The question posed by the lyrics in Stevie Wonder’s classic tune, “If It’s Magic” could be asked of Birmingham, Ala. After incorporating as a city in 1871, Birmingham — named after one of England’s major industrial cities — grew into an industrial power, coining the nickname “Magic City.”
Jones County, where Birmingham is located, is the only place on earth that contains substantial quantities of coal, iron ore, and limestone all in close proximity to one another. The magic took an evil sorcerer’s sleight of hand in Birmingham’s early days when iron manufacturers exploited the prison population through an egregious convict leasing system.
The system sent prisoners, mostly young Black men, to work in the mines where they suffered deplorable, dangerous conditions.
Birmingham’s steelmakers could also access an endless supply of inexpensive labor from freedmen and poor southern whites looking to escape sharecropping and tenant farming legacies, while playing on racial tensions to further divide and conquer.
The cicty’s inexhaustible supplies of raw materials and low cost labor, and an increasing national demand for iron and steel, led Magic City to become the largest iron and steel producer in the southern United States by 1907. The same year, Birmingham’s largest steel producer, Tennessee Coal Iron and Railroad, was acquired by U.S. Steel.
By 1910, Black workers made up 75 percent of the industrial workforce in Alabama. In 1928, Alabama outlawed its convict leasing program; the last state to do so. The Great Migration threatened to cut into the area’s pool of Black workers as many headed north, so employers had to raise wages. Then the Great Depression hit, devastating Birmingham’s economy. Ultimately labor unions won some recognition battles, and Birmingham’s economy improved, along with its workers’ paychecks, as industries prepared for World War II.
Meanwhile, company towns began springing up around Birmingham’s steel plants. Pratt, a widespread area just north of downtown, became the first boomtown, growing to become a working class community of steelworkers. The region also served as a base for Birmingham’s civil rights movement; Martin Luther King Jr.’s younger brother, A.D. King, pastored a church in the area.
The town of Ensley was annexed into Birmingham in 1910. Mills and plants opened rapidly, Ensley could barely build streets, sidewalks, schools, libraries and places of worship at a pace fast enough to keep up.
By 1925, Ensley had at least two banks, two funeral homes — one white and one black, jewelers, laundries, flower shops, pawn shops, fruit dealers, barber shops, tailors, an F.W. Woolworth, a Western Union, and a Singer sewing store. It bustled during the day and also became known for its spirited night life. Tuxedo Junction was the place to go for black music in the 1920s, garnered national fame after a hit song about it was recorded in 1939.
But during the middle of the century, Birmingham’s iron and steel industry began to decline when Germany and Japan exported iron to the United States, pricing it much lower than domestic producers. The decline continued into the early 1980s with the proliferation of cheap China-made steel overtaking the U.S. steel industry. For Ensley, the slide culminated in 1976 when U.S. Steel closed its Ensley Works. It had employed 30,000 people at its height. As the jobs went, so did the lively neighborhoods like Ensley and Pratt, now shadows of what was once there.
About 38,000 people remain employed in manufacturing in the Birmingham region, but struggles continue.
Ultimately, Birmingham’s sudden industrial prowess had less to do with hocus pocus, and more to do with geology. The city’s industrial decline was not magic, but math.
Infrastructure investment is a key solution to reverse the decline in urban centers created by industrial flight. Workforce development will put the nation on a path to success and U.S. trade policy must enforce rules on the books and not disadvantage U.S. workers to revive the once magic Birmingham.