The Ballard House – originally the home and office of one of Birmingham’s first black doctors, now reopened as a center for cultural history – is hosting a series of talks designed to help people share and document recollections and facts about the city’s past that might otherwise be lost.
Community Conversations is one of several efforts underway to preserve Birmingham history, said Majella Hamilton, executive director of the Ballard House Project. A partnership with the archives of the Birmingham Public Library is aimed at building a “collection of documents, recordings and images that convey historical facts about the early history of Birmingham and fill[ing] in the gaps of information, especially the history of the African-American community, and that of the working and middle class populations,” Hamilton said. “These segments made significant contributions to the growth, culture, and progress of the metropolitan area and we must capture and celebrate it before we lose it.”
Hamilton explained to Weld how Community Conversations helps further the goal of preserving the city’s heritage.
Weld: What are Community Conversations?
Majella Hamilton: We are a community of people that does not know enough about its past. Although there may be individual exceptions, I surmise this is true of most of us. The Ballard House Project, Inc. launched Community Conversations in order to bring people together in metro Birmingham to document and celebrate the shared history of our community.
Birmingham is well-known for its civil rights struggle. This is an important chapter in its history, but its rich legacy did not begin, nor end, there. Like revolutions, movements do not exist in a vacuum. The collective agency of a people rarely succeeds in silos. If we are going to solve the issues Birmingham faces today, we have to gather together and begin talking about the obstacles faced, milestones reached, and the impact from different perspectives. At the Ballard House Project, we are fostering an environment to build a renewed community spirit that values the contributions of all segments and works together to move Birmingham forward.
Weld: How did this series come about? When did it start?
Hamilton:For many years, The Ballard House Project has been recording oral histories and ‘collective memories” of people from all walks of life and backgrounds. These personal stories are nothing short of inspiring because they demonstrate the unique strength, innovation, faith, and humanity of Birmingham. Earlier this year, we launched a “Community-wide Collective Memory Program” to gather stories and images that reflect metro Birmingham’s past. Community Conversations is an important facet of this initiative. These personal stories are truly interesting and colorful. They enlighten everyone, spark additional memories, and build a foundation of understanding in all of us, demonstrating the unique strength, innovation and humanity of this special community we call Birmingham.
Weld: What do you hope to accomplish by hosting these events?
Hamilton:In learning how people lived, worked, strategized, socialized and served their communities across the Magic City, we gain insight on the influences, obstacles, principles, and accomplishments of people that shaped and impacted this community. Along with insight, we gain knowledge and inspiration from this rich and vibrant past. Our goal is to create opportunities for intergenerational interaction among diverse groups, assist our community in learning more about its history, and provide a catalyst to connect present issues to the past.
Weld: Tell us about a Community Conversations event that worked. Who led it and who participated?
Hamilton:Often people attend not knowing what they will experience. Usually by the end, all are engaged and inspired by what they’ve learned. I remember one Community Conversation at the Ballard House two years ago, in which former Mayor Richard Arrington, Jr. and [then-]O2 Ideas President Shelley Stewart were interviewed about their memories and perspectives on Birmingham and its struggle for human rights. Also, we’ve gathered childhood friends of neighborhoods, such as Smithfield and Enon Ridge, to recount their memories of Birmingham as children in a rapidly changing community. We’ve hosted Community Conversations on art, culture, food, gardening, education, business development, philanthropy, human trafficking, networking, and more.
Weld: How does this series fit into the overall mission of the Ballard House?
Hamilton:The Ballard House project, Inc. is a 501c3 nonprofit organization dedicated to gathering, documenting, and sharing this history with our community and beyond. Located in the historic Birmingham Civil Rights District, we host educational and cultural workshops, special events, and exhibits that honor, preserve, and showcase the community’s history. Our city was shaped by a human tapestry of individuals, businesses, and organizations. It was this network of support that helped to educate, house, and lift others who came here, seeking a better life. The Ballard House Project is committed to preserving this legacy and sharing it with our community and others.
Community Conversations is supported, among others by the City of Birmingham, Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, Alabama Power Foundation, Mr. and Mrs. Ruffner Page, Protective Life Foundation, Wells Fargo, Dr. and Mrs. Adolphus Jackson. The Ballard House Project is located at 1420 7th Avenue North. For more information visit ballardhouseproject.org.