I haven’t added to this journal in a while, but I’ve been meaning to write about my trip to Birmingham. I went to the Society of American Archivists conference there a few weeks ago.
Birmingham is much bigger than I’d realized. It is similar to Knoxville because its inner city has decayed as a residential/shopping/entertainment area and because many locals are trying to revive it. (I suppose many cities fit this bill.) The revivers have been somewhat successful. I learned that one of the downtown churches now has around fifty member families that walk to church (which means they live downtown or nearby). Knoxville hasn’t reached that level of success yet. I hope it does one day.
I enjoyed my trip. I love the park area around all the county government buildings and library. (There is a great statue of a soldier there, dedicated to the Spanish-American War, the Boxer Rebellion, and the Philippine Insurrection.) I bought a necklace at a trendy little shop in the Five-Points area. The art museum was much bigger than Knoxville’s. And since I’ve never been to a major Civil Rights Movement city before, I appreciated finally getting to see the places I’ve learned about.
I went on two tours—the Civil Rights District tour and a tour of downtown that included a few churches. One of the sights I saw on the Civil Rights District tour is an area called the Black Business District. This area is unique because independent African Americans own all of its businesses. The whole Civil Rights District used to be a ghetto, and in most cities, areas like it were cleared out for urban renewal in the 1960s and 1970s. Today, the Black Business District is struggling to hold its ground against new urban renewal.
While the other tour—a general tour of downtown—was interesting, its omissions were odd. The tour guide knew a lot. He told us about the architects of each building and about new renewal hopes and projects. At one corner, he pointed out the 16th Street Baptist Church in the distance. He told us about the architect and mentioned that this church’s congregation was shrinking like most others downtown, but never mentioned that this was the church where a bombing killed four young girls during the Civil Rights Movement. I wonder if you have to go on a Civil Rights tour to hear about the Civil Rights Movement.
One thing I will take with me from the trip is a growing awareness of our forgetfulness. Working in an archives, I am surrounded by history a good deal of the time, so I guess I don’t realize how most people, including myself, forget that we live in the same towns, on the same streets, where events—normal and extraordinary—have occurred throughout time. While I advocate preservation, I realize that we cannot and should not preserve everything that is old, and that we cannot memorialize every spot where important events have happened. (Important is a relative term, after all, and important events happen all the time, everywhere.) Still, I can’t help but realize how preserved historic structures and memorials enrich my life. When I take time to notice them, they provide me with a sense of awe—a sense of time and connectedness—that, I have to admit, my everyday life lacks most of the time.
In Birmingham, a parking lot stands at the spot where the Freedom Riders faced their beating from the angry mob. At the corner, a historical marker lets us know where we are, but I may not have noticed the marker if the tour guide hadn’t pointed it out. I drive a car. I park. I’d be a hypocrite if I said parking lots must go. But still, I was sad to see this one. I wonder how many parking lots cover hallowed ground we might do well to remember.
Enjoyed reading about your trip.
Keep writing.Posted by: Mom on September 22, 2002 02:35 PM