The exhibition Place of Our Own: The Fourth Avenue District, Civil Rights, and the Rise of Birmingham’s Black Middle Class explores Birmingham’s black community from its beginnings in the late 1800s through the 1930s. The exhibition presents the compelling story of how blacks settled in Birmingham, built businesses, churches, and other institutions and planted seeds of change that would be harvested decades later.
In the post-Civil War era known as Reconstruction, Birmingham’s mines and mills lured thousands of rural Alabamians to the new city. Many came to escape the sharecropping system overtaking the Alabama countryside. Blacks, suffering under this system, accepted Birmingham’s most physically demanding jobs and working class blacks fueled the city’s rapid rise as an industrial powerhouse. It is easy to overlook that Birmingham also created economic opportunities for an elite class of blacks; the new city needed skilled trades and professionals to supply the rapidly growing city’s vast need for products and services.
For a couple of decades, Birmingham enjoyed racial cooperation as black and white shopkeepers and artisans worked side-by-side, sharing customers and in some instances, even space. As black migration to Birmingham continued, fear of contact with an increasingly visible black population led to calls for racial segregation. Ratification of the Alabama State Constitution in 1901 codified separate black and white spheres for virtually every aspect of life, requiring the creation of separate black institutions of every sort.
Black businesses relocated to Birmingham’s black downtown, the Fourth Avenue District, and black citizens got busy working to build schools, organizing fraternal and benevolent societies, and publishing newspapers for black readers. Black churches provided a spiritual anchor and also a business network as several businesses advertised in church bulletins. Black community leaders of the time built a bank to encourage savings and make loans. Black entrepreneurs, including architects, builders, barbers, beauticians, grocers, hoteliers, and undertakers thrived in segregated Birmingham.
Fast forward a couple of decades. In 1963, the hard-won assets of the black community yielded tremendous benefits. Black wealth financed the movement for racial equality. The spending power of blacks meant boycotts were keenly felt. At the epicenter, black churches provided resilient and charismatic leaders and responsive followers attuned to the strategy of fighting for social justice with peace and steadfast insistence. It is undeniable that Birmingham’s early black community laid the foundation for one of the most significant events in American history – the 1963 Birmingham Campaign of the American Civil Rights movement!