With the revitalization of downtown and the city’s noteworthy culinary scene, Birmingham is booming. We’re proud that even people outside of Birmingham are taking notice of the Magic City. But we don’t want outsiders knowing more about our home than we do! Here are some interesting things you should know about Birmingham and surrounding areas — from historically significant facts and figures to more lighthearted and fun trivia.
10 Historical Facts About Birmingham We Bet You Didn’t Know
1. Birmingham has more green space per capita than any other city in the nation.
Perhaps that doesn’t surprise you, considering we have no shortage of great parks. Thanks to the award-winning Railroad Park, we have 19 acres of green space in the middle of downtown. Red Mountain Park offers 1,500 acres of nature to explore (and a zip line and ropes course if you’re seeking adventure). And Oak Mountain Park in nearby Pelham is a great place to take up orienteering, a rapidly growing sport that involves hiking and a test of your outdoor navigation skills. (You can learn more from the Vulcan Orienteering Club.) But did you know that Avondale Park was the original site of our city’s zoo? According to BhamWiki.com, in 1911 cages were built in the park to house a small menagerie of animals, including Miss Fancy, a circus elephant purchased by the city that would become the star attraction.
2. A host of well-known artists, entertainers and newsmakers have ties to Birmingham.
Actress and transgender activist Laverne Cox and writer Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games trilogy, both attended the Alabama School of Fine Arts. Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, activist and author Angela Davis, comedian Roy Wood Jr. and soul singer Paul Janeway of St. Paul & The Broken Bones are all Birmingham natives. Eddie Kendrick of the famous soul group The Temptations also hailed from the Magic City. Kendrick, whose family name was “Kendricks,” died in 1992, and the city later erected the Eddie Kendrick Memorial Park in his honor. The memorial features a statue of Kendrick sculpted by artist Ronald Scott McDowell. Eddie Kendrick Memorial Park is located at the corner of Fourth Avenue North and 18th Street in Birmingham’s Civil Rights District.
3. A wealthy Birmingham madam helped the city survive the cholera epidemic of 1873.
Born in Tuscaloosa in 1842 and raised in Mobile, Louise Wooster was an orphan by age 15 and turned to prostitution for money. By 1873, Wooster was in Birmingham and well-known among the city’s prostitutes. Though thousands of people were fleeing the city due to cholera, Wooster stayed. She converted brothels into clinics where she helped nurse the sick. In an article for AL.com, Beverly Crider writes, “With medical facilities overflowing with patients, Lou’s clinics likely saved many lives that otherwise would have been lost.” Wooster died in 1913 and is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery, resting beside Birmingham’s Founding Fathers. The UAB School of Public Health gives the Lou Wooster Public Health Hero Award annually to individuals, groups or organizations who are unconventional public health heroes.
4. Every year in October, Birmingham sets the stage for the biggest rivalry among historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) — the Magic City Classic.
Anyone who is familiar with this annual showdown between Alabama State University and Alabama A&M University can tell you that this is more than a football game. The Magic City Classic brings a week of star-studded events to Birmingham, including exclusive parties, fashion shows, concerts, the Battle of Bands competition and the beloved Magic City Classic Parade. In 2016, the 75th anniversary of the event, more than 70,000 people attended the game, which is held at Legion Field.
5. A Birmingham serviceman is the reason we now celebrate Veteran’s Day.
In November 1919, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed November 11 as the first commemoration of Armistice Day, set aside to honor veterans of World War I. But World War II required the greatest mobilization of soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen in American history. Raymond Weeks, a World War II veteran from Birmingham, thought Armistice Day should be expanded. In 1947 he led a delegation to Washington, D.C. to urge then-Army Chief of Staff General Dwight Eisenhower to create a national holiday that honored all veterans. In 1954, President Eisenhower signed legislation establishing November 11 as Veterans Day. Weeks led the first National Veterans Day Parade in 1947 in Alabama, a tradition he continued until his death in 1985. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan honored Weeks as the driving force for the national holiday with the Presidential Citizenship Medal. Learn more at NationalVeteransDay.org.
6. You probably know that the recently renovated Lyric Theatre is a great place to see your favorite musician in concert, but did you know that when you’re sitting in the seats of the Lyric you are surrounded by history?
Built in 1914, the Lyric is one of few theaters still existing today that was built for vaudeville shows. Stars such as the Marx Brothers, Mae West, Sophie Tucker, Will Rogers and Milton Berle all performed at the Lyric. And although seating was segregated, the Lyric was one of the first venues in the South where blacks and whites could watch the same show at the same time for the same price.
7. A humble Birmingham meat-and-three, rooted in culinary excellence, earned national recognition.
It is well known that the food scene of the Greater Birmingham area has been getting national attention for years with award-winning chefs Chris Hastings (of Hot and Hot Fish Club and Ovenbird), Frank Stitt (of Highlands Bar & Grill, Bottega and Chez Fonfon) and a host of other culinary talents putting a Southern twist on upscale cuisine. But did you know that even our meat-and-three restaurants turn heads? We wrote about Johnny’s Restaurant in our article on the Magic City’s meat-and-threes in November 2015, and the Homewood restaurant, helmed by Chef Timothy Hontzas, continued to get attention for its excellence from publications such as The Wall Street Journal, Saveur, Garden & Gun, Eater, Southern Living, Wine Spectator and more. Then, this past year, Chef Hontzas received a James Beard nomination as a semifinalist for Best Chef in the South, an honor normally given to chefs of white tablecloth restaurants. Known as a “Greek-and-three,” Johnny’s serves Southern favorites along with classic Greek fare.
8. The next time you’re on your way to Logan Martin Lake and you need to fill up your belly and your gas tank, stop by Butts To Go.
In her book 100 Things to Do in Birmingham Before You Die, Verna Gates shares the story of Wade Reich, who worked in the food industry in Paris and London for 21 years before retiring to Alabama. He opened a Texaco station in Pell City, but when rising gas prices started to hurt his business, he went back to his culinary roots and started selling Boston butts. Butts To Go also serves barbecue sandwiches, hamburgers and more.
9. The oldest baseball field in the country is located in Birmingham.
Rickwood Field, located at 1137 Second Ave. W., was built in 1910 and originally served as the home park for the Birmingham Barons and the Birmingham Black Barons. The Black Barons were one of the most successful teams of the Negro Southern League, which gave those excluded from baseball due to racial discrimination an opportunity to play. Baseball legends Leroy “Satchel” Paige and Willie Mays both played for the Black Barons. Birmingham is now also home to the Negro Southern League Museum. Located at 120 16th St. S., the museum traces the history of the program, much of which is rooted in Birmingham, and houses the largest collection of Negro League artifacts in the country.
10. Birmingham did not become the site of the most influential campaign of the Civil Rights Movement by chance.
Due to the high number of racially motivated bombings in Birmingham, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once called Birmingham “the worst big city in race relations in the United States.” King and other activists believed a major demonstration in Birmingham could bring a much-needed victory in the Civil Rights Movement as a whole. Project C (C for “confrontation”) launched a series of lunch counter sit-ins, marches on city hall and boycotts on downtown merchants to protest segregation laws in the city. Birmingham residents and visitors can learn more about these and other events at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, located at 520 16th St. N.
Now, go forth armed with fun facts about our fabulous city!
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