Last week, Weld began its review of the “50 Who Shaped Birmingham” by counting down Numbers 50-31. This week, it’s Numbers 30-16 of the most influential people in the history of the city, the people whose words and deeds made Birmingham, for better or for worse, what it is.
30. James R. Powell
One of 10 stockholders in the company that founded Birmingham at an isolated Jones Valley rail crossing in 1871, it was Powell who suggested the name of the new city. He also served as its first mayor and, in an 1873 speech in which he boasted of “this magic little city of ours,” gave it an enduring nickname.
A man of limitless energy, Powell embodied the spirit of boosterism that permeated Birmingham in its early years. He occupied a florid middle ground between pitchman and evangelist, and his visibility and volubility earned him a nickname of his own: “The Duke of Birmingham.”
Powell’s determination to see Birmingham succeed knew few bounds: In the 1873 vote that made the Magic City the seat of Jefferson County, he had black voters brought in from across the county by train. Disembarking, they encountered a tall, dignified man astride a calico pony, brandishing a sword. They were told it was General Ulysses Grant, who wanted them to cast their ballots for Birmingham. In reality, it was Powell.
That triumph proved to be Powell’s high-water mark. Birmingham was struck by a cholera epidemic and a subsequent financial panic, and the population dwindled to less than 2,000. Powell, his credibility shattered, left town for his plantation in Mississippi. He returned briefly in 1878, but for him the magic was gone, and he went back to Mississippi for good. Five years later, he was shot dead at a rural tavern for reasons that were never made clear.
Photo courtesy of Southern Company.
29. Thomas Martin
In 1881, Thomas Wesley Martin was born in the north Alabama mountains to parents William Logan Martin and Margaret Ledbetter. He married Mary Tyson in 1919.
As a boy Martin attended prep school at Starke’s University School in Montgomery until 1898 and graduated with a law degree from the University of Alabama in 1901. He became Alabama’s assistant attorney general just two years later at age 22 and practiced law with his father’s firm alongside mentor and Alabama Attorney General Massey Wilson.
In 1911, Martin went to work for Massachusetts engineer James Mitchell, who wanted to build a dam on the Coosa River. Lay Dam, operational in 1914, represented the first complete electrical system in Alabama.
When Mitchell folded his companies into the Alabama Power Company, Martin continued to work alongside him, serving as general counsel to the company from 1912 until 1964.
Following Mitchell’s death in 1920, Martin became president of Alabama Power, a position he kept until 1949 and was CEO until his death in 1964.
During his presidency, Martin advocated for a rural electrification program, a hydrology lab at Alabama Power, an economic development program to recruit new industry to Alabama, interstate electrical connections between Alabama and Georgia, defense industries and military bases for Alabama during World War II, among other achievements. A major achievement for Birmingham was the founding of the Southern Research Institute in 1944.
In addition to his professional successes, Martin was a member of numerous civic organizations and was an avid student of Alabama history.
28. The Ireland Family
In 1916, an Ohio financier named Charles Lincoln Ireland purchased the Birmingham Slag Company. Ireland sent his three sons to Birmingham to run the company, which was positioned to take advantage of the need for aggregates — made from the byproduct of local steel furnaces — to be used in paving the growing number of hard-surfaced roads in Alabama and throughout the South.
Under three generations of Irelands, Birmingham Slag prospered through the 1920s, the Great Depression and World War II. The postwar growth of automobile ownership, coupled with the Eisenhower administration’s interstate highway program, propelled the company to new heights. In 1957, Birmingham Slag merged with the Vulcan Detinning Company of New Jersey to form Vulcan Materials, a publicly traded company that became — and remains — the top producer of construction aggregates in the United States. Vulcan Materials is also nationally recognized for its employee-oriented corporate culture.
In addition to their role in shaping one of Birmingham’s leading corporations, the Ireland family established a reputation for charitable and philanthropic endeavors that continues to the present day. Among countless other institutions and causes, members of the family have been strong supporters of medical and scientific research efforts at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and were instrumental in the establishment of Alabama’s Forever Wild Trust, which to date has preserved well over 200,000 acres of land for public use.
In the late 1970s, with the national economy at its lowest point since the Great Depression, traditional industrial centers like Birmingham were especially hard-hit. U.S. Steel and other prominent manufacturers virtually ceased operations. Unemployment in the city of Birmingham topped 16 percent, and approached 25 percent in the industrial suburbs to the city’s west and north. Yet, by the mid-1980s, Birmingham had one of the most thoroughly diversified metropolitan economies in the Southeast.
What happened? For one thing, the steady growth of UAB as a leading global medical and research center. For another, the emergence of a homegrown banking sector that by the 1990s would have Birmingham ranked behind only New York and Charlotte as a home for bank headquarters. Leading the way were AmSouth, SouthTrust and Central banks, each with a dynamic, civic-minded CEO at the helm — John W. Woods, Wallace Malone and Harry Brock, respectively.
Today, with the exception of Regions Bank — which acquired AmSouth in 2006 — the era of locally owned banking giants is over for Birmingham. In 2004, SouthTrust was bought by North Carolina-based Wachovia, which later merged with Wells Fargo. Central (later Compass) was acquired by BBVA, the second-largest bank in Spain, in 2007. But without the presence and influence of the Birmingham banks and their leaders at such a critical time in the city’s history, it is doubtful that the Birmingham we know today would exist.
26. John H. Phillips
John Herbert Phillips was born in 1853 in Covington, KY, to Evan and Elizabeth Phillips. Educated in the public schools of Ohio, Phillips took a teaching position in West Virginia in 1875 before entering Marietta College in Ohio. He graduated in 1880 with a bachelor of arts.
After serving as a high school principal in Gallipolis, OH, for three years, he moved to Alabama and became the superintendent of Birmingham’s new public school system.
In many ways Phillips’ stance on education was progressive, but it excluded African-Americans. Under his leadership, Birmingham’s school system flourished, and his interests in education extended outside the Birmingham school system. In 1883, he founded the Birmingham Humane Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and Animals, and in 1886, the same year he married Nellie Cobbs, he turned his spare room into the city’s first public library.
In 1889, he was elected president of the Chautauqua class, an adult-education movement of the late-19th and early-20th centuries that required him to give lectures around the country.
Phillips did not stop learning himself, completing post-graduate studies at the University of Chicago and the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.
In 1895 he was elected president of the Southern Education Association. In 1898, Nellie died and he married Minnie Holman. Three years later, he was elected president of the National Council of Education.
After 38 years as superintendent, he died in 1921. In tribute to his legacy, the former Phillips High School is still the John Herbert Phillips Academy.
25. William Engel
Born in the Tuscaloosa County town of Cottondale in 1895, Engel moved with his family to Birmingham in 1902. Nearly seven decades later, having made his fortune in real estate and insurance, he was named one of the “Ten Greatest Men of Birmingham Business” in connection with the city’s centennial celebration. The citation that went with that award noted that Engel had transcended “the commercial and business world” to become “a religious, social, cultural and civic leader.”
“Pay your civic rent” was Engel’s constant mantra. It was one he lived, whether serving as president of Temple Emanu-El from 1948-50, chairing the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce in 1951 and ’52, helping to lead the Birmingham business community to a more progressive attitude toward Civil Rights in the early 1960s — in a 1962 speech, he told his audience that, “Either we go forward or we go back, and if we go back we go back into the depths” — or lending his energy to a multitude of corporate and nonprofit boards.
“I’ve always had inside of me a peculiar philosophy,” Engel said in an interview not long before his death. “I do not believe in a one way street. I believe if a community is acting well toward you and you’re making a living there and have a position in the community, then you owe a great deal back.”
24. Cooper Green
In 1947, a group called the Greater Birmingham Citizens Committee proposed that Birmingham and Jefferson County merge to form a single unit of government. The movement was led by Birmingham Mayor Cooper Green. Green viewed the merger as key to Birmingham’s postwar development, an opportunity to enhance industrial recruitment and move the city ahead in its long-running rivalry with Atlanta, which at the time had a population only about 5,000 residents larger than Birmingham.
The merger initiative played out over two years, and from all indications enjoyed widespread public support. But Green’s proposal languished in the Alabama Legislature, with U.S. Steel and other economic powers using their political muscle to outlast the progressives who saw an opportunity for Birmingham to grow. The Citizens Committee disbanded in 1949, and the effort died.
Green was president of the Birmingham City Commission — by virtue of which he held the title of mayor — from 1940 until he resigned in 1953 to accept an executive position with Alabama Power Company. He later served as president of the Jefferson County Commission. Through it all, he was a progressive and visionary leader under whom the city, among other things, acquired the Birmingham Water Works, developed the Alabama State Fairgrounds, built numerous schools and recreational facilities, and provided strong support for arts and cultural amenities. In 1975, five years before his death, the Alabama Legislature named the county’s indigent hospital in his honor.
23. Morris Newfield
The title of author Mark Cowett’s 1986 biography of Newfield — Birmingham’s Rabbi — says it all. The Hungarian-born Newfield led Temple Emanu-El from 1895 until his death in 1940, during which time he not only presided over the growth of his congregation, but also was the “face” of the local Jewish community in civic circles. He was especially active in addressing the needs of children and the poor, but also did not hesitate to involve himself in the issues Birmingham faced during a time of rapid economic and social change in the early decades of the 20th century.
As Cowett noted, the role the rabbi filled was unique, as well as invaluable in shaping Birmingham Jews’ sense of themselves, the integration of local Jews into the larger community and the development of Birmingham as a whole. The author offered three reasons for Newfield’s success in that role:
[F]irst, Jews needed a leader who could help them maintain a link with their tradition in a new and often threatening environment, but they also expected their leader to smooth the way for them with Christians in Birmingham; second, Birmingham Christians…respected him; and third, and most significant, Newfield’s own tactical style of leadership, stressing brotherhood instead of accentuating differences, overcame the ambivalent feelings that both Jews and Christians held toward one another.
22. A.H. Parker
“My dream was to see built in Birmingham a high school for Negro boys and girls that would be second to none in the South. That dream has come true,” said Arthur Harold Parker.
Selected as the first principal and sole teacher of Birmingham’s first all-black high school in 1900, Parker watched attendance grow from 18 to over 2,700 just two years before his retirement and subsequent death in 1939.
Parker, a native Ohioan born in 1870 with heritage of white, black and Chickasaw Indian descent, worked in his father’s barber shop during high school before venturing South for prospecting opportunities.
Arriving in Birmingham in 1887, he passed the teachers’ examination and became the 13th African-American teacher in Birmingham. In 1892 he passed the principals’ examination.
After the deaths of wife Mary Anderson in 1889 and Bessie Pettiford in 1895, Parker took a job with the IRS before marrying Anna Gilbert in 1898 and returning to education in 1899. He entered the Lane School as teacher and assistant vice principal the same year that members of Birmingham’s black community petitioned the Board of Education for an all-black high school. He became Industrial High School’s principal in 1900 and served for the next 39 years. In 1905 Parker was elected president of the Alabama State Teacher’s Association, in 1924 he received the Negro Citizens’ Loving Cup, and in 1933 he received an honorary doctorate of letters from Miles College. When he retired they named Industrial High School after him.
21. Henry M. Edmonds
A native of Sumter County, Edmonds came to Birmingham in 1913 as pastor of South Highland Presbyterian Church. Less than two years later, he found himself embroiled in controversy, as a fundamentalist layman in the church objected publicly his progressive theological views, his opposition to the city’s “blue laws” that banned movies, golf and the sale of liquor on Sundays, and his involvement in social issues. The dispute caused a split in the congregation, and Edmonds — followed by a large segment of his flock — left in 1915 to form a new church.
That church was Independent Presbyterian, which became and remains one of Birmingham’s most influential congregations. While construction was completed on one of the most beautiful and distinctive church buildings in the city, the new congregation met, at the invitation of Rabbi Morris Newfield, at Temple Emanu-El.
Edmonds pastored Independent Presbyterian until 1942, when he left to become dean of Rollins College in Florida. He returned to Birmingham five years later and lived here until his death in 1960. During that time, he spent three years as pastor of Pilgrim Congregational Church, was a prolific writer of letters to the editors of local newspapers, authored several books, and worked tirelessly for better race relations.
Arthur Shores’ bomb-damaged home, Sept. 5, 1963. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
20. Arthur Shores
One of the first black men to practice law in the state of Alabama – and the first to represent his own clients in court, rather than serve as an assistant counsel to a white attorney – Arthur Shores had a number of indicative nicknames: “The Dean of Black Attorneys” in Alabama; “The Drum Major for Justice;”and, most tellingly, “The Gentle Giant of Dynamite Hill.” Shores’ work on behalf of the NAACP in Alabama began in the ‘30s, when he represented black citizens in voting rights cases around the state. His role as one of the country’s foremost civil rights lawyers only grew as he pled Autherine Lucy’s petition to be enrolled in the University of Alabama before the Supreme Court in 1955, then subsequently represented both Martin Luther King and Fred Shuttlesworth during the Birmingham Movement in 1963.
For his trouble, Shores had his house – built in an area formerly occupied only by whites – bombed twice, in August and September of 1963. Eventually, the area would be called “Dynamite Hill.” Two more attempts were made to bomb the house, but each failed. Despite the threat to his family and his livelihood, Shores persevered with characteristic grace and dignity, eventually serving as a city councilman from 1969 to 1978.
19. Charles Linn
A native of Finland who became a sailor, a businessman, and member of the Confederate Navy, Charles Linn moved to Birmingham in 1871, the year the city was founded, and bought the land at First Avenue and 20th Street North where he started the National Bank of Birmingham. Two years after his death in 1882, the National Bank of Birmingham merged with the City Bank of Birmingham to become the First National Bank. Eventually, it became AmSouth Bank and today, it bears the name Regions Financial Corporation.
Linn’s legacy went beyond his seafaring and banking interests, to include industry; he also founded Linn Iron Works and the Birmingham Car and Foundry Company. In 1873 he became a member of the board of aldermen for the city of Birmingham. A year later he built the first Linn Park, a small public space on land he owned between 19th and 20th Streets, according to the website BhamWiki. The Birmingham Iron-Age, a newspaper at the time, proclaimed that “no prettier spot in our city could have been selected for a park, and we give Mr Linn credit for his judgment in the matter,” according to BhamWiki.
That park fell into disrepair before the turn of the century. The current Linn Park, where the statue now stands, is the original Birmingham park which has been called Central Park, Capitol Park and Woodrow Wilson Park before being renamed for Linn in the 1980s. Today, a statue of Linn stands in the park between Birmingham City Hall and the Jefferson County Courthouse.
Weld’s “Red Dirt” column in 2012 took note of Linn’s final resting place in Oak Hill Cemetery. “On one side of Linn’s mausoleum is a plaque that includes something he said when fewer than 4,000 souls called Birmingham home and its very survival was open to question. … ‘Bury me on the high promontory overlooking the city of Birmingham, in which you men profess to have little faith, so that I may walk out on Judgment Day and view the greatest industrial city in the entire South.’”
18. Retailers and Merchants
Parisian. Pizitz. Loveman’s. Bruno’s. For generations, these stores — and the families who owned them — were synonymous with Birmingham. Like the banks that helped fuel Birmingham’s economic transformation in the 1980s, these stores were homegrown — and, even after they began to grow beyond the bounds of the city, very much “Birmingham” companies that emphasized service to local customers.
Likewise, the leaders of the companies believed in giving back to the community, and through successive generations were among Birmingham’s top corporate citizens. In particular, Parisian’s Hess family (Carl, then Emil, then Donald), along with the Pizitzes (Louis, then Isadore, then Richard and Michael) and the Brunos (brothers Joe and Angelo, and Joe’s son, Ronnie) took strong leadership roles in key organizations and civic and charitable causes.
Downtown merchants and retailers also played a role in the Civil Rights Movement, in many ways caught in the middle between protesters who picketed and boycotted their stores and segregationists who retaliated when they removed “white” and “colored” signs from restrooms and fitting rooms. Later, in the recession of the early 1980s, when the city’s economy was ailing severely, the Hesses and the Brunos helped bolster it when, rather than leave Birmingham for the suburbs as many companies were doing at the time, they built new headquarters and distribution centers in the city-owned Oxmoor West Industrial Park.
Also like the homegrown banks, those stores are gone from Birmingham, swallowed up in mergers and acquisitions. But the names, and the legacy of civic engagement, live on.
17. Samuel Ullman
Today, Samuel Ullman’s home is a museum on Birmingham’s Southside, a tribute to the lasting impact he played in the city’s history. Born in Germany in 1840, Ullman was a businessman, a humanitarian, and a poet whose work “Youth” was a particular favorite of General Douglas MacArthur.
Ullman’s family was Jewish and moved to America to escape discrimination. They settled in Mississippi. After serving in the Confederate Army, Ullman moved to Natchez, married, started a business and entered a life of civic service on the town’s board of aldermen and its board of education.
In 1884, Ullman moved to Birmingham and became a member of the city’s first board of education, where he became known for, among other things, advocating for advancing the education of all students, white and — unpopularly — black. He spearheaded the formation of a high school for black students when he was president of the board of education around the turn of the 20th century, according to the website BhamWiki. “Ullman had long advocated expanding the curriculum for blacks in order that all children might benefit from the moral ‘uplift’ that came from education. His position was both practical and progressive in the context of turn of the century Alabama. It was also increasingly controversial,” notes the website.
Ullman was removed from his post as president of the school board, but he remained a force in many aspects of the civic life of young Birmingham. He owned a hardware store, founded a land business, and was a director of the Birmingham National Bank. In 1889, according to Bham Wiki, Ullman recommended a resolution which passed, for the city to create a library, managed by the board of education. In 1888, he and his wife helped establish Hillman Hospital (now part of UAB).
Ullman also played a significant role in Birmingham’s religious community, becoming president and lay rabbi of Temple Emanu-El. He laid the cornerstone of the temple’s first building and was keynote speaker in 1914 at the dedication of its second. As he grew older, he turned to writing. Besides his poetry, he wrote many letters to the editor of the Birmingham Age-Herald. Today several monuments to his influence remain in Birmingham, including the former Ullman High School — from which scores of students marched during the 1963 Children’s Crusade — now part of the UAB campus, and the Ullman Museum, now managed by UAB.
Emory O. Jackson.
16. Emory O. Jackson
It was possible in the Birmingham of the 1960s to oppose racial segregation and at the same time take a viewpoint which differed from that of Martin Luther King Jr. and Fred Shuttlesworth. And that was the position staked out by Emory O. Jackson, editor of the newspaper the Birmingham World since 1941.
Jackson, first a supporter of Shuttlesworth’s Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, would eventually part ways with the leaders of the mass demonstrations that ultimately forced the end to enforced segregation in Birmingham. King and Shuttlesworth were — for all the popularity of their campaign among Birmingham’s fed-up black citizens — breaking the law. Jackson had long been a staunch believer that blacks could and should work within the law to remove the evil of discrimination.
Born in Georgia, Jackson had moved with his family to Birmingham’s Enon Ridge neighborhood. After graduating from Industrial High School (now Parker), Jackson went on to Morehouse College. After graduation, he returned to Alabama where he taught high school English and coached basketball (a young Richard Arrington was one of his students at Westfield High).
By 1934 Jackson was a sports writer and book reviewer at the World, a paper which reported positive news about blacks, as well as letters protesting discrimination that could not be found in the white press. By 1941, Jackson ,as editor of the World became widely known throughout the South for “The Tip Off,” his column which focused on social justice issues.
“He also covered the news of his time, including the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision; the murder of Emmett Till…; the Montgomery Bus Boycott; and the Freedom Rides, always interpreting the historical significance of these events for his readers,” says the Encyclopedia of Alabama. Jackson, regularly writing about voter rights and the need for nondiscriminatory hiring practices, had come to be known as “The Voice of Black Birmingham.”
As a member of the NAACP, Jackson fought for the rights of black veterans under the G.I. Bill, spearheaded the group’s successful challenge to municipal housing laws that restricted where blacks in Birmingham could live (forcing many to dwell near industrial sites). When that court victory led to the bombing of black homes, Jackson’s paper covered the crimes and the lackluster police investigations which eventually led to as many as 50 “unsolved” bombings in Birmingham, mostly of black homes and churches.
Jackson hid the NAACP’s membership records in his safe when segregationist Gov. John Patterson obtained an injunction to seize them. Their refusal to give up those membership records led to the NAACP being outlawed in Alabama, which led to Shuttlesworth’s creation of the ACMHR.
Jackson opposed marches and other acts of civil disobedience, believing them to be counter productive to the cause of integrating society. But even as the Civil Rights Movement took a different direction under the leadership of King and Shuttlesworth, Jackson kept fighting for the rights of blacks the way he believed through the pages of the World, where he remained editor until his death in 1975.