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Heartbreak on the Hilltop: A Letter to Birmingham

Birmingham-Southern College will close on May 31, after a nearly 170-year history as one of the city’s most respected institutions. (File)

By Wardine Alexander | Special to The Times

(An opinion)

Wardine Alexander is President Pro Tem of the Birmingham City Council.

I’ve been thinking about my granddaughter a lot lately. I try to imagine what it must be like to be young and in school during this particular moment in time with all the pitfalls of modernity and the general uneasiness we’ve all made note of in recent years.

She’s a freshman at an HBCU in another state and I just got back from visiting her – a celebration trip for her accomplishments this year. Since last week, I’ve kept thinking about how devastating the news of Birmingham-Southern College must’ve been to all those who had made similar trips here to celebrate with their children or grandchildren.

A little piece of Birmingham’s heart broke off last week, and the students, faculty and families of this historic college are left in the disarray. When something you love falls apart, the days that follow are cloudy regardless of the sunshine outside.

To all those who are left with the pieces of a place they loved and learned from, I’m thinking of you today. Eventually those heavy clouds and the weight of it all will lift and a new path will be revealed in time. But today, we’re all grieving.

I want to be honest about something: At first I was somewhat reticent about the City providing public funds to a private university that had found themselves in a financial hole. This was primarily because of the glaring need for additional funding for things like neighborhood revitalization efforts, street paving, workforce development programs and the like.

Over time, I changed my mind completely. After speaking with residents who live near the campus, hearing the stories of students who attend BSC and the multiple conversations we had with BSC President Daniel Coleman, it became clear that losing this institution would severely kneecap the momentum we’ve had and the consequences of such far outweighed my concerns. Unfortunately, here we are today despite our best efforts.

For too long Birmingham has suffered from brain drain — losing our young people to other large cities across the South. On the flip side, recruitment and retention of young talent from other cities hasn’t been much easier, to be quite frank. That uphill battle we’ve been fighting got a little steeper last week, but we have no choice but to keep trudging along. It’s going to take regional cooperation, innovative thinking and perhaps a little luck, so I’m choosing to be hopeful for the future of this beautiful 190-acre campus on the hill.

We cannot, under any circumstances, let it rot and be lost to the elements like Carraway Hospital, which sat vacant for decades.

Alabama is home to the most HBCUs in the country, any number of which could possibly step into the breach and open a new chapter for higher learning in Birmingham; one with a focus on drawing from the wellspring of young talent we have in our local school systems.

The reality is that BSC was out of reach for many families in Birmingham. That’s not a knock on them, that’s just how it was. Imagine where Birmingham could be in 50 years if we can keep our children here by giving them more access to opportunities and a reason to buy into this city for the long haul.

As elected leaders, it’s something we hear all the time from prospective businesses and industries looking to relocate. They want a deep pool of educated, work-ready young people to fill roles in their companies. It’s a key component of economic development efforts, and one that we need to improve upon. Without stepping over the broken pieces of something we loved, I want us to recognize that opportunity lies on the heels of hardship. It’s all a matter of how we choose to respond.

Is this another casualty in the war on education? Who knows? The forensics of this will be picked apart in the months to follow, but there is no doubt that access to higher education has been in the crosshairs of certain state officials and those on the federal level who are cut from the same cloth.

We are not backing down. We can’t. For better or worse, Birmingham is on the front lines of the resistance against ignorance; a blue dot in a ruby red state that’s hell-bent on cutting off its nose to spite its face. So before we can let the dust settle on this tragedy, we have to pick each other up and keep marching forward. The lines have been drawn, and if you believe every child deserves a chance to become the best version of themselves, I hope you’ll join us in this fight.

Wardine Alexander is President Pro Tem of the Birmingham City Council.