SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
Before the civil rights movement that made Birmingham, Alabama a dateline in history, it was a famous steel town. A vast deposit of iron ore lies just outside of town on Red Mountain. A mining operation set up there just after the Civil War led to the founding of vast steel mills. Today, Birmingham looks to Red Mountain as a place where the history of mining and the subtleties of race might be explored.
Al Letson of NPR's and PRX's State of the Re:Union traveled to Birmingham to find out more about the story of Red Mountain. Al joins us in our studios.
Thanks so much for being with us.
AL LETSON: Thank you.
SIMON: And there's a huge symbol of Birmingham's debt to iron sitting just on the south end of town.
LETSON: Yeah. You know, when you drive into Birmingham one of the first things you see is a statue of a Roman god, Vulcan, sitting atop a hill. It's the largest cast iron statue in the world - symbol of the iron ore and mining that helped make Birmingham the Pittsburgh of the South.
SIMON: OK. Let's hear the story that you brought us.
LETSON: Well, until the end of the Civil War, Birmingham was a place where two trains met and not much more. But all the elements were in place for a mining boom. The city was the tail end of the Appalachian Mountain range. The iron ore was close to the surface and there was cheap labor force and a nearby transportation hub. The city seemed to sprout up overnight, giving birth to the moniker The Magic City.
By the heyday of the 1940s and '50s, thousands of men, both black and white, were working underground. And while many of the remnants of that time were gone, a short walk through the woods with park ranger Eric McFerrin reveals the past.
Mr. ERIC MCFERRIN (Park ranger): You guys, we'll walk down. And see that huge hole in the ground?
Mr. MCFERRIN: You can hear a huge hole in the ground. You won't actually see it.
LETSON: He flings a stone down a 380-foot shaft vent.
(Soundbite of banging)
The park, which will open to the public in a few years, is massive. It spreads out over the wooded expanse of Red Mountain. Eric envisions it as part recreational for mountain bikers, hikers and families, and part memorial to the men that work there.
Mr. MCFERRIN: We're on the way to the number 13 Ishkooda ore mine. It's one of the older red ore mines here in Birmingham. It dates to 1873.
LETSON: When you walk out of the forest, mine number 13 stands as a monument to a bygone era. There are artifacts scattered around the entrance, old railroad spikes, a car radio from the '50s - evidence of times past. The front of the mine is plugged with a slab of concrete, almost like a gravestone with the beginning and end dates. And while nature has recaptured much of the area, you can still see the traces of the operation that once took place here.
Mr. MCFERRIN: Some of the areas that we walked in on are old mining tramways. So we're utilizing those in our trail network.
LETSON: Time and technology caught up with the mines, and by the early '70s Red Mountain was shuttered. Many of the miners are gone now, but Eric McFerrin and his team have collected their stories.
Mr. MCFERRIN: These guys made history. Really, you know, regardless of a miner's race or his other status in the community, these guys mined 10 percent of our ore.
LETSON: I met Amos Horton, who is white, and Willie Cammack, who is black, in front of mine number 10. And what they told me about race relations in the mines during the '40s and '50s is surprising.
Mr. WILLIE CAMMACK (Retired miner): They had a good relationship. You know, everybody know their job and everybody did their work. So it was just nice. I'd rather worked in the mine than anywhere.
Mr. AMOS HORTON (Retired miner): There wasn't no animosity at all between the blacks and the white. And as far as working underground, we worked right alongside them just like, you know, everybody was the same color.
Mr. CAMMACK: Really, everybody was the same color when they come out.
(Soundbite of laughter)
LETSON: Everybody was the same color when they came out of the mine. And says Amos Cammack, who worked in number 10, they all faced the same risks underground.
Mr. HORTON: When you enter that hole right there and go down, everybody's looking out for everybody and you have a bond between everybody. Yeah, and you carry that with you on the outside when you come out, because you have a feeling for that same person outside that you will down there.
Ms. SHIRLEY TIPPER CRUMPTON: We're kin.
Ms. ETHEL DUNNAGAN: We all went to school right here. We were raised up in the company houses. Our father worked in the mine, so we're one big family.
LETSON: In a parking lot of a church in what used to be a mining camp, we've met up with Ethel Dunnagan, Eloise Lawrence Master, and Shirley Tipper Crumpton - the wives and daughters of miners. Ethel and Eloise lived in the black mining camp and Shirley in the adjacent white one.
Today, this area is a part of Birmingham. And really camp is kind of a misnomer. These places, even decades ago, had schools and churches and markets courtesy of TC&I, a division of U.S. Steel.
Ms. DUNNAGAN: They had their own policemen, their own doctors. The commissary furnished the food, the clothing. All of that was furnished by TC&I. I feel like that was the best time of our life because we didn't fear one another.
Ms. CRUMPTON: But when you talk to the white kids that grew up in the camps, they say the very same thing. It was the best time of our lives.
LETSON: But then Shirley said something that speaks to the complexities of race in the south and the resentment felt by many whites during desegregation in the '60s.
Ms. CRUMPTON: When the government said we're going to fix this and, you know, fix what, and, you know, and then the problems really began and that's not a very good thing to say, I guess. But, like I said, when they began to legislate that you have to love each other, I guess, then you loved each other on a human basis.
LETSON: What Shirley said really stuck with me because, I can tell you, growing up as an African-American in the South just after the civil rights era, her take is not how I experienced the aftermath of that time. But that gets to the heart of race in America.
I mean, each one of us has our own perceptions of the world and the issues around us; different circumstances that inform our view. After spending some time in Birmingham, you can see the city is dealing with its past, from the Civil Rights Museum to the memorial in the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church. And people wanted to talk about it.
But at times, there's a distance between the way blacks and whites remember it. At Red Mountain Park, most of the people we talked to - both black and white -have good memories of the place but still, it had its issues.
Mr. L.C. CULPEPPER: Blacks - excuse the expression - they caught hell in that mine as far as work is concerned.
LETSON: L.C. Culpepper started working in the Birmingham iron ore mines in 1948. For him, the mines were a necessary evil and it was a very well-paying job for a black man at the time.
Mr. CULPEPPER: We were happy, 'cause that gave us a little social standing in the mines.
LETSON: He says in the mine where he worked, there were few whites underground. Most were supervisors or worked machinery on the surface. But regardless of who was there, black or white, you had to get the job done.
Mr. CULPEPPER: Whatever, whoever it was, you worked together. There was no refusing to work together, you worked. 'Cause the big man expect you to work. They expect you to produce. You didn't have no camaraderie. You just worked, you know.
LETSON: Culpepper feels the creation of Red Mountain Park will be an important reminder of the work that went on here.
Mr. CULPEPPER: Red Mountain fought a war. If it had not been for Red Mountain and the steel plants sending that ore out there and making steel and making ships and guns and what have you, no telling what would have happened to America.
(Soundbite of crunchy footsteps)
LETSON: Back on the trail, Ranger Eric McFerrin sees Red Mountain Park as a place where the ongoing healing of Birmingham's dark past can continue.
Mr. MCFERRIN: You know, I see it as a future gathering spot, a point of unity for Birmingham. But, I mean, you know, the people here are what made it happen. Red Mountain Park is a celebration of this history, though. It's not a racial thing. I mean, black and white, the people that worked here significantly contributed to the building of the superpower. I mean, really they did. And, to me, that's something to celebrate.
(Soundbite of song, "I Got a Man in the 'Bama Mines)
Ms. VICTORIA SPIVEY (Singer): (Singing) You can leave me if you want to, I'm giving you a break. But don't come back home crying over your mistakes. I've got a man in the 'Bama mines.
SIMON: Al Letson is the host of NPR's State of the Re:Union. Our story was produced by Peter Breslow. You can take a video tour of Red Mountain Park and meet the former miners on our website, NPR.org.
Tomorrow on WEEKEND EDITION, Al Letson reports on another project in Birmingham that looks to bridge some of the divides of the city's past: Scroll Works, a program that provides free music lessons for school kids.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.