Sibling cities
by H. Brandt Ayers
Jul 27, 2008 | 4008 views |  0 comments | 42 42 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The Anniston Opera House. Photos/Public Library of Anniston and Calhoun County
The Anniston Opera House. Photos/Public Library of Anniston and Calhoun County
Samuel Noble, Founder
Samuel Noble, Founder
In the late 19th century, two industrial towns sprang up in mineral-rich parts of Alabama. One town, Anniston, was founded upon utopian ideals. The other, Birmingham, sprang up as a company town with absentee owners. This early nurturing (or lack thereof) made a difference when troubles arose during the civil rights era.

Sibling cities, Anniston and Birmingham, were separated at birth but entered the 21st century more alike — in spirit, if not flesh.

Both were post-Civil War towns that emerged in the 1870s and 1880s. Anniston didn't become the state's manufacturing center, but its founders endowed it with a civic ideal while Birmingham was a runaway frontier town.

Anniston had tantalizing mineral deposits, but 60 miles further west lay the major deposits of coal, limestone and ore needed to make iron and steel. These deposits in the aptly named Red Mountain spawned a helter-skelter city.

One industrial titan whose personality dominated the erupting town was Col. Henry DeBardeleben, described as a "coal-maddened Ahab." His civic conscience was: "I like to use money as I use a horse — to ride!" His defense against union organizers was militia whose armaments included machine guns.

Birmingham lost its homegrown Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company, when, through a series of Wall Street transactions during the panic of 1907, J.P. Morgan bought TCI for roughly a dime on the dollar.

The deal created a steel monopoly, U. S. Steel, which became the godfather of Birmingham. Until the1970s, the city's civic soul was shaped by a succession of managers whose allegiance was to a corporation instead of the community.

An industrial odd couple, a Confederate munitions manufacturer from Rome, Ga., Sam Noble, and a Union general from Connecticut, Daniel Tyler, carved the "model" new town of Anniston from wilderness. Their chance 1872 meeting in Charleston combined the elements of a New South formula devised by the famed Atlanta editor, Henry Grady.

To rise from the ashes of defeat, Grady reasoned, the South needed to marry Yankee wealth with Southern sense of the geography, geology and culture. He was excited to see his "New South" concept taking shape in bricks and mortar, and confident enough to invest in the company.

The partnership added an extra ingredient to Grady's theory, a dimension Birmingham lacked — personal commitment. Noble moved his family to the "new town," and Gen. Tyler persuaded his son, Alfred, to take up residence and help run the company. The two families were determined to make the place they lived as attractive as possible.

Sam Noble expressed the civic ideal: "Instead of dissipating our earnings in dividends, we have concentrated them here ... These reinvestments were judiciously made, and every dollar was made to do its best."

That sentiment came to life in a gilt-and-velvet jewel box of an opera house; in 100,000 water oaks lining the grid of broad, north-south avenues and east-west streets; in a little gem of a parish for the carriage trade, Grace Episcopal; and a cathedral filled with Italian-crafted marble statuary, St. Michael and All Angels, for the working class.

The liberal ideal extended to the workers in other ways, too: double the prevailing wage of 50 cents a day, and equity in their houses, instead of paying rent for company-built houses in perpetuity, which made the workers stake-holding, home-owning residents.

As the Georgia-Pacific railroad pushed west toward Anniston, incorporation was required. Among the assets with which this self-governing town began was a newspaper that hit the streets on Saturday, Aug. 18, 1883, the year the city was opened to the public.

It is said that Henry Grady and Sam Noble were discussing what to name the paper over a "toddy" on the veranda of Noble's house when the Woodstock furnace lit the evening sky. "You've got to call it 'The Hot Blast,' " Grady is alleged to have said. Dominating the front page of The Anniston Hot Blast was an article by Grady, "A Man and A Town."

He described what he could see from Noble's hilltop house on Woodstock Avenue, saluting the Noble-Tyler partnership with hyperbolic enthusiasm: "I thought, as I stood between their two houses, that ... I had rather have been either of them ... than to have been the president of these United States."

Even discounting Grady's exuberance, the founding vision was liberal to the point of utopian. Democracy's tendency to choose the means — often the lowest common denominator — couldn't maintain the brilliance of the founders' dream. But their ideal of "a model city" gave its leaders resolve to weather the 20th century civil rights storms better than Birmingham.

A warning tremor of bad times ahead for Birmingham was felt at the July 1948 "Dixiecrat" convention in the steel city, led by former Alabama Gov. Frank Dixon. Among the delegates, five Southern governors mingled with a who's-who list of such violent racists as Gerald L.K. Smith and J.B. Stoner. They nominated South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond as their presidential candidate to oppose the re-election of President Harry Truman, and to preserve "States' Rights," meaning the state's right to discriminate against black residents.

Anniston and Birmingham both felt the shock of civil rights storms when freedom rider buses were attacked on Mothers Day 1961 in both cities. The response in Anniston, however, showed there was still life in the founders' civic ideal. "We didn't want the city to get a bad name," the late Miller Sproull recalled some 40 years later.

Birmingham, too, began its long arc from denial to civic engagement. Sid Smyer, a gruff real estate lawyer and one of the feudal lords of Birmingham's status-quo ante, was in Japan attending an International Rotary convention.

He assured fellow Rotarians that all was well in Birmingham, when The Star's bus burning photo and Post-Herald pictures of white men in sports shirts beating blacks sprang from the front page of Tokyo newspapers. Embarrassed, the incoming president of the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce underwent a conversion.

In Anniston, there had already been talk that a biracial committee should be established. The Mother's Day tragedy was a spur to action. Miller Sproull ran for the City Commission pledging the creation of such a committee. On April 10, 1962, he was elected finance commissioner; Claude Dear was elected mayor; and Jack Suggs, a devout segregationist, police commissioner. They took office on Oct. 1, 1962 — the day following the Ole Miss riot.

The first weeks in May told the story of a city where civic conscience was alive, in contrast with the bigotry and ineptitude of Bull Connor's Birmingham. The arrest and jailing of Dr. Martin Luther King in Birmingham triggered a children's crusade.

Hundreds of black students surged around Kelly Ingram Park, met by Bull Connor's police and fire departments, police dogs lunging at the children and fire hoses sending them tumbling like fallen leaves – images of which were an incalculable contribution to the civil rights cause.

E.L. Turner Jr., a pillar of Anniston's First Presbyterian Church, had been in Birmingham on business that day and told a meeting of the governing body of the church what he saw. He asked that the elders pray for Anniston to avoid Birmingham's tragedy. The Rev. Phil Noble led the prayer. The session then voted to endorse a Human Relations Council. The immediate cause for action came on Mother's Day, May 12, as an echo of the violent 1961 Mother's Day.

Miller Sproull called Phil Noble to report that white men using shotguns fired into homes of two black families and the St. John United Methodist Church in south Anniston that afternoon. Sproull said the city was ready to appoint a biracial committee. The next morning Noble met with Sproull and Mayor Dear at City Hall and accepted chairmanship of the council.

While President Kennedy was hosting a May 14 White House luncheon that Dad and I attended – one of many attempts to encourage responsible leadership of the civil rights crisis – the City Commission was meeting for the same purpose.

Sproull announced that the Chamber of Commerce had voted to establish the Human Relations Council. Two letters were read endorsing its creation, one from the rector, wardens and vestry of Grace Episcopal Church, and another from the Anniston Ministerial Association.

Anniston had taken a stand, but it would face further challenges as the 1960s played out: white men's rallies on the courthouse steps, a night-rider murder, school integration, a sit-down strike by police during a near riot and street demonstrations. In each case, black and white leaders, who were getting to know each other, reached out, and calm prevailed.

At the end of the day, Anniston was called "a success story" by then U.S. Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach. Birmingham, too, became a new city with Bull Connor's defeat in the 1963 mayoral race. Its leadership no longer came from a KKK police commissioner and itinerant steel plant managers but from the growing, world-class University of Alabama in Birmingham and from the city's financial towers.

The sibling cities entered the new millennium similar in spirit, if not in wealth.
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