Railroad Park and Mayor Bell notwithstanding, Birmingham is always going to be one unusual place to be. Not bat-guano crazy like Mobile, nor obsessive-compulsive like Huntsville, our town will forever present us with some unmistakable municipal neuroses, most of which (e.g., tapas restaurants; charging downtown shoppers to park; the insistence that the city could support a professional sports franchise) are essentially harmless.
Perhaps we come by them naturally. I’ve been reading 99 year-old Birmingham newspapers lately, searching for clues to our civic identity, and the more I scan, the more I realize we have some deeply ingrained patterns in our collective behavior.
For example, a casual reader of October 15, 1901’s The Birmingham News might have been drawn to examine “Rensford’s Side,” a brief story explaining why Mr. Thomas Rensford of the Stag Saloon had a cop, assigned to patrol his place of business, arrested for trespassing. “Police Chief Austin knows that no gambling takes place in the saloon,” the tavern owner told The News. With people still cranking their record players at this time, we must assume the task force was not looking for evidence of electronic gaming.
Tidings of “A New Factory” covered page four, wherein we learned that the Birmingham Power Company had plunked down $25,000 for 300 acres of land in East Birmingham to build a new facility for manufacturing…dynamite. “The demand for dynamite in this section of the country is large and constantly growing,” gushed The News. No one could have known that sixty years after this report, Ku Klux Klansmen in East Birmingham would be making altogether too much use of the stuff.
Perhaps you’ve noticed that the present-day Birmingham News runs a lot of full-page ads for pharmaceutical products. That’s in keeping with the News of yore, which, unhampered by the FDA, advertised a mind-boggling array of unguents, creams and tonics.
Judging from the ads in this paper, early Magic City residents were prone to dyspepsia, dropsy, “wind colic”, impure blood, dissipation, sallow skin, torpid livers and, yes, “private diseases.” If that’s the sort of stuff adhering to our Birmingham genomes, no wonder we need so many hospitals around here.
On the bright side, apparently Birmingham has always been a good locale for scientific research. How else to explain why the 1901 News featured ads for not one, but two different kinds of “electric belts” to affect the vigor of men? Dr. McLaughlin made a curious case for the powers of his, asking, “If the steam in an engine has run down, will oiling the parts make it go without steam? No; you must get up more steam.” Dr. Bennett, on the other hand, was all about ohms, sweet ohms: “Do not be hoodwinked by poor imitations of my electrodes. A currant cannot pass through them.” Apparently, Dr. Bennett’s electric belt could deliver the voltage, and seasonal fruit as well.
There was another affliction in old Birmingham as yet uneradicated, and it was addressed with astonishing clarity on almost every page of the paper. According to its reports, The Honorable John Knox, speaking at the Jefferson Theatre, proclaimed that President Theodore Roosevelt , who had recently invited Booker T. Washington to supper at the White House, “was pursuing the wrong policy when he dined with negroes if he hoped to make friends in the South.” Bishop W.J. Gaines of the African Methodist Episcopal Church told a crowd at St. John’s Church that “if the whites of Birmingham wanted to, they could drive every negro out of the city and kill them if they so desired, so it was well for the negro to be on his good behavior.” On the editorial page, The News called for the ratification of a new state constitution, “as it gives the white masses of the State the first opportunity they ever had of relegating the negro masses to the inferior civic plane that they naturally occupy.”
It may not have been, technically speaking, their first opportunity, but the 1901 Alabama constitution was certainly the most blatant opportunity for the white rulers of the state to impose secondclass citizenship on its black residents. We talk much now of the novelty of that constitution, the longest in the world, but almost never of the brutal impetus that spawned it.
In the pages of 1901 newspapers, history was unfiltered, sometimes appallingly so. A document published by the Democratic State Campaign Committee minced no words in proclaiming the document’s purpose. There were familiar provisions offered, such as lower state taxes and more money for public schools, but some of the inducements to ratify seem comical in retrospect: “The professional lobbyist…is forbidden by the new instrument, but the people will not suffer because of his absence from the halls of legislation.”
More malignant would be the establishment of apartheid as the law of the land. “The new Constitution offers a plan which will secure white supremacy and will, under the guidance of white men, purify our politics and secure honest elections,” the Committee explained. Those black men who had been franchised to vote during the Federal occupation of Alabama would have that right taken away by the 1901 Constitution, which held that only owners of property worth $300 or more and who were able to read and write would be permitted to vote, and then only if they had paid their poll taxes.
Almost a century later, a few things have changed. The predominantly white party now calls itself Republican, and the recipients of the most overt cultural prejudice are now brown instead of black, but as long as Alabama’s outdated constitution remains in effect, so do assertions its framers made 99 years ago: “This is a white man’s government and it will continue to be so. White men will see to it that they will continue in the ascendancy…they will not be less vigilant in the future than in the past.”
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.