Birmingham is the largest city in Alabama. The city is the county seat of Jefferson County. The city's population was 212,237 according to the 2010 United States Census. The Birmingham-Hoover Metropolitan Statistical Area had a population of about 1,128,047 according to the 2010 Census, which is approximately one quarter of Alabama's population.
Birmingham was founded in 1871, during the post-Civil War Reconstruction period, through the merger of three pre-existing farm towns, notably, former Elyton. It grew from there, annexing many more of its smaller neighbors, into an industrial and railroad transportation center with a focus on mining, the iron and steel industry, and railroading. Birmingham was named for Birmingham, United Kingdom, one of the UK's major industrial cities. Many, if not most, of the original settlers who founded Birmingham were of English ancestry. In one writer's view, the city was planned as a place where cheap, non-unionized, and African-American labor from rural Alabama could be employed in the city's steel mills and blast furnaces, giving it a competitive advantage over industrial cities in the Midwest and Northeast.
From its founding through the end of the 1960s, Birmingham was a primary industrial center of the South. The pace of Birmingham's growth during the period from 1881 through 1920 earned its nicknames The Magic City and The Pittsburgh of the South. Much like Pittsburgh, Birmingham's major industries were iron and steel production, plus a major component of the railroading industry, where rails and railroad cars were both manufactured in Birmingham. In the field of railroading, the two primary hubs of railroading in the Deep South were nearby Atlanta and Birmingham, beginning in the 1860s and continuing through to the present day. The economy diversified during the later half of the twentieth century. Though the manufacturing industry maintains a strong presence in Birmingham, other businesses and industries such as banking, telecommunications, transportation, electrical power transmission, medical care, college education, and insurance have risen in stature. Mining in the Birmingham area is no longer a major industry with the exception of coal mining. Birmingham ranks as one of the most important business centers in the Southeastern United States and is also one of the largest banking centers in the United States. In addition, the Birmingham area serves as headquarters to one Fortune 500 company: Regions Financial, along with five other Fortune 1000 companies.
In higher education, Birmingham has been the location of the University of Alabama School of Medicine (formerly the Medical College of Alabama) and the University of Alabama School of Dentistry since 1947. Since that time it has also obtained a campus of the University of Alabama, University of Alabama at Birmingham (founded circa 1969), one of three main campuses of the University of Alabama System. It is also home of the private Birmingham-Southern College. Between these two universities and Samford University, the Birmingham area has major colleges of medicine, dentistry, optometry, pharmacy, law, engineering, and nursing. Birmingham is home to three of the state's five law schools: Cumberland School of Law, Birmingham School of Law, and Miles Law School. Birmingham is also the headquarters of the Southeastern Conference, one of the major U.S. collegiate athletic conferences.
Founding and early growth
Birmingham was founded on June 1, 1871, by the Elyton Land Company whose investors included cotton planters, bankers and railroad entrepreneurs. It sold lots near the planned crossing of the Alabama & Chattanooga and South & North Alabama railroads including land formerly a part of the Benjamin P. Worthington Plantation. The first business at that crossroads was the trading post and country store operated by Marre & Allen. The site of the railroad crossing was notable for the nearby deposits of iron ore, coal, and limestone – the three main raw materials used in making steel. Birmingham is the only place worldwide where significant amounts of all three minerals can be found in close proximity. From the start the new city was planned as a great center of industry. The founders, organized as the Elyton Land Company, borrowed the name of Birmingham, one of England's main industrial cities, to advertise that point. The growth of the planned city was impeded by an outbreak of cholera and a Wall Street crash in 1873. However, it began to grow shortly afterward at an explosive rate.
The town of Elyton, Alabama, and several other surrounding towns were absorbed into Birmingham in 1911.
The start of the 20th century brought the substantial growth that gave Birmingham the nickname "The Magic City" as the downtown area developed from a low-rise commercial and residential district into a busy grid of neoclassical mid-rise and high-rise buildings and busy streetcar lines. Between 1902 and 1912 four large office buildings were constructed at the intersection of 20th Street, the central north–south spine of the city, and 1st Avenue North, which connected the warehouses and industrial facilities stretching along the east–west railroad corridor. This impressive group of early skyscrapers was nicknamed "The Heaviest Corner on Earth".
Birmingham was hit by the 1916 Irondale earthquake (magnitude 5.1). A few buildings in the area were slightly damaged. It was felt as far as Atlanta and neighboring states.
The Great Depression hit Birmingham especially hard as sources of capital that were fueling the city's growth rapidly dried up at the same time that farm laborers, driven off the land, made their way to the city in search of work. New Deal programs made important contributions to the city's infrastructure and artistic legacy, including such key improvements as Vulcan's tower and Oak Mountain State Park.
The wartime demand for steel and the post-war building boom gave Birmingham a rapid return to prosperity. Manufacturing diversified beyond the production of raw materials and major civic institutions such as schools, parks and museums, were able to expand their scope.
Birmingham civil rights movement
In the 1950s and 1960s Birmingham received national and international attention as a center of the civil rights struggle for African-Americans. Locally the movement's activists were led by Fred Shuttlesworth, a fiery preacher who became legendary for his fearlessness in the face of violence, notably a string of racially motivated bombings that earned Birmingham the derisive nickname "Bombingham".
A watershed in the civil rights movement occurred in 1963 when Shuttlesworth requested that Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which Shuttlesworth had co-founded, come to Birmingham, where King had once been a pastor, to help end segregation. Together they launched "Project C" (for "Confrontation"), a massive assault on the Jim Crow system. During April and May daily sit-ins and mass marches organized and led by movement leader James Bevel were met with police repression, tear gas, attack dogs, fire hoses, and arrests. More than 3,000 people were arrested during these protests, almost all of them high-school age children. These protests were ultimately successful, leading not only to desegregation of public accommodations in Birmingham but also the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
While imprisoned for having taken part in a nonviolent protest, Dr. King wrote the now famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, a defining treatise in his cause against segregation. Birmingham is also known for a bombing which occurred later that year, in which four black girls were killed by a bomb planted at the 16th Street Baptist Church. The event would inspire the African-American poet Dudley Randall's opus, "The Ballad of Birmingham", as well as jazz musician John Coltrane's song "Alabama".
In 1998 the Birmingham Pledge, written by local attorney James Rotch, was introduced at the Martin Luther King Unity Breakfast. As a grassroots community commitment to combating racism and prejudice, it has since then been used for programs in all fifty states and in more than twenty countries. In 2011, the Highland Park neighborhood of Birmingham was named as a 2011 America's Great Place by the American Planning Association.
In the 1970s urban-renewal efforts focused around the development of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, which developed into a major medical and research center. In 1971 Birmingham celebrated its centennial with a round of public-works improvements, including the upgrading of Vulcan Park. Birmingham's banking institutions enjoyed considerable growth as well and new skyscrapers started to appear in the city center for the first time since the 1920s. These projects helped the city's economy to diversify, but did not prevent the exodus of many of the city's residents to independent suburbs. In 1979 Birmingham elected Dr. Richard Arrington Jr. as its first African-American mayor.
The population inside Birmingham's city limits has fallen over the past few decades, due in large part to "white flight" from the city of Birmingham proper to surrounding suburbs. The city's formerly most populous ethnic group, non-Hispanic white, has declined from 57.4 percent in 1970 to 21.1 percent in 2010. From 340,887 in 1960, the population was down to 242,820 in 2000, a loss of about 29 percent. By 2009 Census estimates placed Birmingham's population at 230,650. That same period saw a corresponding rise in the populations of the suburban communities of Hoover, Vestavia Hills, Alabaster, and Gardendale, none of which were incorporated as municipalities until after 1950.
Today, Birmingham has begun to experience something of a rebirth. New resources have been dedicated in reconstructing the downtown area into a 24-hour mixed-use district. The market for downtown lofts and condominiums has increased while restaurant, retail and cultural options are also beginning to expand. In 2006, the visitors bureau selected "the diverse city" as a new tag line for the city.