By Michael Sznajderman
For nearly a decade, the Ballard House in Birmingham’s civil rights district has been a center for community-engaged discussions and learning about the rich tapestry and history of the city’s Black community.
Now, the nonprofit that preserved the historic house has embarked on a capital campaign that will fund a comprehensive renovation of the structure, updated exhibits, an outdoor garden and classroom, and improved spaces for educational programs, among other benefits.
“I am going to share one of many truths,” Majella Chube Hamilton, executive director of The Ballard House Project, said recently. “African Americans contributed significantly to the building and development of Birmingham and Alabama. Our charge, our gift, is to document and share details of these inspiring stories of collective agency within an accurate historical context to educate and inspire Birmingham residents and our visitors for years to come.”
The story of the Ballard House is part of the historic fabric of Birmingham’s Black community and the continuing struggle for equality and justice. Unknown to many beyond Birmingham, the historic structure is a contributing structure within Birmingham’s Historic Civil Rights District and listed by the World Monuments Fund as one of the “20 Places that Changed the World: Alabama Civil Rights Sites.”
Built around 1940 by local Black contractors and sub-contractors, including Leroy S. Gaillard Sr., a master plumber trained at Tuskegee Institute, the brick and wood-frame home originally served as the family residence and medical office for Dr. Edward H. Ballard, a prominent Black physician who served the African American community throughout Birmingham and Alabama since the late 1920s. The house is just a few blocks from the historic 16th Street Baptist Church, an icon of the global civil rights movement where four girls perished in a Ku Klux Klan bombing in 1963.
In 1950 the home was acquired by Jessie Perkins, an African American female entrepreneur, and became a gathering place for the local Black community, including civic clubs and other organizations. It also served as a center for receptions, and a comfortable place during segregation for Black entertainers, speakers and other prominent visitors to stay overnight – before prominent Black business leader A.G. Gaston opened a motel nearby to serve Black travelers.
During this same period, the building’s medical office was used, first, by Dr. Dodson Curry and then, as the medical practice of Dr. Herschell Lee Hamilton, who became active in the civil rights movement. Indeed, Hamilton, who died in 2003, affectionately known as the “Combat Surgeon” and “Dog-Bite Doctor,” provided strategic support and medical care to those attacked and injured by Birmingham police and their police dogs during the city’s 1963 civil rights protests and at other demonstrations across the state. Those treated by Hamilton during the civil rights era included Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, many of Birmingham’s civil rights “Foot Soldiers” and Freedom Riders assaulted at the city’s bus terminal in May 1961.
Majella Hamilton, who is the late Dr. Hamilton’s daughter-in-law, said the expansion and renovation project will support and enhance the Ballard House mission – as both a repository of information and oral histories about the rich legacy of the city’s Black community leading up to the momentous events of the civil rights movement, and a place actively providing culturally enriching and engaging programs about that history and other issues related to civil and human rights.
“With the work of this cultural storehouse, we believe that if we are going to move forward as a progressive community and state in expanding opportunities and addressing disparities, we all must take the time to understand, appreciate and learn from the struggles of resistance and persistence for human and civil rights many in the community faced and overcame here.” Majella Hamilton said.
The Ballard House serves as a complement to other important sites and institutions in the Birmingham Civil Rights District, including the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Kelly Ingram Park, the 16th Street Baptist Church, St. Paul United Methodist Church, and the long-shuttered A.G. Gaston Motel, which is now undergoing its own restoration.
Among the key elements of the Ballard House renovation:
- New permanent and temporary exhibit spaces and repository of oral histories of “Individual and Collective Memories” that will provide details about the house and surrounding neighborhoods during its heyday as a vibrant and tight-knit Black community of residences, businesses and civic organizations.
- Two multifunctional residence-suites upstairs that can be used by visiting scholars and executives and artists-in-residence.
- A restaurant and retail spaces on the main floor that can provide ongoing income for the nonprofit.
Outside the house, a contemporary outdoor garden and walking path is planned that will serve as both an outdoor classroom and special event space.
The Alabama Power Foundation is among the organizations and individuals helping support the project.
Majella Hamilton said the Ballard House project, along with the still-emerging plans for the recently designated Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument and the ongoing work to develop the Northwest Downtown Development Master Plan are anticipated to spur additional economic development in the neighborhood and draw even more visitors.
And while the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the postponement of many public events and activities, Hamilton said the Ballard House is focusing on programming, virtually and in small groups, following all the appropriate safety and health protocols.
This week, at 4 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 22, the Ballard House Project will collaborate with Urban Impact and the Alabama Humanities Foundation to host a virtual panel – part of a series titled “Nobody Knows My Name: Early Movers and Shakers of Birmingham’s Black Business District.”
Herschell Hamilton, son of the late Dr. Hamilton and a Ballard House board member, said the organization is excited about the renovation and expansion and how it will help enhance the nonprofit’s mission.
“With strong support from community members during more than 10 years of conversations and other programs here, we are committed to restoring this historic place to tell their stories and, once again, convey the rich history of our city and the contributions of all its citizens,” Herschell Hamilton said. “We believe this historical knowledge will serve to unify and help craft viable and equitable solutions to the cultural, social and economic challenges of our current day.”
For more information about the Ballard House, visit https://ballardhouseproject.org/.