The Year of Moving Forward

The Year of Moving Forward
At our 4 person wedding reception in DC

Monday, January 26, 2009

Birmingham Interstates

A couple of weeks ago I posted this about Inaugural Festivities and in the comments, in defense of Birmingham's $50,000 party, I wrote this:

"Since taxpayer money went toward spraying fire hoses at Birmingham residents, and toward police dogs attacking children who wanted their rights, and taxpayer money went to build an interstate that was designed to break up neighborhoods and destroy as many black churches as possible, don't you think we can use a little taxpayer money to show how far Birmingham has come? "

Another comment followed by a retired Highway Department employee who wrote this (and more...go read):

"I am retired from the Ala Dept of Transportation (Highway Dept). The comment above about the interstate system targeting black communities and trying to break up black churches is a complete myth..."

I responded with some quotes from some research done by Raymond Mohl, a UAB professor who has studied the situation extensively, including (from this document ):

"In Birmingham, Alabama, where three interstates intersected, a black citizen's committee complained to the Alabama state highway department and the BPR in 1960 that proposed interstate freeways "would almost completely wipe out two old Negro communities [in] eastern Birmingham with their 13 churches and three schools." "


"The route had been chosen by the Alabama state highway department and approved by the Bureau of Public Roads, Whitton wrote, "based on a thorough evaluation of all engineering, economic, and sociological factors involved." If that was the case, then it would seem that the destruction of the Birmingham black community was indeed a planned event." "

Now it doesn't take a genius to understand what "sociological factors" means in reference to 1950's and 60's Birmingham.

But I knew there was another reference, and I found it in "The Most Segregated City in America" City Planning and Civil Rights in Birmingham, 1920-1980, by Charles E. Connerly, a professor at Florida State University. (The book can be found at the Birmingham Public Library , several branches have copies, and you can have one delivered to the branch near you by going to the library web site and pasting the book name in the search engine and just follow the directions.)

This book explains the racial zoning regulations that we had to live with since the 1920's. African Americans were greatly restricted in where they could live in Birmingham. The book has maps that show the areas zoned for blacks.

The book also shows show show the original interstate plan for I-59 through Birmingham took a straight route, bypassing black neighborhoods, but how curves were added which allowed the interstate to bisect several black communities, and form a barrier between black and white neighborhoods in other areas. Oddly enough, these interstate "barriers," on I-65 as well as I-59, fall along the same racial zoning lines that had been declared unconstitutional.

Areas in particular where black neighborhoods were destroyed include Ensley where the interstate cuts off part of Tuxedo Junction and separates that area from Ensley Highlands, the white neighborhood (of the time) to the south.

Also, in east Birmingham, a ridiculous curve was added to I-59 in order to bypass (white) Woodlawn (a route favored by the Woodlawn Chamber of Commerce). This created a dangerous sharp turn in the interstate that requires slowing. I'm sure you have driven that stretch. Your lives are jeopardized because of targeting black neighborhoods to save white neighborhoods.

"In 1960, Mrs. Lala Palmer, a resident of eastern Birmingham and spokesperson for a community organization there, publicly decried the "many curves and twists" of the proposed interstate that resulted in the bisection of the East Birmingham and East Lake black neighborhoods. Her preferred alternative, she noted "is practically straight, yet both routes begin at essentially the same point and end at the same point." According to a telegram Mrs. Palmer sent to the Alabama Highway Department, the impact of the "curves and twists" was that the interstate "would almost completely wipe out two old Negro communities [in] eastern Birmingham with their 13 churches and three schools." (Connerly page 159)

It is worth noting that her suggested route approximates the original Alabama Highway Department and U. S. Bureau of Public Roads planned routes.

While the book repeatedly states that "no evidence" has been uncovered that these things were purposely done, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that with the racial climate in Birmingham at the time and an Alabama Highway Department director who was a known KKK* member, that racial issues were part of these decision.

*"A notorious racist, Alabama's state highway director Samuel Englehardt served simultaneously as a high level officer of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan and of the White Citizen's Council, which organized against school integration." (Mohl)

We have to live with the decisions of leaders of the past, whether we like it or not. Bringing this up is not to incite but rather to educate and learn. We can learn from our this case we should learn that creating barriers and divisions, whether physical (such as zoning laws and interstates) or psychological (such as policies that create second class citizens out of GLBT persons) is wrong. Like unjust, un-Christian, unconstitutional and unfair. Fortunately, we have a leader now in Washington that understands that.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It is my understanding that the same "philosophy" guided the route of the interstates through Montgomery as well.