Birmingham is a young city — many people from outside are astonished to learn that it did not come into existence until after the Civil War — but one with an extremely rich and compelling history. From its very inception to the present day, it has been home to a fascinating assortment of people whose words and deeds made it what it is.
The story of Birmingham is a story of natives and immigrants, entrepreneurs and captains of industry, demagogues and scoundrels and something very close to saints. So many people, working in so many ways to mold and direct Birmingham, to exploit its resources and extol its virtues, to propel it in the direction of greatness or stand as obstacles to its progress.
In this issue and over the next three, Weld is pleased to present its ranking of the people who have been most responsible for shaping the city in which we live today. In identifying those whom we might term the most influential people in the history of Birmingham and winnowing the list down to a “Top 50,” we sought input from various historians, writers and other informed and interested parties. But the ranking is all our own.
And that’s the way we want it. The purpose of this list is to stir discussion, debate and maybe even a bit of controversy. And, without making it sound like a civics lesson, we hope to spark the interest of our readers in just who these people are — and to encourage readers to take the time to agree or disagree with our choices, and perhaps to submit their own.
A few words about the ground rules we followed in compiling the list: First, note that we’re not ranking the “greatest” people in Birmingham’s history, but rather those who have had the most impact, for good or ill — or, as with a good many of our choices, both. Second, while the list is mostly made up of individuals, we elected to include a few small groups of people for their collective impact. In the same vein, we opted not to include large groups such as the “foot soldiers” of the Civil Rights Movement, or institutions such as the University of Alabama at Birmingham or U.S. Steel.
Our ranking will be presented in “countdown” fashion, with this week’s installment presenting Numbers 50 through 31. The Jan. 30 issue will feature Numbers 30 through 16, the Feb. 6 issue Numbers 15 through six, and the Feb. 13 issue the five most influential people in the history of Birmingham. Through their individual lives is told the story of our city.
50. James Hatcher
In the world of Birmingham theater, no figure looms larger than James Hatcher. Nicknamed “Mr. Theatre,” Hatcher founded Town & Gown in 1950, was a founder of the Alabama Council on the Arts and Humanities and directed the Miss Alabama Pageant for nearly 36 years. In 1979, he founded Summer Fest, now Red Mountain Theatre Company.
Known for being both controlling and exclusive, Hatcher also produced highly respected work, collaborating with show business big hitters, like composer Hugh Martin, in his lifetime.
“Anybody who’s not moved from some other place who did theater before 1990 has a connection to him,” says Virginia Samford Theatre Artistic Director Roy Hudson.
Hudson says that Hatcher was “very exacting.” He remembers Hatcher as a man who was difficult to work with, eccentric — “He came back from Italy one time and wore a gondola hat to rehearsal for weeks with a long ribbon in it” — and a visionary.
49. H.H. Grooms
Appointed to the federal bench for the Northern District of Alabama in 1953 — he would serve until his death in 1991 — Judge H.H. Grooms issued three rulings over the following decade that hastened the end of segregation in Birmingham and Alabama. In July 1955, he ruled that the University of Alabama could not deny admission to Autherine Lucy, the first black student to enroll in the school, or to any person based on their race. The Alabama board of trustees subsequently suspended Lucy for the dubious reason of concern for her safety, but Grooms’ ruling stood as law, and he invoked it in 1963 to compel the university to admit Vivian Malone and James Hood, over the “protest” of Gov. George Wallace and his infamous “stand in the schoolhouse door.”
In 1958, Grooms ruled the segregation of white and black passengers on Birmingham city buses to be unconstitutional. In 1961, after the Birmingham City Commission voted to close all public facilities in the city rather than desegregate them, Grooms ordered the commission to reopen them and gave them 60 days to desegregate.
48. John T. “Fess” Whatley
Fess Whatley – the nickname was short for “professor” – taught music for 45 years at Industrial High School (now Parker High). Before his death in 1972, the Dean of Birmingham Jazz’s disciples included “Tuxedo Junction” songwriter Erskine Hawkins, cosmic jazz composer Sun Ra and legendary bassist Cleve Eaton, the greatest living lifeline to that era of Birmingham music.
Some heroes die for their causes, while others live for them, working diligently all the while. An outspoken opponent of Jim Crow, Whatley viewed jazz as a source of pride, hope and career opportunities within Birmingham’s oppressed black community. Between founding Birmingham’s first jazz band, the Jazz Demons, in 1922 and his long career inspiring multiple generations of young musicians, Whatley forever enriched the life of a city still defined foremost by its culture.
47. Emory O. Cunningham and Don Logan
When Progressive Farmer magazine left North Carolina for Birmingham, it sired a legend, the brainchild of publisher Emory Cunningham: Southern Living. From that iconic beginning, Southern Progress became a publishing powerhouse, eventually becoming part of Time Inc.
Employing upwards of 1,500 people in Homewood, SPC created Cooking Light, Health, Coastal Living, Southern Accents, Cottage Living, and a slew of custom-published magazines for companies like Kroger and Neiman-Marcus. SPC’s Oxmoor House published books based on its magazines and other well-known brands. Southern Living branded everything from cookbooks to cruises to television shows to the home-based sales juggernaut Southern Living at Home.
Although widespread layoffs left the company a shadow of its former self, SPC still publishes nationally known magazines. One enduring legacy: legions of writers, editors and photographers now working in other local enterprises, including the Birmingham Barons and B.A.S.S., both owned by former Southern Progress CEO Don Logan, who went on to serve as chairman and CEO of Time Inc. before returning to Birmingham after his retirement in 2005.
46. Wallace A. Rayfield
A native Georgian born during Reconstruction — accounts differ on the precise date and year — Rayfield was a son of the South’s small-but-vital black middle class. Educated at Howard and Columbia universities, he was the second black person in the United States to earn a formal degree in architecture. He moved to Alabama in 1899 at the behest of Booker T. Washington, to direct the architecture department at Tuskegee Institute.
Looking to expand his growing private practice, Rayfield came to Birmingham in 1908. He moved into a handsome house of his own design in the city’s Titusville community, and lived there until his death following a stroke in 1941. During his career, Rayfield designed about 130 buildings — churches, office buildings, residences — in Birmingham alone, and a total of more than 400 for clients in at least 20 states. His most enduring creation is Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the Civil Rights touchstone that is a fine example of the Romanesque style he favored.
45. Nina Miglionico
First, there was Nina Miglionico. Born in 1913, she was one of the first women admitted to the Alabama Bar Association, the first woman elected to the Birmingham City Council and the first woman to serve as its president. Throughout her 73-year legal career and 22-year city council career, she probably fought for you or someone you know. She advocated for, to name a few causes: racial equality, women’s rights, improved parole and prison conditions, better child labor laws, elimination of the poll tax and government reform.
In a 2005 interview, she downplayed her position of firsts, saying, “Isn’t the more important thing the people who follow you? It’s great to be first, to be ‘one,’ but it’s the two and three and four that come after you that is the telling thing.”
The telling thing about “Miss Nina” is this: After her death in 2009, her legacy keeps talking.
44. Michael W. “Mike” Warren
The Pulitzer Prize-winning Alabama historian Wayne Flynt has referred to Mike Warren as a “public corporate executive.” What that means, said the acknowledged authority on Alabama’s galling history of poverty, racial division and educational inequality, is that Warren “tries to use his position to address systemic problems.”
Warren, 66, spent a combined 23 years running Alabama Gas Corporation and then its parent company, Energen. Since 2008, he has been CEO of Children’s of Alabama, spearheading the construction and opening of the $400 million Benjamin Russell Hospital for Children. Besides leading two of Birmingham’s major employers and serving in key volunteer roles for numerous nonprofits, Warren has been a consistently progressive voice in a traditionally conservative local and statewide business community. He says what he thinks, as he did in a 2012 discussion of Alabama’s poor and immigrant populations.
“The tragedy to me is how removed they are from the day-to-day goings-on of Alabama,” Warren said. “There is a great deal of strength there that goes untapped. If we could harness that, we could move Alabama years ahead in a very short period of time.”
43. James A. Head
“If you care about progress,” Jim Head once said, “you just try to do whatever you think might help.”
From the time he opened his eponymous office furniture and supply business in downtown Birmingham in 1926 until his death in 2010 at the age of 106, Head did just that. He was that most unusual creature in the city’s history, the unabashedly liberal businessman — one who had the unyielding respect, if rarely the agreement, of his more conservative brethren.
Head co-founded the local chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews in the late 1920s, and found himself threatened by the Ku Klux Klan. He advocated for diversifying Birmingham’s economy and labor force after World War II. He chaired the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce in 1955, using his position to involve the Chamber in the issue of indigent care. He was outspoken in his opposition to segregation, and while that was enough to keep him out of the “inner circle” of local business leaders, he nonetheless influenced the evolution of the business community on that issue. Again and again, Head put himself on the line to help move Birmingham forward.
42. John Joseph Eagan
John Joseph Eagan grew Birmingham business like the Georgia soil from which he came. Born in 1870, at age 21 the exemplary student and entrepreneur grew a $6,000 inheritance to $73,000 and at 29 added another $750,000 from his uncle’s estate. Using his ample fortune, in 1905 he co-founded the Birmingham-based American Cast Iron Pipe Company (ACIPCO) with local businesswoman Charlotte Blair — long before women in business were common.
A devout Christian, Eagan believed in the Golden Rule and strove to show that good business could reflect those principles, not discriminating based on skin color or socioeconomic status. He invested in his employees, adopting progressive labor practices such as worker safety programs, overtime and sick leave. He built housing, schools, churches and other institutions for his workers, and when he died in 1924, he left them the company and Birmingham a legacy.
41. Milton Grafman
Rabbi of Birmingham’s Temple Emanu-El from 1941 to 1975, Grafman, in the words of a 1966 tribute in The Birmingham News, “made a mighty impact on the whole life of the city.” Acknowledged as “a man of tremendous energy and vitality…completely dedicated to his congregation,” he was also a prominent civic leader, especially devoted to interfaith relations.
At the height of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham, Grafman was one of the eight local clergymen who signed an open letter to Martin Luther King, urging him to end demonstrations in the city and take a more moderate approach to advancing the Movement’s objectives. That provided the impetus for King’s seminal “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which admonished white moderates for their lack of courage. King’s admonition notwithstanding, Grafman helped solidify local Jewish support for integration. His sermon after the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in 1963 was a soulful cry of shame and remorse, a call to action in the face of senseless tragedy.
“It’s time to stand up and be counted,” Grafman told his congregation. “It is time to do things. It is time to pay the price, whether it is in personal safety and security or whether it is in money. The question is, are you ready to pay the price, because if you are not, God help this city.”
40. Warren Knight & Davis
The Birmingham Museum of Art. The Alabama Power Building. The Watts Building. Independent Presbyterian Church. Ramsay High School. These are a few of the iconic Birmingham structures designed by the architectural firm of Warren Knight & Davis.
More than any other firm or individual, the partnership of William Tilman Warren, Eugene Herbert Knight and John Eayres Davis shaped the skyline and physical presence of Birmingham over the first six decades of the 20th century. Prior to going into business with Knight in 1917 — Davis joined the firm as a partner in 1921 — Warren had also been involved in the design of the Empire Building, Southside Baptist Church and the original Birmingham Chamber of Commerce building, now known as Jemison Flats.
Warren Knight & Davis also was responsible for some of the most distinctive residences in the city — many of which survive today — and at one time was the designer of more than half of the public school buildings in Birmingham.
39. Dr. James Andrews
If you need evidence to show that Dr. James Andrews is the biggest name in sports medicine today, just take a look at his client list. He’s consulted with Michael Jordan, the greatest professional basketball player ever; Peyton Manning, perhaps the greatest professional football player ever; Bo Jackson, perhaps college football’s greatest player and America’s most gifted athlete; Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer in the history of Major League Baseball; Tiger Woods, one of the greatest golfers ever; and the list goes on.
Birmingham’s success is often gauged, rightly or wrongly, in relative terms – our music scene gets compared to Nashville and Atlanta, our food scene to New Orleans. Dr. Andrews, however, is without a doubt the towering rock star in his field, and he might be the only Birminghamian alive who is considered genuinely unparalleled at his or her chosen profession.
38. Lucius Pitts
As president of Miles College for the decade between 1961 and 1971, Lucius Pitts played a pivotal role in pre-King Civil Rights efforts, namely by supporting students who were protesting segregation.
In 1962, he organized meetings between Miles students and members of the business community, seeking to win some concessions from the merchants. When the concessions didn’t go far enough, Pitts’ students began the Selective Buying Campaign, essentially boycotting businesses that supported segregation.
When the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference joined forces to create mass protests in 1963, Pitts was a member of the organization’s Central Committee. Pitts also is credited with getting the college’s finances in order so that in 1969 it could become accredited.
37. Henry M. Caldwell
The Elyton Land Company founded Birmingham in 1871. Four years later, Caldwell, an original shareholder in the company, became its second president. He held that position until his death in 1895.
Under Caldwell’s leadership, Elyton Land Company vigorously promoted the growth of Birmingham, developing real estate — including the Highland Avenue area, where Caldwell Avenue and Caldwell Park bear his name — and investing in blast furnaces, manufacturing facilities and the city’s railroad and streetcar systems. Caldwell and the company also played a major role in the development of the Birmingham Water Works. Three years before his death, he wrote with pride and astonishment of the city that had grown up around him:
Our population since 1886 has been more than doubled; our merchants have increased immensely their trade, and are now shipping goods into a dozen States; our everlasting hills and valleys, with their limitless wealth of coal and iron…have been found by further exploration to be vastly more extensive than was ever dreamed of.
36. Frank Stitt
Frank Stitt brings culinary magic to the Magic City. The chef, restaurateur and author was born in Cullman, AL, in 1954 and left the South after his 1972 high school graduation. The former philosophy major worked in France, where his legacy began to form: his unique marriage of French techniques with Southern cuisine results in pinkeye hand cakes, squab with redeye gravy, and diners who say “I do.”
His work continues to inspire local chefs and receive accolades, including the James Beard Foundation’s 2001 “Best Chef in the Southeast.”
His beginnings were modest. Unable to secure a bank loan for a restaurant, he opened Highlands Bar and Grill in 1982 with money from his mother’s remortgaged house. Today the restaurant thrives – along with his Chez Fonfon, Bottega Restaurant and Bottega Café.
When not running restaurants or winning awards, he passionately supports the Birmingham local food movement. Birmingham passionately supports him back.
35. Vincent Townsend
Townsend was executive editor of The Birmingham News during the most turbulent times in Birmingham’s history. In many ways, he embodied the reluctant evolution of Birmingham’s white power structure during the years of the Civil Rights Movement. He — and the city’s newspaper of record — went from benignly ignoring glaring issues, to viewing the demonstrations in Birmingham as purely a public relations problem, to understanding that the city had to change or die.
For much of that time, Townsend worked hard behind the scenes to manage and even attempt to orchestrate the publicity Birmingham received from the national media. Yet, as late as the spring of 1961, he could state with no apparent irony that there had been “no real disturbances in Birmingham.” As Diane McWhorter recounts in her Civil Rights Era memoir Carry Me Home, whenever Townsend’s friend Jim Head suggested that the News take the lead in agitating for racial progress, the editor told him, “Head, you’re too idealistic. You’ve got to be realistic.”
As did most of the white elite in general, Townsend changed course for good after the brutal Klan-led attack on Freedom Riders at the Birmingham Trailways bus station on Mother’s Day 1961. He and the News were strong supporters of the effort in 1962-63 that changed Birmingham’s form of government and rid the city of Bull Connor.
34. Oscar W. Adams Jr.
Civil Rights attorney Oscar Adams became the first black Supreme Court justice in Alabama and in 1982, the first African-American elected to statewide constitutional office.
Graduating from Howard University School of Law in 1947, Adams returned to Birmingham, was admitted to the Alabama State Bar and, in 1967, founded the state’s first black law firm. Adams made his name representing Civil Rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Fred Shuttlesworth, as well as their organizations, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, as well as the NAACP.
Adams was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1980, was elected two years later, and remained on the bench until he retired and returned to practice in 1993. He died of complications from cancer in 1997 after a distinguished career of five decades.
33. Abe Berkowitz
A tough man during tough times, Berkowitz was a product of the University of Alabama School of Law who became a leader of Birmingham’s Jewish community and an outspoken proponent for social justice in the community at large. He also mentored numerous young lawyers who also contributed to the shaping of Birmingham, including future Mayor David Vann.
It was Berkowitz’s public challenge of the Ku Klux Klan’s 1948 “raid” on a biracial group of Girl Scout counselors at Camp Fletcher in western Jefferson County that broke the Klan’s open political power in Alabama. He led a forceful Birmingham coalition that pressed successfully for passage of an anti-masking measure that Gov. Jim Folsom signed into law in 1949.
Berkowitz — along with Vann and business leader Sidney Smyer — also spearheaded the formation of Citizens for Progress, the organization that ran the successful 1962 referendum to change Birmingham’s form of government. As a result, the subsequent municipal election in 1963 ended Bull Connor’s career in city government.
32. Carol W. Hayes
During the decades of official segregation in Birmingham, the education of black children was more or less an afterthought for the city fathers. Fortunately for those children, the city’s leadership appointed Carol W. Hayes as the “Director of Negro Schools” and fairly well left him alone to do his job.
Few, if any, would have been better suited for it. Hayes was a strong leader who demanded academic excellence. To achieve it, he hired principals and teachers who shared his view that the disparity in resources allocated to black schools should not be an excuse for failure. As a result, Birmingham’s segregated black schools produced the likes of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; Freeman Hrabowski, one of the most respected educators in the nation and one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world in 2012; education reformer Alma Powell (whose father, R.C. Johnson, was the longtime principal of Parker High School); and political activist Angela Davis.
31. Mervyn and Dorah Sterne
Friends of Mervyn Sterne said he was a man who believed in paying “civic rent” — this according to records in the UAB Sterne Library, which was named to honor the financial advisor whose work influenced and funded public schools, state and county facilities, hospitals, welfare programs and more.
A volunteer for both World Wars, his list of charitable endeavors is remarkable, serving on numerous boards and committees and as the first chair of the Birmingham United Jewish Fund. As a member of Birmingham’s Interracial Committee in the 1950s, Sterne helped to desegregate office building elevators.
His wife, Dorah, was a dominant figure in the civic community as well, advocating for women and minority rights. “I think one reason that people have enjoyed growing up with a city like Birmingham is, you know, you feel a part of it when you work hard to establish various programs,” she told an interviewer in 1981.
Next issue: We rank numbers 30 through 16.
Weld staff contributed to this report.