NEXT MEETING: April 20, 2017
Reception at 6:30 p.m. Meeting at 7:00 p.m.
Emmet O’Neal Library, Mountain Brook
SPEAKER: James Lowery
TOPIC: Birmingham Mineral Railroad
To: Members of the Jefferson County Historical Association
What: Quarterly Meeting
Date: Thursday, April 14, 2011
Time: 6:30 p.m. Social Period, 7:00 p.m. Program
Where: EMMETT O’NEAL LIBRARY— Crestline Heights
Speaker: Carolyn Satterfield
Greetings from your History Center. Things are moving along here as the Center slowly gains public recognition. In the past couple of months we have had a feature story in the Birmingham News (first page—above the fold, a space usually reserved for electronic bingo operators and sewer news) and have been seen live on Channel 6 Fox News (at the prime time of 6:30 a.m.). Please visit our website at www.birminghamhistorycenter.org to keep up with the latest news about the History Center.
We continue to collect important artifacts of the area’s history. Tommy West, our Vice President and Chairman of collections committee, has a knack for finding interesting and fairly inexpensive artifacts on E-Bay which he brings in from time to time. We often also have items donated by the general public which excite our curiosity. I want to mention a couple of them in this column.
Recently, we were pleased to accept as a donation the Williamson Hawkins bell. As all good students of early Jefferson County history know, pioneer settler Williamson Hawkins, Sr. moved to the area surrounding the present Thomas neighborhood in the early 1820's, eventually owning over 2,000 acres. Originally worked by himself and his wife, Betsy, the operation grew to the point that, by 1860 Hawkins owned 150 slaves, which he employed to produce 100 bales of cotton a year. Hawkins traded at the nearby commercial center of Elyton. Near the end of the Civil War, in 1865, a division of Wilson’s army camped at the Hawkins plantation and consumed all of the family’s food and grain stores. Hawkins later sold much of his land to the owners of Republic Iron Works but continued to live at his plantation house.
His son, Dr. Nathaniel Hawkins, and his wife, Maria Welton Hawkins, a transplanted Yankee from Connecticut, helped to organize St. John’s Episcopal Church in 1850. In March of 1872, Williamson Hawkins, Sr. donated a bronze bell to the church. He special ordered it from the Troy Bell Company of Troy, New York.
For many years the bell was part of an outdoor display at the St. John’s Episcopal Church for the Deaf in Cahaba Heights. Dr. Ed Stevenson, past President of the Jefferson County Historical Association and our much missed curator, Dr. Marvin Whiting were instrumental in arranging this donation.
Dr. Stevenson also contacted Jim Owens, of the Road Runner Moving Service, who donated his company’s resources to move the bell from its outdoor perch in Vestavia to the History Center. Mr. Owens and his assistants, Branden Pair and Vladimir Marinov (see photograph), expertly moved the 484 lb. bell to our location at the Young and Vann building. As an outstanding artifact of early church history in Jefferson County, it is now on exhibit at the Birmingham History Center.
A second important artifact arrived at the museum just a few weeks ago, just in time to commemorate events which happened 50 years ago in Birmingham. Alabama retired Mountain Brook physician Calvin Shaffer donated the 2-page document to the museum last week after finding it in the papers of his late father, Raymond F. Shaffer. It is a copy of a transcript of a phone conversation between then Attorney General Robert Kennedy and George Cruit, the superintendent of the Greyhound Bus depot in Birmingham at 3:15 p.m., on May 15, 1961. It was one of many conversations Kennedy had that day and afterwards with Alabama officials to prevent further violence to 13 civil rights activists challenging racial segregation in the Freedom Ride journey through the South on two commercial busses.
The day before, a Greyhound bus carrying seven Freedom Riders was mobbed, burned and had its tires slashed outside of Anniston. A Trailways bus had been mobbed and Freedom Riders badly beaten two days earlier in Birmingham, reputedly with the blessings of city commissioner Eugene “Bull” Conner. With injured and stranded riders gathered in Birmingham, threatening an international embarrassment, Kennedy wanted to know: Could Cruit get another driver to get the trip on its way to Montgomery? Could he drive a bus himself? Hire an outside driver? No, Cruit says repeatedly in a conversation taken down by shorthand and typed for the office file.
Copies of that transcript later made their way to Washington D.C. and into prominent written accounts of the civil rights era. Dr. Shaffer believes the two sheets of yellowed onion skin paper is the first copy Cruit wired in 1961 to his father, Raymond Shaffer, then president of Greyhound’s eastern division and headquartered in Cincinnati. It’s not known yet if or where an original typed copy exists. However, a version on file with RFK’s papers at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston shows a note that it came by way of MacDonald Gallion, the Alabama attorney general in 1961.
Dr. Shaffer said he remembered the era and his father talking about the Freedom Riders. "He basically thought (African-Americans) were deserving of transportation services," he said. "I believe it was he who asked for federal protection for the Freedom Riders because of the company’s insurers, and he was told, 'that isn’t going to happen.' "
Kennedy would end up sending hundreds of federal marshals to stop rioting in Montgomery after the ride resumed. Hundreds more Freedom Riders took similar journeys, and segregation in bus and train terminals was banned by federal regulations in September. Dr. Shaffer said his father, who had reason to talk to Washington D. C. many times during the civil rights challenges, found Robert F. Kennedy to be the most "intellectually gifted of the Kennedy brothers."
The Cruit papers weren’t Raymond Shaffer’s only connection to Birmingham. In 1977, Miles College in Fairfield bestowed an honorary doctorate on Raymond Shaffer, who had several Motor Coach buses donated for student transportation, and also made personal financial contributions to the historically black college. Dr. Shaffer said his father’s connection to the college "is not known."
Events and programs commemorating the 50th anniversary of the original Freedom Rides are planned throughout the country, and in Anniston and Birmingham. The donated transcript will be part of the Birmingham History Center exhibit in May; a traveling exhibit, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and free to the public, is scheduled at the Center for September 1–29, 2011.
St. Johns Episcopal Church for the Deaf in Cahaba Heights has donated a very historic church bell to our history museum. Members of the Jefferson County Historical Association who are on the Birmingham History Center mailing list have already seen the front-page article about this acquisition in the recent News Letter of the museum. The purpose of this article is to fill in the details of the history of the bell, and to outline the way it was acquired for the museum.
The bell is known as "The Williamson Hawkins Bell". Jim Bennett has been the primary recent source (and my source) of information about Williamson Hawkins as well as the bell, so the reader should consult Jim’s book, Historic Birmingham & Jefferson County, for definitive details. Briefly, however, Williamson Hawkins was a friend of John Jones, for whom Jones Valley was named. Both of them came to present-day Jefferson County in 1815. Hawkins settled in what is now Thomas, where he developed a large and prosperous plantation. His son became a physician, and married Maria Welton, a school teacher in Elyton, who had come from Connecticut; and she wished a church to be established with services like she was accustomed to in Connecticut. St. John’s Episcopal Church grew from that beginning. The church which was established in 1850, first met in the Hawkins home. In 1871, Dr. Hawkins donated land in Elyton, and a church building was moved to that property from Ashville, Alabama. Williamson Hawkins donated a new bronze church bell, which was cast in Troy, N.Y in 1872, with his name embossed, as donor, cast into the metal. As years went by, The Episcopal Church of the Advent, and St. Mary’s-on-the-Highlands Episcopal Church grew out of the original St. John’s Episcopal Church in Elyton. Ultimately the Elyton Church lost significant membership to its newer descendent churches. It then became specialized as St. John’s Episcopal Church for the Deaf. (Academy-Award winning actress Louise Fletcher and her deaf-mute parents were members.) With ravages of time and economic factors, the original building was deteriorating, and was abandoned. A new building was built in Cahaba Heights, across the street from St. Stephens Episcopal Church, and now serves the deaf congregation. The Hawkins Bell and other artifacts were salvaged from the Elyton building, and brought to the new site, with the agreement of descendents of Williamson Hawkins. The bell was mounted on a pedestal in the parking lot behind the church, where it was very vulnerable to metal thieves and vandals.
In 2008, as President of the Birmingham-Jefferson Historical Society, I visited Rev. Marianne Stephens, pastor of St. John’s, and discussed with her the new Museum of History that the Society was establishing. She arranged for representatives of the museum to meet with the congregation and officers of the church on a Sunday following their service. Marvin Whiting, Jim Bennett and I made presentations to the group, and formally requested that the bell be donated to the museum. They voted unanimously to do so. Our member, the late Betty Kent (Mrs. Raleigh Kent, Jr.) had given her blessing to the transfer. The church wished to retain the bell for a year, so that it would be at the church during an upcoming church celebration. This interval also allowed time for the museum to obtain a building.
The bell was transferred to the museum last month. Transfer van and labor was donated by Mr. Jim Owens, owner of Road Runner Movers. The bell weighs 480 pounds, and it took 3 strong men to handle it. It now rests on the floor of the museum, awaiting a proper display base. A museum-quality display base that is strong enough safely to hold the weight of the bell is expensive. If any history society or church members who are so inclined would like to donate for that purpose, the museum Board and Director would like to hear from you.
The Birmingham History Center is fortunate to have obtained this valuable artifact, which is the oldest authentic, non-print, artifact in its possession.