Birmingham AL: An Unsung City that Owns its Past, Loves its Future

Statue in Kelly Ingram Park, Birmingham, with the inscription, 'We aint' afraid of your jail.'
Statue in Kelly Ingram Park, Birmingham, with the inscription, ‘We ain’t’ afraid of your jail.’

I love unsung cities that cry out for attention and deserve it. That’s been a favorite theme on GoNOMAD and again and again, we find stories that demonstrate examples of places that, once you scratch the surface, are full of interesting foods, people, and sites.

We’ve spent a few days here in Birmingham Alabama and have enjoyed arts, shopping, and scenery, mixed with tasty barbecue and a legacy of redemption. That’s because the city was once the epicenter of the racial struggle in the ’60s and was considered Martin Luther King’s prime target to create racial attitude change.

These days Birmingham is growing more and more diverse, attracting people of all kinds of demographic backgrounds from neighboring states such as Georgia, Florida, and Texas. We went to the Vulcan Center museum, home of a giant iron sculpture placed on a tower high above the city.

Inside, we learned that the Depression hit the city harder than anywhere else in the US. A whopping 100,000 out of 108,000 people here were unemployed. But the city’s steel mills ramped up during the war and saw thousands of women go to work making armaments and bombers.

A park in the city has a statue of MLK with an inscription that described how Birmingham was ‘freed from itself’ to break the bonds of racist attitudes and embrace reconciliation and equality. The people here were honest about being on the wrong side and today own it all and demonstrate a much more tolerant attitude than many cities in the Northeast.

There are many memorials to the civil rights struggles here, including statues of vicious attack dogs used on blacks and a plaque memorializing the four girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church.  I much prefer a city that admits previous wrongs than ones that deny there was ever a problem.

We took in the 18th Street shopping area in Homewood, just outside the center of the city, and scarfed down Chicken with white sauce at SAW’s BBQ, a new place that’s already gained quite a following.  We popped in and out of locally owned stores that offered hot mulled cider and friendly staff checking out antiques, one-of-a-kind artwork, and toys.

We visited a farmer’s market in the parking lot of a former Dr. Pepper plant where we found potholders made like tiny quilts.  The kinds of things you buy that people really remember.  All in Birmingham, Alabama, or as they like to say down here, “Sweet Home Alabama.”