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African American Experience in Birmingham
Bravery and Vision: Black Firsts in Birmingham
  • Oscar Williams Adams, Jr.
    Adams, Oscar William Jr.
    First African American on Alabama State Supreme Court; first black law firm in Birmingham (Adams, Baker, and Clemon)

    The son of journalist and businessman Oscar William Adams Sr. and Ella Virginia Eaton, Oscar Adams Jr. was born on February 7th, 1925, and grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. A graduate of Lincoln Elementary School, Industrial High School (now known as A.H. Parker),Talladega College, and Howard University, Adams was encouraged by his father to pursue a political career. He opened his own law practice in 1947 and represented African-American clients in precedent-setting cases, one of which challenged the segregation practices of the Interstate Commerce Commission and another that won African-Americans the right to be called by their full proper names and titles during court proceedings. Adams also went on to represent thousands of demonstrators involved in the Civil Rights Movement protests of the early sixties. Adams’ appointment to the Alabama Supreme Court was on October 10th, 1980, making him the first African-American justice to hold that office. After being twice re-elected to this post, Adams retired from the bench in 1993 and died on February 15th, 1997.

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  • Richard Arrington, Jr.
    Arrington, Richard Jr.
    First African American mayor of Birmingham

    Richard Arrington Jr. was born October 19th, 1934 in Livingston, Alabama. When his father was offered a job at U.S. Steel, the Arrington family moved to Birmingham and settled in a community near Miles College. Arrington attended Fairfield High School and earned his way through Miles College by working in a dry-cleaning business before going on to earn advanced degrees in biology and zoology at the University of Detroit and the University of Oklahoma. Upon his return to Alabama, Arrington seemed destined for an academic or scientific career, teaching at Miles College and serving there as Academic Dean before becoming director of the Alabama Center for Higher Education and holding the rank of associate professor of biology at University of Alabama in Birmingham. However, Arrington’s career took a turn for the political when he ran for a city council position, where he served from 1971 to 1979 before setting his sights on the mayoral election of 1979. Arrington won the election and was inaugurated in 1980, becoming the first African-American mayor of what Dr. Martin Luther King once designated “the most segregated city in America.” He went on to be re-elected to five terms, leaving office on the 16th of July, 1999, shortly before the end of his fifth term.

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  • Orzell Billingsley, Jr.
    Billingsley, Orzell Jr.
    Co-founder and president of the Alabama Democratic Conference (ADC), the first statewide African American political organization in Alabama; first African American member of the Democratic Executive Commission of Jefferson County

    Born on the 24th of October, 1924 in Birmingham, Alabama, Orzell Billingsley Jr. attended A.H. Parker High School before earning degrees from Talledega College and Howard University, where he was awarded his law degree in 1950. He was one of the first African-Americans to earn entrance to the Alabama State Bar and made a name for himself as a representative for African-Americans, serving as lawyer for both Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks during the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott. In what was probably his most famous case, Billingsley fought for fifteen years to secure the acquittal of Caliph Washington, who had been charged by an all-white jury with the murder of a police officer. Not confining himself to the strictly legal arena, Billingsley was active in political causes as well, agitating for a re-write of Alabama’s 1901 constitution and assisting in the establishment of the Alabama Democratic Conference and striving to offset the segregationist policies of the Alabama Democratic Party. Billingsley also took a strong interest in the economic development of black communities and helped establish Roosevelt City, where he served as a municipal judge. He emerged from the Civil Rights Era as a widely respected legal authority and representative for the interests of African-Americans. Billingsley died in Birmingham, Alabama on December 13th, 2001.

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  • Judge U. W. Clemon
    Clemon, U.W.
    First African American Federal Judge in Alabama

    The son of Mississippi sharecroppers Mose and Addie Clemon, U.W. Clemon was born on April 9th, 1943, and grew up in Fairfield, Alabama, where his parents had relocated in search of better jobs. Clemon was an excellent student, graduating at the top of his Westfield High School Class and going on to earn degrees from Miles College, where he was again valedictorian of his class, and Columbia University School of Law. Clemon became an active civil rights lawyer in the firm of Adams, Burg, and Baker (later known as Adams, Baker, and Clemon). In 1980 Clemon was appointed to a federal judgeship, despite repeated attempts from the American Bar Association to oppose his appointment. Clemons’ legal expertise played a significant role in the Civil Rights movement in areas ranging from school desegregation to suits against discriminatory work practices to promotion of equal opportunities in higher education. Clemon retired from the bench in January of 2009 to return to the practice of civil law in Birmingham, Alabama.

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  • A. G. Gaston
    Gaston, A.G.
    First (along with his wife Minnie) to be inducted in Birmingham’s Gallery of Distinguished Citizens; established one of the first African American burial societies in the South

    Named “Entrepreneur of the Century” by Black Enterprise magazine, Arthur George Gaston was born on, as he says in his autobiography, July 4th, 1892 in Demopolis, Alabama: “I was born in that cabin. On the Fourth of July, 1892. I always liked that birthday.” The cabin in question had been built by his grandparents, former slaves Joe and Idella Gaston, who helped his mother raise him after his father died. In 1900 Gaston’s mother, Rosie, moved to Birmingham to work as a cook and brought her son with her. It was during this time that Gaston attended the Tuggle Institute, founded by Carrie Tuggle, and after finishing 10th grade at the Institute he began selling subscriptions to the Birmingham Reporter. Unwilling to accept the limitations imposed on him by his brief education, Gaston sought other opportunities to better himself, joining the army in 1910 and serving until 1918, when he returned to Birmingham and worked for TCI and sold box lunches to his fellow laborers. It was in 1923 that Gaston hit upon the idea for a major business that would serve a community demand: an African-American burial society. What started out as “Brother Gaston’s Burial Society” was later known as the Booker T. Washington Burial Society and provided a financial base for many of Gaston’s later enterprises are now landmarks of Birmingham business history, such as the A.G. Gaston Motel, the Citizens Federal Savings and Loan Association, and the A.G. Gaston Home for Senior Citizens. Never one to pass up an opportunity, Gaston notes in his autobiography that “what I have done, anyone can do, provided he has the will to achieve, has a clear-cut concept of what he wants to do, and is able to subject himself to the rigid discipline that will lead ultimately to the realization of his objectives.” A member of the Alabama Business Hall of Fame and the Alabama Academy of Honor, Gaston died on January 19th, 1996, in Birmingham, Alabama, at the age of 103.

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  • Ethel Hall
    Hall, Ethel
    First African American elected to the Alabama State Board of Education

    Dr. Ethel Harris Hall was born to Harry Harris and Fannie Mae Harris on February 23rd, 1928. The Harris's lived in Morgan County, Alabama, and due to limited educational opportunities in their area, they sent their daughter to live with her grandparents in Jefferson County and attend school in North Birmingham. Hall later attributed her business skills to living with her grandparents and seeing how they ran their ice house business, claiming that “helping Grandmother account for the ice house money had given me the foundation for adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing.” Hall’s education continued at Ullman High and A.H. Parker High, until she moved back home to her parents and attended the laboratory high school of Alabama A&M, where she graduated as valedictorian of her class and then attended the college, obtaining her degree in 1948.
    Thanks to financial aid opportunities at the University of Chicago, Hall obtained her master’s degree in 1953 and after teaching at Westfield High School and University of Montevallo (where she was the first African-American faculty member), Hall attended the University of Alabama and earned a Doctorate in Social Work in 1979. At the end of her teaching career Hall entered politics and was inaugurated to the Alabama State Board of Education on January 19th, 1987. She went on to serve six terms, becoming vice chair in 1994, which for all practical purposes meant presiding over the board since the Governor is president and not always available to preside. Hall served the State Board of Education for twenty-four years and remains Vice President Emerita.

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  • Willie Mays
    Mays, Willie
    First African American to win Major League Baseball’s Gold Glove award

    Willie Howard Mays, Jr.--better known to baseball fans as Willie Mays or “The Say Hey Kid”—was born in Westfield, Alabama, on May 6th, 1931. Baseball was a family tradition; Mays’ grandfather, Walter Mays, and his father, William Howard Mays, played with local leagues in Tuscaloosa and Fairfield respectively. An excellent athlete from a young age, Mays played baseball with a semi-professional team, the Grey Sox, by the time he was thirteen and was also a star athlete at Fairfield Industrial School, playing both football and basketball before his baseball debut with the Birmingham Black Barons in 1948. In 1951 he joined the New York Giants and for his performance that season he was named National League Rookie of the Year. Mays career was interrupted by the Korean War draft in 1951, but after serving his time in the army, Mays resumed his career in 1954 and enjoyed a spectacular season with a .345 average, including 41 home runs, 119 runs, and a Most Valuable Player award. Mays went on to win the Gold Glove twelve times and was named to the National League All-Star Team twenty-two times in a row, demonstrating a high level of athletic achievement throughout a long and successful career, and in the 1960’s Sport magazine called him “the greatest player of the decade.” Awarded the Key to the City of Birmingham by Mayor Richard Arrington in 1981, Mays finally received recognition in his own home town for his accomplishments. He now makes his home in California and is the guiding force behind the Say Hey Foundation, an organization supporting education for underprivileged children.

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  • Condoleezza Rice
    Rice, Condoleezza
    First African American woman as National Security Advisor; First African-American woman as Secretary of State

    The daughter of John and Angelena Rice, whom she described in her memoir of the same name as “extraordinary, ordinary people,” Condoleezza Rice was born on November 14, 1954 in Birmingham, Alabama. Exceptionally intelligent from an early age, Rice took music lessons from her mother and was home-schooled, though her parents had made an unsuccessful attempt to enroll her in first grade at age three. Mindful of the social climate of the time, Rice’s parents encouraged her education but sheltered her as much as possible from the violence of the Civil Rights Movement, with limited success: one of her friends was Denise McNair, a victim of the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. In 1968 the family moved to Denver, Colorado, where Rice continued her music studies for a short time but then became interested in politics. After earning her Bachelor’s Degree at University of Denver, Rice attended Notre Dame and awarded a Master’s Degree in Political Science in 1975, which she followed with a return to University of Denver and a Ph.D. in Soviet and International Relations in 1981. In 1986 Rice was offered a position on the Joint Chiefs of Staff and from 1989 from 1991 she served President George H.W. Bush as a foreign policy analyst on the National Security Council. In 2005 she succeeded Colin Powell as Secretary of State. Rice left the State Department in 2009 to teach political science at Stanford University in California, where she is a member of the faculty today. In addition to her university duties, she continues her lifelong interest in music and is also an avid fan of professional football.

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  • Arthur Davis Shores
    Shores, Arthur Davis
    First African American to serve on the Birmingham City Council

    One of the most prominent legal figures associated with the Civil Rights Movement, Arthur Davis Shores was born in Bessemer on September 25th, 1904 and grew up in the mining community of Wenonah, where he was able to attend a school sponsored by TCI. He later attended Parker High School and went on to earn a Bachelor’s Degree from Talladega College and a law degree from LaSalle Extension University in Chicago in 1935. Shores had been teaching at Bessemer’s Dunbar High School while working on his law degree, and after he began his law practice he was for a time the state’s only practicing African-American attorney. Shores’ first prominent case was in 1940 when the NAACP requested that he prosecute a police brutality case. Shores consented and won the case, refusing a bribe to drop the issue and resisting threats from the Ku Klux Klan. He entered politics in 1952, campaigning for Stevenson and Sparkman and then seeking office himself with a run for the state legislature in 1954. In his political career as with his legal career, Shores continued to take a stand for civil rights, providing legal assistance to Vivian Malone and James Hood in the famous “stand in the schoolhouse door” incident at University of Alabama. In 1968 Shores was appointed to the Birmingham City Council, making him the first African-American to serve as a councilman. He retired from the council in 1977, citing a desire to return to law practice, and was involved in many community organizations such as the Birmingham Housing Authority, the A.G. Gaston Boys’ Club, and many others. Shores died in Birmingham, Alabama, on December 15th, 1996.

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  • Carrie Tuggle
    Tuggle, Carrie A.
    Established first orphan home in Alabama for African American boys
    Born May 28th, 1858 in Eufala, Alabama, Carrie Tuggle was the daughter of a former slave and a Mohawk Indian chief. Tuggle became a social worker and moved to Birmingham in the early 1900s, where her work with the black youth of the city was instrumental in the establishment of the Jefferson County Juvenile and Domestic Court. In 1903, Tuggle opened the Tuggle Institute and School, the first orphan home in Alabama for African-American boys. The Institute operated until Tuggle’s death on November 5th, 1924 and was later renamed Tuggle Elementary School in 1936. Attendees at Tuggle School include famous jazz musician Erskine Hawkins and Birmingham entrepreneur A.G. Gaston, who credited Tuggle as being “everything to me when I was a boy growing up in Birmingham.” Tuggle’s legacy lives on in the present-day Tuggle Elementary School, where her memorial plaque describes her as “scholar, educator, servant of mankind, and a Christian woman.” Another memorial to Tuggle can be found among the Distinguished African-American Citizens Monuments in Kelly Ingram Park, where her tribute marker hails her “life of unselfish service to the troubled and the homeless black boys and girls.”

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Page Last Modified: 12/21/2020 1:57 PM