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Daughter of Legendary Birmingham Attorney Recalls Her Upbringing on ‘Dynamite Hill’

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Birmingham Historical Society Program Director Marjorie White, left, and Barbara Shores, daughter of legendary Civil Rights attorney Arthur Shores. (Ryan Michaels, The Birmingham Times)
By Ryan Michaels
The Birmingham Times

Barbara Shores, daughter of legendary Civil Rights attorney Arthur Shores, said she was shielded from much of the horror during her time growing up in the 1950s and 1960s in Birmingham’s “Dynamite Hill.” The Smithfield community gained its ugly nickname because of multiple bombings conducted by the Ku Klux Klan to try to scare off Black families who were working to integrate the neighborhood.

“We had a lot of fun, in spite of the things that were going on, and one thing that I think came across with most of the kids, was that the parents never did talk in front of us about what was going on. You may have had big ears, but you didn’t repeat what you heard,” Shores remembered.

Shores recalls the vibrance of the neighborhood, barbecue joints, a movie theater, grocery stores and an involved Girl Scouts troop. She pointed to Christmas morning as particularly memorable.

“Everybody had their bicycles and skates, and you would see the kids skating down the hill with little red handkerchiefs in the back, and you could just see a red streak going down the hill.”

Shores, along with Birmingham Historical Society (BHS) Program Director Marjorie White, has captured some of the neighborhood’s history in a book titled “Birmingham’s Dynamite Hill,” which chronicles the community from its origins in the 1850s through its peak in the mid-1900s as a haven for middle- and working-class Black families, through the present.

It will have a public unveiling on Sunday Dec. 11 at Tabernacle Baptist Church, 600 Center St. North in Birmingham’s Graymont neighborhood, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and will feature others who grew up in the neighborhood during the 1950s and 60s including retired Judge Houston Brown, Madelyn Coar, Jeff Drew, Gloria Kennon, John Nixon, Denise Barefield-Pendleton, Ernestine Poole, Dwight Sheehy and Victoria Tubbs Williams, all current or former residents.

The work of writing on the area began in 2005, according to White and Shores, when BHS nominated properties along Center Street in the Dynamite Hill area for preservation through the National Parks Service.

White said the full story of Dynamite Hill “has not been told” the way it has in the book. “People want to remember the Civil Rights events…it’s basically the breaking of the racial barrier in housing and in schools,” she said.

Shores said she had wanted to put together a book for years and in 2011 the city of Birmingham provided funding for BHS to publish one. Then, the pair set out and interviewed 13 people who grew up in Dynamite Hill at the same time as Shores.

Those interviewed for the book struggled to speak about the violence that they faced while living in the community, Shores said.

“It was even hard for some of us [who witnessed the violence] to even talk about it. I remember one person became emotional, and when I called another friend to participate, she said, ‘I can’t talk about it,’ and it’s been 60 years. It’s hard,” Shores said, who shared she was among those who had difficulty talking about what happened, particularly when remembering a pet she lost in a bombing incident in 1963, a pivotal year in the Civil Rights Movement.

“When I came home one of my dogs had been blown up, so when I would go out, my sister [Helen] and I would speak and I would choke up, and Helen would sort of nudge me and I would get it together and go on, but it was painful,” Shores said.

Shores and her sister Helen, a retired circuit judge have been public Civil Rights figures in the Birmingham Community for decades. Helen passed away in 2018.

The book also features photos of a number of homes from the community which were routinely bombed. Photos of Shores’ childhood and current home, which was bombed twice in Shores’ youth, are also present in the book. Shores, 77, has lived about 55 years in the neighborhood.

It’s important to keep the history of the area alive said Shores, saying she was shocked by how few people knew about Dynamite Hill during a talk she gave recently at an area college.

“I asked…how many people know about Dynamite Hill? None of the young kids who raised their hands, who were from Birmingham, they didn’t know anything about it.

“The young people have no idea about the history and the struggles that my father and others [went through] to make it a better place,” she said.

“Birmingham’s Dynamite Hill” will be unveiled on Sunday, Dec. 11 at Tabernacle Baptist Church, 600 Center St. North in Birmingham’s Graymont neighborhood, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.