Local historians explain how miners helped shape Birmingham

Horace Huntley, who has a doctorate in African American and labor history. (Amarr Croskey, for the Birmingham Times)
By Ryan Michaels
The Birmingham Times

Between the second half of the 1800s and 1900s, black and white families lived in company towns on Red Mountain that belonged to what was then known as the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company (TCI) but have then purchased by US Steel. Corp. in 1907. This was long before Red Mountain became a park or even a series of abandoned mines.

The men living in these company towns worked in the mines and spent their earnings in places like the police station, which also belonged to the mining company.

On the property that is now Red Mountain Park (RMP), the last operating mine closed in 1962, when the mines were abandoned. In the 1980s historian Horace Huntley, originally from Birmingham’s Riley-Travellick neighborhood, was researching the organization of work in the Magic City and developed some ideas on how to use the abandoned mines on the mountain. as a public space.

Ervin Batain (photo provided)

It was around the same time that Ervin Batain, born to the son of a miner in the Grasselli Heights neighborhood, became the first person to use the area now known as RMP. In 1999, he cleared a path from the backyard of his house to the abandoned No. 11 mine, one of 15 mines operating on the mountain.

During his trips to the mine, where he often took his family, friends and other locals, Batain collected many artifacts. He also started 3D at No. 11 Mining Camp and Nature Trail, an official non-profit museum named in honor of his three sons: Demetrius, Deon and Devon.

Historical knowledge

People like Huntley, Batain, and Lawson State Community College history instructor Gregory Wilson have discovered immense potential to expand historical knowledge at the site.

Huntley, who holds a doctorate. in African American and Labor History, was Director of Oral History work for the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and is a former professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham who helped establish the Afro-American Studies program. American school. lived [in those company towns] would have preferred to live elsewhere but just could not afford to live elsewhere. The system wasn’t designed for anything bigger than what they had, so it was an uphill struggle from day one for anyone living in a camp.

The neighborhoods surrounding the old mining camps developed because workers wanted more control over their own lives, Huntley said.

“Because [the miners] lived there, they didn’t have as much independence as they would have had if they hadn’t lived there because the “rousters” could come in at any time and get them out of bed and make it go to work, ”Huntley said. “It was my assertion that these minors, when they moved into the [so-called] middle class, moved from mining camps to Grasselli Heights, Powderly, Riley.

The workers also united while they were under the control of the mining company, Huntley said: “The black and white workers actually worked together, I mean, weren’t physically working together because it was in the middle. middle of the segregation era, but they worked together to develop a union. . “

The creation of the RMP is an example of historically oppressed people taking control of Birmingham, according to Huntley.

“Birmingham at the turn of the 20th century is becoming in the 21st century a Birmingham which is mainly controlled, politically anyway, by blacks,” he said.

Another take

Gregory Wilson, professor of history at Lawson State Community College. (Amarr Croskey, for the Birmingham Times)

Wilson, who grew up in Bessemer, Alabama, spent time accumulating oral histories through interviews with people in and around the former mining area. Like Huntley, he found the alleged level of integration among mining workers surprising.

“I don’t know how true this is, but I was told that blacks and whites have to enter through separate doors but [worked together] while inside. … On the outside, however, it showed that blacks would enter [through one door] and the whites would enter [through another]. “

Among the miners, some may have felt worse about their lot in life, but Wilson just didn’t hear that from the people he interviewed.

“The two races would come together, and I interviewed people representing both sides,” he said. “This level of negativity may have existed. … There have been problems, you know, but to my personal knowledge, I’m not aware of it.

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