Weld’s review of the “50 Who Shaped Birmingham” has already counted down through Numbers 50-31 and Numbers 30-16. This week, it’s Numbers 15-6 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.
15. Frank Spain
In a letter Frank Spain penned to friend and fellow Rotary Club leader, Joe Caulder of Ontario, Canada, in 1952, Spain wrote, “Certainly you are right when you say that the key to Rotary work is the quality of men who are interested in becoming district governors.”
The quality (and sheer quantity) of Spain’s work is often noted by historians and those who knew him well. Caulder, in a letter to Rotary members, called Spain “a man of action.” It took a young Spain just 18 months to complete the three-year law program at the University of Alabama in 1912. Just five years later, he became Birmingham’s Assistant City Attorney but left the position to serve in World War I. Upon his return, Spain joined the law group that would become the distinguished Spain, Gillon firm.
Though Spain served many roles in his life — lawyer, civic leader, humanitarian — and his philanthropic investments have impacted nonprofits across four decades and five countries, he came from humble beginnings. Born in 1891, Spain’s father was a Methodist minister. His mother played organ in the church.
Spain served as vice president for Liberty National Life Insurance Company and as general counsel for many of the prominent Birmingham businesses of his time. He climbed the ranks of the Rotary Club, serving in numerous positions, and eventually acting as president of Rotary International.
Of Spain’s multimillion dollar contributions to the Birmingham community, his local humanitarian efforts are best realized with the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham and the Spain Rehabilitation Center at UAB.
In a November, 2012 blog post, the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham wrote, “As community leaders and lovers of education, the Spains saw the potential of bringing the University of Alabama Medical Center to what was then a bustling center for manufacturing. As two of UAB’s earliest benefactors, they worked during their lifetime to prepare for a future when the skyline would include more skyscrapers than smokestacks.”
Spain enjoyed traveling with his wife, Margaret Cameron Spain, and he enjoyed photography as a hobby (he is said to have paid his way through law school by taking portraits of campus groups).
Spain’s family continued to follow in his philanthropic footsteps. His daughter, Peggy Spain McDonald, served as the first Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham chair.* His granddaughter, Cameron McDonald Vowell, has worked with numerous social and environmental organizations.
14. Robert Jemison, Jr.
As a shaper of the physical landscape of Birmingham, Jemison stands alone. His first big deal as a young real estate developer came in 1898, when he brokered acquisition of the site for the Country Club of Birmingham. Well before his 40th birthday, Jemison had developed the neighborhoods of Glen Iris and Forest Park, and also was responsible for such downtown landmarks as the Empire Building, the original Tutwiler Hotel and the Ridgely Apartments (which became the “new” Tutwiler in 1986).
During the 1920s, Jemison developed the Ensley Highlands neighborhood, helped the city of Birmingham assemble the site of what is now Boutwell Auditorium and created the company town of Fairfield for U.S. Steel/TCI. He also began developing Mountain Brook as a residential area, and built Mountain Brook Village and the Mountain Brook Club to serve the affluent citizens it attracted.
In the 1930s, Jemison brokered site acquisitions for Ramsay High School and the Jefferson County Courthouse, and started development of the Bush Hills neighborhood. When the local real estate market withered under the Depression, he became director of the Alabama Division of the Federal Housing Authority. As former Birmingham News reporter Christopher M. Scribner recounted in his book, Renewing Birmingham (2002), Jemison wanted to use FHA funds to clear what then was a slum area around the new courthouse and acquire land for a new neighborhood where blacks could buy homes with government-backed mortgages (an initiative intended to complement the market-driven development of Smithfield and Titusville, two other black middle-class communities in the segregated city).
Housing bureaucrats ultimately rejected Jemison’s application because it lacked public housing, Scribner wrote. His bold stroke…proved ahead of its time. Not until the 1950s did federal housing shift its focus to commercial redevelopment.
By that time, Jemison’s focus was on efforts to ensure the long-term vitality of downtown Birmingham in the face of increasing suburbanization — “paradoxically,” Scribner noted, since Jemison had been at the forefront of the movement toward and over Red Mountain from the urban core of the city. But, along with other forward-thinking businessmen like Elton B. Stephens and Louis Pizitz, he saw the importance of a strong downtown, and started the Birmingham Downtown Improvement Association in 1957. The forerunner of Operation New Birmingham and today’s REV Birmingham, the BDIA, like other such progressive efforts of that era, was blunted by the city’s racial climate.
Jemison’s last civic hurrah came in 1958, when at the age of 80 he chaired a committee that proposed to bring Mountain Brook and Homewood into the city of Birmingham. After a campaign that came to be dominated by the question of school integration, voters in each suburb rejected annexation.
13. George Gordon Crawford
When U.S. Steel bought Birmingham-based Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company in 1907, America’s largest business enterprise immediately became the predominant economic and political force in the Magic City. It would remain so for roughly the next 75 years, the first two-plus decades of that under the leadership of George Gordon Crawford.
Born on a Georgia plantation, educated at Georgia Tech — where he was part of the first graduating class in 1890 — and in Germany, Crawford was still in his late 30s when he came to Birmingham as president of TCI. For both better and worse, his tenure firmly established the dynamic that prevailed between U.S. Steel, its employees and numerous elements — social and political, as well as economic — in the community at large.
Arriving in Birmingham, Crawford took over a company that had a 400 percent turnover rate among its employees, largely due to the abominable living conditions to which TCI had subjected them. As described in the book From Civil War to Civil Rights, in the company’s employee quarters, “people were living in a swampy wilderness with primitive sanitary facilities and polluted water supplies. Malaria was a common occurrence.”
Implementing the “welfare capitalism” philosophy of U.S. Steel’s leader, Judge Elbert Gary, Crawford made employee health and stability a top priority. He reimagined the company town, adding recreational facilities and schools that attracted highly qualified teachers with salaries supplemented by the company; at its height, the TCI school system included eight white and 14 black schools that “provided equal facilities and equipment for both races in contrast to the practice elsewhere in [Alabama].”
Crawford also encouraged the development of community-based activities in the company towns. He personally recruited Dr. Lloyd Noland to establish and oversee a comprehensive employee health program that eventually included a company hospital. And he stopped the use of “convict leasing” — in which industrial companies saved on labor costs by leasing convicts from state prisons for pennies a day — in 1911, well before public outcry led the state to abandon the system in 1928.
Critics charged that TCI’s programs were simply a means of keeping its workforce stable and wages low — and discouraging any attempts to unionize its employees. Undoubtedly, there was a substantial measure of truth in this, but the late Alabama historian W. Davis Lewis hailed Crawford’s “pragmatic policies” that “combin[ed] hardheaded business sense with humanitarianism.”
On the other side of the ledger, Crawford used TCI’s position and influence to keep most of its property outside the city limits of Birmingham. In doing so, he not only avoided local taxes and regulation on the company, but deprived city government of substantial revenues that could have helped raise the standard of living in the community at large.
12. George Ward
Known politically as a true progressive and personally as an eccentric, George Ward was the 13th mayor of Birmingham and later the first president of the Birmingham City Commission.
Ward was instrumental during his brief time as mayor in the development and betterment of a number of public interests, from education to public parks, from sewer construction to city beautification. Later, as the commission president, Ward attempted to stave off financial crisis for the Greater Birmingham area, but it was his well-curated efforts to encourage the public’s involvement in the beautification programs that sealed his legacy as a leader in Birmingham.
By way of Atlanta, George Ward’s parents arrived in Birmingham in 1871, shortly after the city’s founding. His early career was in banking, including the investment company he and John M. Caldwell founded in 1900. Elected mayor in 1907, Ward authored the city’s first municipal code. In order to combat Birmingham’s reputation as disorderly and uncivilized, the mayor mailed copies of the sanitation laws to citizens, enacted strict regulations against saloons (eventually advocating for prohibition) and funded the police and fire departments to increase public safety. Under his leadership, the city purchased the 100 acres of green space now known as George Ward Park.
As the progressive movement garnered followers in 1913, Ward was elected as the President of Birmingham City Commission, where his primary task was to increase revenue. The city was growing rapidly, as were its debts, which Ward attributed to low taxes and the acquired debt of newly annexed municipalities. As the budget belt tightened, the results were evident: public programs and services were closed, including the zoo.
It was then that Ward focused his attentions on the beautification efforts — his own contribution being the manor that sat atop the ridge of Shades Mountain. Named Vestavia after the Roman Temple of Vesta, the unusual homestead eventually lent its name to the city of Vestavia Hills.
11. The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombers
This list of 50 people who shaped Birmingham has been almost unanimously filled with people who have made positive contributions to the life of the city. But this list is about the people who made the biggest impact on Birmingham for good or ill, and Bobby Frank Cherry, Thomas Blanton, Herman Frank Cash and Robert Chambliss provide helpful examples of the very worst that this city is capable of.
As members of the Cahaba Boys offshoot of the Klan, the four men had been involved in earlier bombings which had contributed to Birmingham’s national ill-repute, but they – and Birmingham’s “Bombingham” identity – reached their climax on the morning of Sept. 15, 1963, when they planted a box of dynamite on a timer beneath Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. The church was to hold a service led by children that day, with a sermon entitled “The Love That Forgives.” Instead, the bomb went off at 10:22 a.m., injuring 22 children and killing four young girls: Denise McNair, 11, and Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, all 14. Two more black youths, 16-year-old Johnny Robinson and 13-year-old Virgil Ware, died later that day amid the outcry of black Birmingham.
“Dynamite Bob” Chambliss, perhaps the vilest of the four, was identified as having planted the bomb, but ultimately only received a $100 fine and a six-month jail sentence for possession of 122 sticks of dynamite. Indeed, it wasn’t until the case was reopened in 1971 by then-Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley that any of the four bombers faced serious consequences for their actions.
A tireless, fearless prosecutor – his famous response to Klan threats at reopening the case, printed on his official stationery, was “kiss my ass” – Baxley proved the right man for bringing the bombers to justice. In 1977, the 73-year-old Chambliss was found guilty and condemned to life in prison, where he died in 1985. Herman Frank Cash died in the interim, but Thomas Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry were both sentenced to life in prison in 2001.
Their damage had already been done, though. Whatever good the bombing did in garnering international sympathy for the Civil Rights Movement, it remains one of the most traumatic acts of domestic terrorism in the history of the United States, and the source of Birmingham’s deepest scars.
10. Henry DeBardeleben
Henry DeBardeleben worked in the coal mining industry from the end of the Civil War until his death in 1910. The son-in-law of industrial entrepreneur Daniel Pratt, DeBardeleben broke out from the shadow of his father-in-law’s legacy when he founded Bessemer in 1887.
The death of Henry DeBardeleben’s father in 1850 was the catalyst for young DeBardeleben to leave his family farm in Montgomery County. Before he was 18, he was living with family friends, the Pratts, and working for Pratt in various endeavors. He volunteered for the army in 1861 and fought at the Battle of Shiloh for the Confederacy. Returning home, at 23, he married Pratt’s daughter, Ellen, and began his career in coal.
Considered a pioneering Alabama industrialist, DeBardeleben held many positions in the Pratt Company, including management of the reconstruction of the Oxmoor furnace in Birmingham in the early 1870s. Later in the decade, he partnered with Truman Aldrich and James Sloss to found Pratt Coal and Coke Company on land purchased from William Gould and named for DeBardeleben’s father-in-law, land now known as Pratt City.
The “Pratt seam” satisfied the Elyton Land Company’s need for coal as the company promoted the young city of Birmingham. During this time, his acquisition of mineral-rich land in the Birmingham area became the largest industrial pursuit in the South. By 1881, DeBardeleben sold the company to Enoch Ensley and moved briefly to Mexico.
Upon his return, he founded the Bessemer Land and Improvement Company and acquired roughly 4,000 acres of surrounding land. As Bessemer burgeoned, he continued to work with the Improvement Company and to pursue his industrial interests, but ultimately he sold out to the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company. After failed attempts to regain control of the company, DeBardeleben begin mining with his sons in St. Clair County and in the Acton Basin.
With his first wife, Ellen, DeBardeleben had seven children. He married Katherine McCrossin after Ellen’s death in 1894.
9. Bull Connor
Theophilus Eugene Connor has gone down in history as one of the most notorious villains in the history of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham, but is better known by the nickname which has become synonymous with iron-fisted racial segregation: Bull Connor.
Born in 1897, Connor became Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety — the commander of the city’s police and fire departments, and the archenemy of both Fred Shuttlesworth and Martin Luther King while the two fought for integration of public accommodations, including schools, the parks, department store lunch counters and so on. It was Bull Connor who turned the police dogs and firehoses on the hundreds of demonstrators, including school children, who took to Birmingham’s streets in 1963 to protest. Apparently not realizing how the civil rights leaders were using his unrelenting and violent opposition to make their case on the national and international stage, Connor gave television audiences someone to root against, and he has become an enduring symbol of his era.
His Wikipedia entry sums up how his hardline against civil rights played out:
“His aggressive tactics backfired when the spectacle of the brutality being broadcast on national television served as one of the catalysts for major social and legal change in the southern United States and helped in large measure to assure the passage by the United States Congress of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” it says.
Connor’s influence on Birmingham was ultimately not the kind that earned him a statue or a favorable reputation, but he was, in his day, a successful politician. A high school dropout, he held down jobs as a telegraph operator (like his father), a salesman and a sports radio announcer. In 1934, Connor won a seat in the Alabama House, before running for the public safety commissioner position in Birmingham and winning it for the first time in 1937. He also served as a delegate in five Democratic National Conventions, and in 1948, he helped create the splinter group called the Dixiecrats who were opposed to Pres. Harry S. Truman’s civil rights policies.
In December 1951, Connor was arrested after being caught in a hotel room with his secretary after a Christmas party. The arrest was captured by an image that appeared on the front page of local newspapers, and Connor claimed he had been set up. He was convicted, but the conviction was thrown out on appeal and Connor returned to the office of public safety commissioner in 1957.
He used his authority to protect white supremacists on the Birmingham Police force and in the Klan. Connor was instrumental in keeping the police from interfering when plainclothes Klansmen attacked Freedom Riders in 1961. In time, Birmingham citizens of all races turned against Connor and voted him out of office, changing the city government to a mayor-council form as it is today.
Connor’s reputation as a racist did not prevent him from being elected to two terms on the Alabama Public Service Commission. He served in that capacity from 1964 to 1973 when, on March 10, he died of a stroke.
8. A.G. Gaston
A.G. Gaston’s humble origins belie his eventual position as the most successful black businessman in Birmingham’s history. Born in a log cabin in Demopolis in 1892, Gaston got involved in business at an early age, selling rides on a tree swing in his family’s backyard in exchange for buttons. After a brief stint as a miner when he returned from service in the First World War, Gaston got into the funeral business, founding the tellingly named Booker T. Washington Funeral Society.
Gaston successfully bargained the society’s way out of an early demise, then navigated it into the thriving Smith and Gaston Funeral Home. He expanded into other enterprises, including an insurance company, a savings and loan bank, two radio stations, a business college and his famous A.G. Gaston Motel. By midcentury, the grandson of a slave had become a multimillionaire.
Gaston’s success was due in no small part to a personal philosophy deeply influenced by the message of Booker T. Washington, who encouraged black men to seek out economic equality with whites before they attempted to achieve social equality. Indeed, Gaston was the living embodiment of Washington’s notion of “self-help,” overcoming the poverty and oppression he was born into to become a titan of black business and a leader of the community.
Gaston’s conservatism put him in a difficult, complex position, however, with the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Using his influence as a trustee of Miles College, Gaston discouraged students from staging a sit-in protest in 1962, which was just one instance of Gaston’s larger commitment to mitigating or avoiding outright confrontation. Because of his apparently lukewarm commitment to the Movement, Gaston was decried by more radical members as an Uncle Tom.
Yet Gaston used his considerable means to support the Movement, in his own way. He housed Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy at his motel and encouraged Fred Shuttlesworth’s involvement in planning sessions. When King broke an injunction against marching in Birmingham, it was the alleged Uncle Tom Gaston who paid his $160,000 bail, then helped bring about a peaceful settlement to the Birmingham Campaign.
Gaston died in 1996 at the age of 103, but his civic involvement and philanthropy continue to enrich the city with the A.G. Gaston Boys & Girls Club. Just as importantly, that program, devoted to helping children from tough backgrounds achieve their potential, shows that Gaston’s belief in moderation and self-improvement lives on in Birmingham, too.
7. Joseph F. Volker
Healthy teeth around the world owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. Joseph F. Volker, whose scientific research showed how fluoride was instrumental in preventing tooth decay. As the chief operating officer for the University of Alabama’s Birmingham-based activities, Volker was influential in the growth of Alabama’s medical programs, as well as the state’s research and educational efforts. During the civil rights era, Volker played a key role in desegregating the city’s Medical Center.
Historians say Volker abandoned his passion for the liberal arts as a young man during the Great Depression in order to pursue a more viable career in dentistry. A New Jersey native, Volker was the first dean of the University of Alabama’s Birmingham-based new dental school in 1948.
By 1963, Volker was the university vice president in charge of the Medical Center in Birmingham. The Birmingham Chamber of Commerce developed a strong relationship with Volker as leaders cultivated the university board of trustees and executive leadership in hopes of creating Birmingham’s own university. The Chamber recognized that Birmingham’s University Medical Center and the Medical College of Alabama had been an under-supported and underutilized economic resource in the early 1960s — as did Volker. A few days before Christmas in 1965, that year’s chamber chair, the third generation Coca-Cola bottler Crawford Johnson III called a special meeting of the Chamber of Executive Committee for the purpose of discussing the possibility of obtaining for Birmingham a four-year, degree-granting college to share a campus with the medical school. At the meeting, Johnson introduced Volker, who proposed “University of Alabama-Birmingham.”
At the time, only 35 percent of county high school graduates who graduated in the top half of their class went on to attend college, and only 18 percent of college aged residents were enrolled in college. Those numbers were drastically lower than other Southern cities.
Just a few weeks after Volker’s proposal, officials approved the plan and began outlining Birmingham’s university — something UA president Frank Rose said had actually been in the works for a decade and was accelerated when Volker became director of the Medical Center.
Dr. Volker became the first university president at UAB in 1969. In 1976, Volker became the first chancellor of the three-campus University of Alabama System.
A member of numerous medical and humanitarian societies, and the recipient of more than a dozen honorary degrees, Volker fathered three children with his wife, Juanita “Neet” Berry, a nurse known for years as “the First Lady” of UAB. Volker died in 1989 at University Hospital.
6. Sidney Smyer
As the longtime president of Birmingham Realty Company, Smyer made his fortune in real estate. More importantly to the city’s history, he was the primary agent of the evolution of attitudes toward the Civil Rights Movement among Birmingham’s white business elite — and of the referendum that led to the 1963 change in governmental structure that helped expel Bull Connor from city government.
The most influential businessman in Birmingham, Smyer was an unlikely candidate for the role of reformer. He was politically conservative and a staunch believer in segregation. As a member of the Alabama House of Representatives from 1934 to 1942, he advocated against government-subsidized housing and helped lead a successful campaign to defeat a city bond issue that would have supported sorely needed improvements in municipal services.
In 1948, he was a prominent supporter of the “Dixiecrats” who broke with the national Democratic Party over racial issues and, meeting in Birmingham, nominated the segregationist South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond for president. As late as 1955, as a member of the layman’s association at Highlands Methodist Church, Smyer sent a letter to a Methodist newspaper castigating the editor for refusing to publish pro-segregation material the layman’s group had submitted.
Beginning in the late ’50s, however, Smyer underwent an extraordinary personal transformation that culminated with his reaction, while at a Rotary International convention in Tokyo in May 1961, to seeing images of the savage Klan-led beating of Freedom Riders at Birmingham’s downtown Trailways bus station. He was the first to admit that his “conversion” was based on his pecuniary interest as a real estate developer, the realization that Birmingham had to change or die economically. (“I might be a segregationist,” he famously said on more than one occasion, “but I’m not a damn fool.”)
“Smyer was the only person who could have done what he did in Birmingham at that time,” said the unabashedly liberal James A. Head, a close friend and confidant of Smyer’s, despite their political differences. “When he talked, [Birmingham’s corporate leaders] had to listen.”
Smyer’s civic career was a journey of evolution and enlightenment by a man who possessed two qualities rarely seen in conservative men who accumulate considerable power: the ability to confront his own flaws, and the willingness to place his own status and reputation on the line for the greater good of the community. He played a decisive role in moving Birmingham forward on issues of race, thus altering the course of its history.
*Correction (2/10/14, 8:31 p.m.): Peggy Spain McDonald is not the acting chair of the Community Foundation, having passed away in 1996. That title belongs to Robert Holmes Jr.