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Chapter Twenty-Six Carolyn and Elizabeth Birmingham, January 2012 I wouldn’t take nothin’ for my journey now. —African American spiritual “Come on, Mom. Let’s take a look at this view.” I took my mother’s arm and guided her to a spot at the front of the observation deck. Below us, the city of Birmingham, Alabama, stretched out in a patchwork quilt of brick, steel, and glass. Above us, the city’s iconic Vulcan, a fifty-six-foot cast-iron statue of the Roman god, glittered in the afternoon sun. “This is just wonderful, Carolyn. Can we see where my mother lived from here?” “I think so,” I said. “See the church? The one with the two towers sticking up? That’s 16th Street Baptist Church. Your mother lived on 14th street, just a couple of blocks over.” “Is that the church where those four little girls were killed?” “That’s right. It was bombed during the civil rights movement,”I said.“Fifty years before that, your mother, your grandmother, and your great-grandmother all lived together a few blocks away in a shotgun tenement by the railroad tracks. Let’s drive by and take a closer look.” My mother and I drove down from Red Mountain and into the north side of Birmingham. When my grandmother was growing up here, this area had been teeming with migrants just like herself—African Americans fresh from the cotton fields seeking a better life in the city. These days, my grandmother ’s former neighborhood was largely deserted. On the corner where Alberta Sweeney, her mother, her grandmother, and her great-grandmother had once shared a shotgun tenement with four other family members there sat a low brick building with an enormous loading dock. Although it looked like some kind of warehouse, a small sign on the front of the building read: “Church of The Reconciler—A United Methodist Congregation.” In front of us, a couple dressed in layers of clothing pushed a shopping cart and traded sips from a 131 132 Chapter Twenty-Six brown paper bag. Next to the building, a dozen more homeless people sat on the curb, soaking up the afternoon sun. “My my,” I said.“Mom you’ve got to take a look at this.” “If any building is going to stand on the block where Grandmother Alberta used to live, it ought to be a Methodist mission,” Mom said with a chuckle. “If she were alive, your grandmother would be inside there right now, whipping things into shape.” I had taken my mother to Birmingham to explore Alberta’s early stomping grounds, but there was just not much left to see. Too much had changed in the hundred years since Alberta and Lilly lived here. I suppose I should have expected the changes. After all, time had taken its toll even in the twenty-five years since I moved to Boston. The 1369 Jazz Club had closed. Aunt Marjory, Jelly Belly, and Herbie King, the drummer at the 1369, had all passed away. Dan O’Brien, who helped me survive my first Boston jam session, moved back to Seattle, and the vocalist Semenya McCord now lived in Illinois. Not long after I left Wally’s, Salim Washington also departed for greener pastures. He’s now a respected author, a jazz scholar, and a professor at Brooklyn College. Mom, on the other hand, seems timeless. Although she’s nearly eighty-five, my mother retains her zest for exploring new places. Far from being disappointed that there was so little to see in Birmingham, Mom reveled in the adventure of discovering a new city. “Richard King did not play a large part in Grandmother Alberta’s life,” I said.“But since we’re out here, I’d like to show you the last place he was known to have lived.” “You mean the coal mine?” “Yes,” I said. “It was a prison mine run by the company that later became U.S. Steel. There’s a convict graveyard up there I think we should see.” I turned our rented Ford onto route I59. Fifteen minutes later we were rolling down the Pratt Highway. “I suppose we should make some kind of effort to honor my grandfather’s memory,” Mom said with a sigh. The highway became a beat-up two-lane road as it passed through Pratt City. Recently the scene of a devastating tornado, much of the town was boarded up. Several houses were completely destroyed...


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MARC Record
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