To hear Jerry Desmond revel in tales of Birmingham’s past, one would never imagine he only moved here five years ago.
Desmond is the Birmingham History Center’s executive director. Originally from northern Maine, Desmond speaks fondly of the town he now calls home.
On Dec. 1, the BHC moved into their new office on the fourth floor of the Pythian building on 18th Street North — a building that is not lacking historical significance.
“The Pythian building was built in 1912,” Desmond explained as he sat in his chair, the Birmingham skyline framed by the large windows behind his desk. “It was designed by Wallace Rayfield, who was the most prominent black architect in Birmingham at the time. He also built the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Originally this was designed to be the first penny savings bank for African-Americans.”
The space that the BHC moved into, although historically rich, is not equipped to house the 13,000 artifacts the center has collected over the years.
Until 2013, the BHC leased space in the historic Young & Vann building on First Ave. North. There, according to Desmond, they had about 5,000 square feet and enough space to display the artifacts in their collection.
“We had a 3,000 square-foot exhibit there that covered the history of Birmingham and showed off some of our artifacts and told the continuing story from 1891 to the present,” he said. “When people think Birmingham history, they think iron and steel and they think civil rights. But we just have so many more stories to tell.”
The BHC’s lease was not renewed after the Alabama Media Group bought the building and brought in the offices of AL.com and The Birmingham News.
Since then, the BHC has become somewhat of a nomadic entity with an uncertain future. And preserving the stories of Birmingham’s past has become a little more complicated.
After moving out of the Young & Vann building, the BHC’s collection was put into storage units and the Starlight Room — located next to the Alabama Theatre — would become their temporary office.
“We had offices there, but we were sharing that space with several other groups until this place opened up. Here we just have these three rooms, but it’s a good place for us,” Desmond said as he stepped into a small conference room adjacent to his office.
“This is going to be our headquarters while we begin our capital campaign, to raise money to either buy a building or to build one,” Desmond said. “The problem is we want to stay close to where visitors come. You know that saying, ‘If you build it they will come?’ That’s not true. You got to be where people want to be.”
In a perfect world, Desmond said, the new location for the BHC would be next to the McWane Science Center, which sees roughly 700,000 visitors annually. “If we had one tenth of that, we would be the most successful history museum in Alabama,” Desmond said.
Despite the temporary headquarters, Desmond said they are continuing to add to their collection. “We have people bringing us items every week,” he said, holding up a portrait of Louis Pizitz from the early 1900s. “While they were doing some renovations down at the Pizitz building last week, a contractor found this and came and donated it to us. We get things like this every week. What would happen to these things if no one is here to collect it? That’s what we are here for…but a lot of people don’t know where we are,” Desmond said.
While Birmingham is home to several distinct, narrowly focused museums such as the Civil Rights Institute, Vulcan Museum, the Southern Museum of Flight and the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, there is no general history museum. When the BHC was founded in 2004, Desmond explained, their goal was to bring all the distinct fragments of Birmingham’s history under one roof — a grand exhibit that could tell the entire convoluted tale of the Magic City.
Stories like that of Lou Wooster, Birmingham’s most famous madam. “I think her story may be one of the more interesting stories in Birmingham’s history,” Desmond said with a cheeky grin. “She had a brothel on Fourth Ave…right over here. You can see where it was from this window.
“She moved to Birmingham from Montgomery in about 1872, because she knew Birmingham was going to be the next big thing. If you’re a shrewd businessperson, you’re going to want to be in on the ground floor. And the services she provided were, let’s say, unique,” he said.
Being the savvy businesswoman that she was, according to Desmond, Wooster opened her brothel right next to city hall and the police station, “So it goes without saying that she had plenty of clientele.”
In 1873, Wooster — who claimed to be the girlfriend of John Wilkes Booth and insisted he was still alive and living in India until the day she died — played a pivotal role in caring for the sick during a cholera outbreak that nearly crippled the city. When she died in 1913 she was one of the richest women in Alabama, Desmond said.
“Some even say she was the model for the kind-hearted prostitute, Belle Watling, in Gone with the Wind,” Desmond said.
Wooster’s scrapbook, which contains letters and newspaper articles about John Wilkes Booth, is one of the items in the BHC’s collection.
When asked to describe Birmingham’s history in one word, Desmond said, without hesitation, “entrepreneurship,” noting that Wooster is just one in a long line of people who came to Birmingham with a vision.
He said that Birmingham is here because three minerals under the ground could be used to make iron. “The people who came had a vision, the people who stayed had a vision,” he said.
What’s Desmond’s vison? To finally have a home for the BHC’s artifacts that perhaps otherwise might have been lost along the way, he said. “People, when they hear history museum, typically think, ‘Oh gosh, I hate history, it’s dusty, dark and stuffy.’ What we want is an interactive space where people can be engaged and participate,” Desmond said as he pulled out his laptop.
He remembered a story about John Herbert Phillips, the first superintendent of Birmingham’s schools. On his computer, he pulled up a portrait of Phillips. “In 1887, in a school report, he said Birminghamians are just too busy to be collecting things, but eventually people are going to want to know about our history. We can’t just throw that away or it will be lost forever,” Desmond said, pausing while he looked at the portrait on the screen.
“What’s odd is that this portrait was found in a dumpster. An anonymous citizen left it on our doorstep telling us they had found it in the trash and we would probably want to have it,” Desmond said. “That was in 2010, right after we had opened the museum at the Young & Vann building.”
The rest, he said, is history.
For more information on the Birmingham History Center, visit birminghamhistorycenter.org.