So Frank’s mother reads him newspaper stories about Miss Fancy, and Frank tosses peanuts to the elephant over the zoo’s wall. Miss Fancy embodies innocence at the core of the story. It makes no difference to her who you are. Give her a peanut and she is your friend. When Miss Fancy makes one of her periodic escapes from the zoo, Frank uses peanuts to guide her home. As a reward, a white police officer bends the rules and lets Miss Fancy take Frank for a ride.

Irene Latham is a beautiful writer of children’s prose and she describes the final moments of the story like this: “Frank laid his head against Miss Fancy and breathed in her mud-puddle smell. The sun warmed his shoulders as they paraded right past the gates of Avondale Park.” In John Holyfield’s wonderful illustration, the expression of pure love on Frank’s face is heartbreaking.

Frank’s experience would not have been unique. In 1914, a group from Sixteenth Street Baptist Church received approval from the Birmingham City Commission to have one Sunday in July — one Sunday — when African Americans could picnic in Avondale Park, visit the zoo and see the elephant. But when whites from the neighborhood warned that “trouble might result,” the church withdrew its request. It was five more decades and Miss Fancy was long dead before black residents could enjoy the park.

We can say Frank lived in a different time, but it is only a difference in degree. Racism and white supremacy are filthy stains on our nation’s soul that we have yet to adequately address. We talk about talking about race, but we really just nibble at the edges much of the time. It is fitting that “Meet Miss Fancy” is set in Birmingham, and not just because the elephant lived part of her life here. Because of Birmingham’s history, we have an opportunity and an obligation to learn from our past and teach those lessons to our fellow Americans. As much as many of our fellow Americans like to think they are different from Birmingham, they are not. Birmingham is America.

Because race is central to our experience as Americans, parents must make choices about how to talk to their children about race. Some parents choose to teach white supremacy. Some white parents choose to ignore the topic and tell themselves that “race just isn’t an issue in our home,” a luxury parents of color do not have. And some parents choose to try, as best they can, to help their children understand the fear, ignorance and selfishness that perpetuate racism and white supremacy. Sitting down with a child and reading “Meet Miss Fancy” would be a fine place to start.

“Meet Miss Fancy” ends hopefully, with the sun shining down on an African American child as he fulfills his greatest dream. But the ending also recognizes that in Miss fancy’s time and in our own, it is often white people who get to decide the fate of people of color — will they get a job they deserve, will they be harassed on the street, will they be murdered while grocery shopping. In that moment when Frank rides Miss Fancy away from a segregated place and into the sunlight, it seems that all the ugly bigotry that constrains his life and tries to crush his hopes might be left behind. As a nation we still haven’t come to that place. But we have to keep trying. Racism is a disease, and like all of the most terrible diseases, it leaves us two options — get better or die.

Jim Baggett

About Reading Birmingham: James L. Baggett, a Birmingham archivist, has assisted with research on many of the 450 books about Birmingham and Alabama since 1970. He reviews new publications and older titles that address the city and state for Birmingham Watch.  He has authored or edited five books on Birmingham and Alabama history. Baggett received the Alabama Library Association’s 2019 Eminent Librarian Award.