Road Trip to Birmingham, AL

I drove with my friend Kellie from Huntsville to Birmingham, Alabama. Any time I mentioned I was coming to Alabama, the response I got was “why?” Kellie is why. Kellie was my roommate our freshman year at UNC Greeley, in Colorado.

Kellie and I weren’t meant to be roommates actually. We both got assigned to another person. But when those two other people, friends from high school, realized they had both been placed on the same floor in McCowen Hall, they asked us to switch. I didn’t mind because I hadn’t yet invested in my supposed new roommate. Kellie had. These were the days before social media existed, and Kellie had spent hours on the phone getting to know the person she thought she would spend her entire freshman year with.

Kellie and me as freshmen at UNC in our dormroom

So when the switch happened, Kellie called me, upset. She no longer had the energy to get to know another person on the phone, and I told her that roommates didn’t have to be best friends. We both assumed we would hate each other. But the second the door opened and Kellie and I saw each other, the connection was immediate, and we stayed close all year. I was wrong. Roommates and best friends for one perfect year.

Randomly assigned, but a friendship that has become totally and completely intentional. I transferred schools after one year, but that one year set us on track for a lifetime of friendship. Our lives forever linked. We visited each other as much as we could throughout the rest of university and into adulthood.

She got married, had kids. Her first child became my goddaughter. Her family moved across several states several times, ultimately landing in Alabama one year ago due to her husband’s job.

I’m not normally in North America, so seeing Kellie was a high priority. My first time in Alabama, and Kellie still trying to get to know her new home state. Most days spent in Huntsville were full with cooking dinners, taking walks, and playing games with the kids. But this day, Kellie and I had to ourselves. So here we were, two Colorado Girls, getting to know a place that has always been so foreign to us- Alabama. 

When I think of Birmingham, Alabama, I think of the Civil Rights Movement. Bombings and protests. Lunch counter sit-ins. Police brutality. There is so much history in this city, and in going there, we want to feel the history even deeper. 

As we neared Birmingham, our first stop was at the Sloss Furnaces, which opened in 1882 and operated for nearly 100 years as a pig-iron producing blast furnace. 

The Sloss Furnaces began as a producer of pig-iron ore. While walking between these huge furnaces, of red, yellow, and crimson, the racial injustices that existed there were glaring. Only White men could be the bosses, and Black men the workers. The 13th amendment passed in 1865, “ending” slavery, however the Sloss Furnaces (and many others) used a loophole to get around it: “except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” And so began ‘convict leasing,’ an inhumane practice where companies would ‘lease’ prisoners, and put them in dangerous and unsafe conditions, with no pay.

After leaving the Sloss Furnaces, we made a quick stop in one of the newer parts of town to check out the craft beer scene. We stopped at a super hipster brewery, The Good People, that is just what you would imagine; it could have been any hipster brewery in Denver. High ceilings. High tables. Cement floor. A merch section. Great beer.

After our hipster brewery foray, we headed into the center of the old town to look for lunch. We wanted Southern food, home cooked, a place to sit outside. We found all that in a place called Yo Mama’s. They even have a separate fryer for gluten free folks. Kellie and I shared a meal of fried chicken, black beans, sauerkraut, and fries. Perfection.

Now with our stomachs full, we were ready to take in the historical part of the city. When you walk around downtown, you will see plaques every few hundred feet along the path of Civil Rights marches.

You will read the history of the lunch counter sit-ins, and see the building where they occurred. What happened when and where. You can read about the prosperous Black neighborhoods around 4th and 5th streets, which unfortunately turned into ghost towns once segregation became illegal.

We walked through Kelly Ingram Park, where throughout the 1960s, was the site for many abusive police tactics used on protestors, in the center of the Civil Rights Movement. Police used attack dogs on the protestors, as well as spraying them with high powered fire hoses, all of which are memorialized with statues inside the park.

Across the street is the 16th street baptist Church, where in 1963, the KKK Terrorist group planted a bomb which exploded under the stairs, killing four young girls.

Our last stop downtown was a quick view of the AG Gaston Hotel, built in 1954, and currently being refurbished. It served as a meeting place for Martin Luther King jr, and several other prominent leaders in the Civil Rights Movement, as well as the starting point for many marches in the city.

The sky started to turn grey, so we left downtown and headed up the hill to the statue of Vulcan, to try and see it before the rain came. The Statue of Vulcan is the largest cast-iron statue in the world, and the second highest statue in the US, just after the Statue of Liberty. Vulcan is the Roman god of fire and forge, and the statue is depicted with ironworker equipment. This statue is made from the iron of the Sloss Furnaces.

Kellie looking up at the Vulcan Statue

We took the elevator up to the top where we stayed for just a few moments before getting kicked out, due to heavy wind, thunder, and lightning.

As the rain began to come down hard, we got back into the safety of our car, and headed back north to Huntsville, exhausted but happy.