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A Timeline of Birmingham’s Black History

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The Birmingham Times takes a look back at the Magic City’s early years through 1963 to show how the city arrived at the momentous and historic Civil Rights Movement that was transformative for not only the city but also the world. Here is the history with some historic firsts.

1871  –City of Birmingham founded; now the state’s most populous city, Birmingham was founded at the crossing of two rail lines near one of the world’s richest deposits of minerals.

1885 — Birmingham Barons baseball team originally established as Birmingham Coal Barons.

1890 — The Penny Savings Bank, founded by the Rev. William Reuben Pettiford in Birmingham, opens becoming the first black-owned and black-operated financial institution in Alabama.

1902 — Woodward Building, construction completed on the first of four steel-frame skyscrapers that would make up Birmingham’s “Heaviest Corner on Earth.”

1903 – Social worker Carrie A. Tuggle opens the Tuggle Institute and School, the first orphan home in Alabama for African-American boys. The Institute operated until Tuggle’s death on November 5th, 1924 and was later renamed Tuggle Elementary School in 1936.

1904  — Vulcan Statue, the world’s largest cast-iron statue, created as Birmingham’s entry in the St. Louis World’s Fair, was sculpted by Giuseppe Moretti.

1914 —  Birmingham’s Lyric Theatre established as one of the first in the South where black and white audiences could see the same show for the same price, though blacks sat in an isolated section with inferior accommodations

1918 — Birmingham College and Southern University merged to establish Birmingham-Southern College.

1925 —   The Pittsburgh of the South, Birmingham is the largest cast iron and steel producer in the Southern U.S.

1941 — World War II.  The demand for steel during the war brought Birmingham out of the Great Depression.

1951  — Birmingham Museum of Art, Currently home to one of the finest collections in the Southeast, with extensive holdings from around the globe dating from ancient to modern times.

1954 — A.G. Gaston Motel, founded by entrepreneur and activist A.G. Gaston to provide higher class service to black visitors.

1956 — The home of Birmingham minister and civil rights leader Fred Shuttlesworth is bombed. Although the structure is severely damaged, Shuttlesworth emerges uninjured.

  • During a mass meeting at Birmingham’s Sardis Baptist Church, Shuttlesworth and other local black ministers establish the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR). Founded in response to the State of Alabama’s recent ban on the NAACP, which lasted eight years, ACMHR was central to the civil rights movement in Birmingham.
  • The Freedom Riders arrive at the Greyhound bus terminal in Montgomery where they are attacked by an angry mob. The Freedom Ride, an integrated bus trip from Washington D.C., through the Deep South, was formed to test the 1960 Supreme Court decision prohibiting segregation in bus and train terminal facilities.

1963  — After previously establishing the ACMHR and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Shuttlesworth invites Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Birmingham to lead what becomes the Birmingham Campaign for Desegregation. King writes Letter From Birmingham Jail.

  • Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombed killing four young girls in an attack against the Civil Rights Movement and humanity.

1966 — The University of Alabama at Birmingham, the University of Alabama extension center and the School of Medicine merged to create a four-year university. Now a public research university and medical center that is the state’s largest employer.

1966 – Oscar Adams Jr. becomes the first African American to join the Birmingham Bar Association.

1968 – Arthur Shores appointed to the Birmingham City Council, making him the first African-American to serve as a councilman.

1974 — J. Richmond Pearson and U.W. Clemon first African Americans elected since Reconstruction to the Alabama State Senate.

1979  — Richard Arrington Jr. elected as the first African-American mayor of Birmingham. Arrington serves in that post for nearly 20 years, until his resignation in July 1999.

1980 – Oscar Adams Jr. appointed to the Alabama Supreme Court, making him the first African-American justice to hold that office.

1984 — J. Mason Davis becomes the first African-American president of the Birmingham Bar Association. He is also the first minority adjunct professor at The University of Alabama School of Law School, serving from 1972 to 1997.

1986 — Reuben Davis and Chris McNair elected to the County Commission, the first district by district election, and are the first African-Americans to serve on the commission.

1991 – Carole Smitherman appointed to become the first African-American woman to serve as a circuit court judge in Alabama

1992  — Birmingham Civil Rights Institute opens its doors at Kelly Ingram Park in the Civil Rights District

1993 — Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame opens.

2002 — Shelia Smoot elected first black female Jefferson County Commissioner

2003 — Helen Shores Lee becomes the first African-American woman to serve as judge on the Jefferson County Circuit Court.

2003The Barber Motorsports Park, an 880 acre, multi-purpose racing facility located on the eastern fringes of Birmingham opens. It is built by George Barber and includes the Barber Vintage Motorsport Museum, which has been named “World’s Largest Motorcycle Museum” by the Guinness World Records.

2005 — Condoleezza Rice, Birmingham native named U.S. Secretary of State.

2008 — The national subprime mortgage crisis and Great Recession plunges the county’s debt to junk bond status because of failure of the derivative markets. This triggers penalties and higher interest rates for Jefferson County sewer debt. The county begins technical default. Bond insurers sue.

2008-11: Jefferson County and creditors attempt to reach a settlement of the $3.14 billion sewer debt, but any deal would need to erase $1 billion or more of that debt.

2009 – Carole Smitherman becomes Birmingham’s first African-American female mayor.

2010  — Railroad Park,  19-acre park opened, becoming a catalyst for revitalization in downtown Birmingham

2011 — After the Alabama Supreme Court upholds Price’s ruling on the occupational tax, the county again puts hourly workers on a 32-hour workweek and shuts down four satellite courthouses to save $21 million annually.

  • Jefferson County puts 547 workers on administrative leave without pay, but restores the 40-hour workweek for those who remain. Officials announce that roadside mowing and most paving will stop. Sheriff Mike Hale says deputies no longer will respond to traffic accidents.
  • A massive storm in April, causing numerous powerful tornadoes rips through the southeastern United States with 250 people killed in Alabama, including 20 people in Jefferson County communities of Pleasant Grove (10), Concord (6), Cahaba Heights (1), Pratt City (1), Forestdale (1), and McDonald Chapel (1).
  • The County Commission in November votes 4-1 to file the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

2012 — Cooper Green Mercy Hospital downsized. The Jefferson County Commission votes 3-2 to close the inpatient care unit and emergency room at Cooper Green following weeks of debate and protests from community leaders who have begged the county to continue operating the facility for the sick poor.

2013 — The County Commission unanimously approves the sale of the county’s nursing home.

2014 — Jefferson County emerges from bankruptcy in December after closing on about $1.8 billion in new sewer warrants used to pay creditors.

2016 Lynneice Washington elected District Attorney for the Bessemer Cutoff, the first African-American DA in the state of Alabama.

2016Theo Lawson named first African American Jefferson County attorney.

2016Representative Terri Sewell introduces legislation leading to Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument designation by presidential proclamation one year later.

2017 – John Henry joins the Jefferson County Commission Finance Department and becomes the county’s first black chief financial officer.

2017Danny Carr and Mark Pettway elected the county’s first black district attorney and first black sheriff, respectively.

2018Highlands Bar & Grill wins prestigious James Beard Award for Most Outstanding Restaurant under the direction of Chef Frank Stitt

2019Walter Gonsoulin named the first permanent African American superintendent of the Jefferson County School System

2020Felicia Rucker-Sumerlin named the first female Deputy Chief in the 200-year history of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office.

Updated at 10:57 a.m. on 2/11/2020 to include more information.