Alabama, known informally as the “Heart of Dixie,” has had a history both fascinating and complicated. And in the heart of the Yellowhammer State lies Birmingham, Alabama’s largest city and the treasure chest of its culture. The Washington Times spent a weekend in and around Birmingham to experience the history, culture and hidden gems that make “The Magic City” a true Southern belle of urbanity.
Here’s the itinerary I undertook, and here’s what you can do too.
From Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport, take I-20 W/I-59 S toward Birmingham’s Southside. The corner of 6th Ave. and 16th St. is home to the 16th St. Baptist Church (1530 6th Ave N, Birmingham, Alabama, 35203, 205/251-9402). It happens to be Good Friday, and at noon worshippers — black and white — enter the storied structure in praise and Thanksgiving.
It wasn’t always this way. Exhibits outside and in pay tribute to the four children who were killed September 15, 1963, when members of the Ku Klux Klan bombed the sanctuary that was frequently used by Fred Shuttlesworth, James Bevel and Martin Luther King Jr. to preach nonviolence in the midst of the civil rights era. The church was rebuilt, and now features a stained glass window of a black Jesus that was donated by Welsh citizens in commemoration of the murdered parishioners.
Today, blacks and whites worship together, sing together, and do so freely — the ultimate repudiation of the hatred unleashed here once upon a time by those standing in the way of progress.
Across the street from the 16th St. Baptist Church is the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (520 16th St N, Birmingham, Alabama, 35203, 205/328-9696), which features exhibits, artifacts and photographs galore from across Alabama’s difficult history from slave state to Jim Crow to civil rights era to the ongoing difficulties that are faced not only in the South, but across the American strata.
There are also stories of triumph, such as that of Richard Arrington Jr., who became Birmingham’s first black mayor in 1979 and served in that capacity for two decades.
The Civil Rights Institute shows how far we have come and how much is still left to do.
But steps away from the 16th St. Baptist Church and the Civil Rights Institute is Kelly Ingram Park, which features sculptures of Dr. King and recreations of harrowing scenes from Alabama’s past, such as notorious Commissioner of Public Safety Eugene “Bull” Connor unleashing his dogs onto peaceful marchers. The park also features tributes to lesser-known figures like Carrie A. Ruggle, who founded a school and orphanage in town in 1903, and Pauline Bray Fletcher, Alabama’s first black registered nurse. Events that took place here helped presage the end of officially sanctioned public segregation throughout the state.
After indulging myself in history, I’m ready for lunch, and so over to the highly recommended Rib It Up (830 1st Ave. N, Birmingham, Alabama, 35203-3008, 205/328-7427) for BBQ deliciousness. On staff recommendation, I go in for a combo comprising the BBQ sliced pork, mac n’ cheese, fried okra and, of course, Southern sweet tea. The mac n’ cheese would make the devil himself weep with its flavor punch, and the sliced pork may be about the best meat entree I have enjoyed in eons. At Rib It Up, it’s all about the sauce, so make sure to ask for extra to dollop upon the meat (trust me).
As a rock history buff, I’ve always been curious as the Lynyrd Skynrd line in “Sweet Home Alabama” that goes: “Now Muscle Shoals has got the swampers.” I’ve always wanted to know what a “swamper” is, as well as its relevance to the town in the northwestern part of the state that was such a swell birthing ground for the band.
It’s about a two-hour drive from “Bam” up to Muscle Shoals, but once there, you can visit FAME Studios (603 Avalon Ave, Muscle Shoals, Alabama, 35661, 256/381-0801), where so many songs of the South were set to acetate. When the studios were first erected in the ‘50s, they were surrounded by fields and fawns, but now such familiar outposts of capitalism as CVS are but a walk across a parking lot.
Engineer Spencer Coats meets me in the lobby. An amiable fellow brimming with both musicianship to spare and a thorough knowledge of the musical history of Alabama, Spencer takes the tour group on a whirlwind trip through the back catalog of these famous studios. Etta James’ “Tell Mama” was recorded here at a time when “race records” was still considered a viable label. Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding and Tim McGraw are but some of the famous who have come here to record.
Oh, and about those “swampers”: It turns out they were the house rhythm section, and one that recorded with Skynrd. (Never mind that “Sweet Home Alabama” was actually recorded in L.A.)
Spencer ushers us into the actual recording studios and control booths. Take photos, he says, but “please don’t touch my instruments.”
As this is a working recording studio, Spencer says he has unfortunately had to turn away many pilgrims who have come from as far away as the West Coast and even Europe to see the studios, but hey, if someone is putting up the cash to use the studios, it’s money talks and history can wait.
But a few miles away from FAME is the W.C. Handy Home and Museum (620 West College Street, Florence, Alabama, 256/760-6434). Considered by many to be the “Father of the Blues,” this favorite son of Alabama went off to the Mississippi Delta, where he became among the first to put shape to the songs of lament from the area’s black population, and formalizing the structure of what would later become “the blues.” Handy would also record such genre mainstays as “St. Louis Blues,” “Beale Street Blues” and “Memphis Blues.”
After such an afternoon of musical education, I’m ready to head back to Birmingham to find some sustenance and, more importantly, a beer. In the happening Southside neighborhood, across the way from Regions Field, the home of the Birmingham Barons minor league affiliate, is Good People Brewing Company (114 14th St S, Birmingham, Alabama, 35233, 205/286-2337).
I recommend the Bearded Lady, which is hoppy but rather refreshing in the sweaty Southern heat. The Pale Ale is nice, and the Berliner Weisse gives the German style the old college try. The Bearded Lady calls my name for seconds, and I enjoy some truly happening swamp rock out on the outdoor patio with a full glass in hand.
My last stop of the night is the Rogue Tavern (2312 2nd Ave N, Birmingham, Alabama, 35203, 205/202-4151), located in downtown’s hip Loft District for another local brew and some jazzy/funk music.
It’s been a good day.
After some morning breakfast fuel at a local Jack’s, I head southwest out of town to a rather special place.
Selma played a crucial role in the civil rights era. It was here, on March 7, 1965, where John Lewis and Hosea Williams led a group of some 600 people from Brown Chapel AME Church and across the Edmund Pettis Bridge. On the other side of the Alabama River, the marchers were met by state troopers, who violently broke up the peaceful march — the images of which were broadcast throughout the world.
To underscore the complex history, not far from the bridge, you can step back 100-plus years into Alabama’s past at the Old Live Oak Cemetery (110 Dallas Ave., Selma, Alabama, 36701), where are interred the namesake of the Edmund Pettis Bridge, as well as monuments to prominent Confederates such as Nathan Bedford Forrest and Sen. John Tyler Morgan, know as the “father of the Panama Canal.”
After exploring the cemetery and walking across the bridge — which is an absolute must — pop in at the Selma Interpretive Center (2 Broad St., Selma, Alabama, 36701, 334/872-0509) to learn more about the 54-mile Selma-to-Montgomery trail that Dr. King and his supporters marched not long after “Bloody Sunday.” Then head east by car, covering in an hour the route Dr. King and his marchers undertook on an arduous, five-day walk. Some of their camps are located along the way, as are other interpretive centers.
End your retracing of the path in Montgomery, the state capital, where yet more history awaits, not the least of which is the so-called First White House of the Confederacy (644 Washington Ave, Montgomery, Alabama, 36130, 334/242-1861) where Jefferson Davis and his family lived before the capital north moved to Richmond, Virginia, in 1861. Inside you will see the mansion decorated much as it was during the 1860s.
On the Alabama Capitol grounds, monuments stand to the history of the state. Among those remembered are James Marion Sims, known as the “father of modern gynecology,” and whose pioneering work did much to advance women’s health. A statue of Jefferson Davis still stands on the grounds as well, not far from where he first ruled over his new country.
Less than a mile away, another monument pays tribute to the bus stop where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger Dec. 1, 1955, thus giving the civil rights cause a major push.
I head back on the final leg of the triangle between Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery. I get back to “The Ham” in time to get to Lou’s Pub (726 29th St S, Birmingham, Alabama, 35233,205/22-7005) and meet up with Stephen Watts, the founder and proprietor of Redmont Distilling, Birmingham’s first legal distilling operation since Prohibition.
Stephen, an especially friendly local who spent several years in the corporate world in California before returning home to start his operation, walks me through the complicated marriage of Alabama and distilling. Namely, Stephen currently cannot ship his wares in or out of the state without the state’s alcohol control board. To even get his products outside Alabama, he would need to open a second location beyond its borders. Meantime, he is working hard to increase brand awareness here at home since starting out four years ago. It’s a full-time endeavor — this on top of his day job as a software engineer.
(Interestingly, the Motlow Distillery was founded in Birmingham in 1904, 11 years before Alabama went dry ahead of Prohibition, and the founders were in fact related to Jack Daniel.)
Redmont got its name from the local “red mountain” where iron ore was mined, and it’s not the only way Stephen works his home state into the elixirs. For the Satsuma vodka, Stephen infuses genuine Alabama Satsuma oranges from Mobile into the mix, which adds just a hint of fruitiness that is refreshing without overpowering the taste. There’s no sugar or artificial orange flavor added, and the aftertaste even boasts just a hint of graham crackers.
The Redmont vodka is smooth and delightful over rocks, and the Alabama Cotton Gin — made with actual cotton, no less — has a pleasantly floral profile, and is rather enjoyable over ice.
After parting company with Stephen, I head to Saw’s Soul Kitchen (215 41st St. S, Birmingham, Alabama, 35222, 205/591-1409) for dinner. The chicken sandwich is hearty, if a little underwhelming after yesterday’s meal at Rib It Up.
For beer, next door is the Avondale Brewing Company (201 41st St S, Birmingham, AL 35222, 205/777-5456). As is my habit, I select a sampler to try as many of the suds as possible. The Streetcar Kolsch is refreshing, especially in the Southern heat. Miss Fancy’s Tripel reminds me of certain Belgians, and the Train Hopper Pale Ale is crisp and tasty.
I make a brisk stop at Vulcan Park & Museum (1701 Valley View Dr., Birmingham, Alabama, 35209, 205/933-1409), where a 56-foot-tall statue of the Roman smith god stands testament to Birmingham’s history of iron works — and to the “red mountain” Stephen told me about. The museum itself is closed at this hour, so I’ll have to return another time, but the statue is lit up here on Red Mountain for all of Birmingham to see.
I am a huge fan of the blues, and I was told I absolutely must make the trip out to Gip’s Place (3101 Ave C, Bessemer, Alabama, 35020, 205/919-8142), which is considered one of the last true juke joints in the South. It is here, on Saturday evenings, where 97-year-old bluesman Henry “Gip” Gipson holds court, not only taking to the stage to strum through the three-chord laments of the Delta, but also opening up his space to other great acts throughout the region.
Gip’s Place is a true out-of-the-way experience. You drive through neighborhoods to get there, and I was sure I was heading in the wrong direction, and suddenly you pull off right in front of a house, in the back of which is Gip’s impromptu stage, where he and his coterie have been entertaining guests since 1952. It’s not a traditional “club”; rather, it’s like being in someone’s backyard, with the stage itself under an overhang crowded around by the fans. No alcohol is on sale, so you must bring your own, lending it a picnic-like atmosphere. Photos of Gip adorn the walls, including one of him with Ground Zero owner Bill Luckett, whom I have met and interviewed at his blues club in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
Local musician Debbie Bond and her backup band are rocking out when I roll in, and they are absolutely tearing it up blues-style.
Not long after, Gip himself takes to the stage. Festooned in a large fedora, Gip takes a seat on a stool at the side of the stage and begins strumming, his voice haunted, no doubt, by the life he has seen in nearly a century, to say nothing of the many, many changes his home state has since undergone.
But there is an optimism there, a positivity evident in his playing and his plaintive voice despite the songs of the downtrodden he performs.
And a smile, which broadens as our eyes meet. As Gip puts his ax down, he motions for me to join him for a chat outside. The soulful bluesman takes my hand, which is large and warm enough to match his smile, and I can feel the soul of this great man and the music genre that I love above all others infuse me as he speaks. It’s so loud out here, and Gip is so soft-spoken, that I can barely make out a word or two, but perhaps that’s appropriate as the music is a far better communicator than speech could ever hope to be.
Gip makes the rounds in the crowd, hugging and chatting with patrons and old friends. I buy a pulled pork sandwich and enjoy some more music, dancing at the front of the stage with other revelers into the late hours.
Soon I’m feeling tired, and I have an early-morning flight afore me tomorrow, but this was the absolute best possible way to end my two days in Alabama. It’s a true reminder that the Heart of Dixie has a true soulfulness about it, as well as a respect for its history and its culture — and always looking toward the future.
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