The welcome mat is worn out at the historic, pre-Civil Rights structure known as the Ballard House, a testament to the home’s pivotal role in the community for generations. A project to restore the house and transform it into a living snapshot of African-American life leading up to the Civil Rights Movement is well underway.
Majella Hamilton is in charge of the Ballard House Project, a designated nonprofit organization whose aim is to renovate and rejuvenate the structure that will eventually serve as a hub for knowledge and celebration of the rich history of Birmingham’s African-American community.
“These stories — ones of professionals, entrepreneurs, laborers, how these people lived and interacted with the community — these are the stories we want to tell,” Hamilton said, flashing a high-wattage smile, a byproduct of her passion for the project. “We want this to be a center of activity for people to come to and learn, as well as host monthly events like workshops, book readings and seminars. Basically we want it to be a modern-day cultural space, where every aspect of the house is being utilized.”
The house, which was constructed in 1940 by Dr. Edward H. Ballard, a black pediatrician who at the time was one of the primary doctors for the African-American community, is situated on 7th Avenue North in the shadow of the Birmingham city skyline. The old brick and the original windows serve as a structural postcard from a more constricted time in Birmingham’s past.
“At some point in time he [Dr. Ballard] was trained to deliver babies. During this time, women of color were not allowed to have their child in a hospital,” Hamilton said. During one particular incident, a woman was turned away from a hospital and was forced to deliver her baby on the sidewalk. Instances like this were nothing short of commonplace in Birmingham and eventually the public outcry became deafening. Soon, Ballard’s house became a welcome luxury for mothers trying to bring their babies into the segregated world they called home.
“After the woman was turned away from a hospital because of her color, there was an outrage. It’s our understanding that a group of black and white doctors got together and selected a very limited number of African-American physicians and trained them to become obstetricians, so Dr. Ballard began to deliver babies as well,” Hamilton said.
Ballard’s practice continued to grow amid oppressive conditions in Birmingham that forced the black community to seek alternative healthcare options. In the early 1950s, he decided to leave Birmingham and relocated to California.
Now, just as they have been since 1940, Ballard’s old bay windows overlook a sprawling yard. This will be the site of a vegetable and flower garden that Hamilton plans on completing. The garden, much like the home itself, will focus on the importance of sustainability and art during the darker days of Birmingham, she said.
“Many of the plants will be the same ones that people back then could get locally and share with their neighbors. It’s important for us that the garden is one that honors that past,” Hamilton said.
Inside, there is broad staircase leading up to the second floor, which according to Hamilton, used to serve as a makeshift meeting hall for the foot soldiers during the Civil Rights Movement. After Ballard’s departure from the MagicCity, the house changed hands several times before falling into the possession of Dr. Herschel L. Hamilton, Majella’s late father-in-law.
One of the pictures in her collection features Martin Luther King Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth and others walking somberly in the funeral procession for three of the four child victims of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing. “During the Civil Rights Movement people would gather here and the house really played a role in organizing the community. So our goal of this project is to make this a gathering place,” Hamilton said, reveling in her family’s ties to the house.
Another goal of the Ballard House Project is to provide an oral history of the house itself, as well as the community it has been a part of for 73 years now. According to Hamilton, “The building is one of the few surviving structures constructed prior to the Civil Rights Movement that has remained in continuous use as a residence and office space. It’s considered one of the earlier ‘live-work’ structures, and it maintains much of its original configuration and handcrafted detail.”
Majella’s husband, Herschell, the son of Dr.Herschell L. Hamilton, is also overseeing the project and believes that maintaining the oral history of the house is just as vital as the physical renovations that are underway. “We’ve already gathered a number of stories from people who attended parties here, and gathered here. We really want to expand that idea of oral history here. It goes along with just exposing the community to things and stories they may not know about,” Hamilton said.
For him, renovating the existing house isn’t enough. He and his wife want to make the Ballard House an active, educational part of the community, a living snapshot of a Birmingham most of people won’t remember.