A couple of decades before Julie Buckner Armstrong was born in Birmingham, Alabama, Black families began to buy homes in neighborhoods there legally designated as whites-only under one of the strictest systems of segregation in the country. The local reaction earned the city the nickname Bombingham, as dozens of those homes were dynamited in racist attacks.
One neighborhood came to be called Dynamite Hill because so many of the attacks occurred there. Armstrong’s white grandmother and her children lived just blocks away at the time but “claimed when asked that they didn’t hear” any explosions.
That selective deafness is a metaphor for the Birmingham that Armstrong describes in her insightful memoir, “Learning From Birmingham: A Journey Into History and Home.” A scholar of civil rights and Southern literature, she is a professor of English at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, the author of “Mary Turner and the Memory of Lynching” and editor of “The Cambridge Companion to American Civil Rights Literature.”
In “Learning From Birmingham,” she braids together her personal experiences and the history of the city that was often at the center of the Civil Rights Movement in mid-20th century America.
Armstrong’s grandmother, Hettie Buckner Armstrong, came to Birmingham from Alabama’s Appalachian north after her husband died young, leaving her with four kids and a farm she couldn’t work alone. The family often struggled financially, and Hettie’s daughter Mary Ann lived at Hettie’s home with infant Julie after Mary Ann’s husband took off even before the baby was born.
But Armstrong recalls a warm childhood, with her doting mother and grandmother dressing her up like a princess, complete with tiara. She also recalls a Black babysitter, Ceola, whom she adored, but who was abruptly fired by her grandmother, with no explanation to young Julie. When, as an adult, Armstrong goes looking for a reason, she ends up with only more questions and an unmarked grave.
That’s a strength of this memoir. It doesn’t rely only on the author’s memory; Armstrong spent more than a decade researching, reporting and interviewing to write it. Yet what she found running through Birmingham’s history and her own was the thread of silence and denial, especially denial of the racism that so often propelled Birmingham onto the evening news.
Racial strife touched her family even before she was born. In 1957, her uncle Bobby Hughes was in the Army, a member of the prestigious Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne Division. At age 21, he was one of the soldiers assigned by President Dwight Eisenhower to protect nine high school students who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, escorting them for two months through white crowds “who threatened them with verbal and physical violence.”
But he never spoke of it when she was a child, and when Armstrong tries to interview him about it decades later, all he will say is “Them people were nuts” — and that he was “just doin’ my job.”
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Armstrong was a toddler when one of the most shattering, game-changing events of the Civil Rights Movement occurred in Birmingham in 1963. The dynamite bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church killed 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair and Carole Robertson, and 11-year-old Cynthia Wesley.
Armstrong writes that her grandmother didn’t go to work at a hospital downtown that day because friends called and told her Black people were rioting.
She and toddler Julie huddled at home in a hallway, “covering ourselves with homemade quilts and singing hymns while the storms passed.”
She gets the protective urge, Armstrong writes. “What I don’t get is this: why did my grandmother believe that white children like me needed to huddle under quilts for protection, when Black families were the ones facing such horrific violence?”
But that’s just one example of history taking place on the doorstep in a city that didn’t want to talk about it. Armstrong recounts that her formal education included virtually no mention of Black history, even as Birmingham’s school system was integrated by court order all around her.
It took a move north to attend college and graduate school to take her in the direction of a career based on revealing and facing that hidden history.
In 1977, 14 years after the Sixteenth Street church bombing, another member of Armstrong’s family helped to bring justice for those murders. Her beloved Aunt Nell (Uncle Bobby’s wife) sat on the jury that convicted Ku Klux Klan member Robert “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss. He was a crony of Eugene “Bull” Connor, who held the most ironic title in the history of bureaucracy — commissioner of public safety — and garnered national notoriety for turning police dogs and fire hoses on young protesters during Birmingham’s Children’s Crusade a few months before the church bombing.
Years later, in 2013, Armstrong goes back to Birmingham to interview Aunt Nell. The city is about to celebrate its 50 Years Forward anniversary, and the four girls who died in the 1963 bombing are memorialized as bronze statues in a lovely new park.
Armstrong and Aunt Nell tour a small exhibit in the basement of the church, where the girls died. One of the items on display is a photograph taken during the 1963 Children’s Crusade, an arresting shot that ran on the front page of the New York Times: “two white police officers wielding German shepherds against a young Black man.” Armstrong thinks of herself as steeled by her academic armor, but as she looks at it, she writes, “I started shaking and crying.”
Aunt Nell, who had “faced down Dynamite Bob,” reaches over and pats her arm.
“That right there is the very image we need to work through to make any progress,” she says.
Today, Armstrong teaches literature of the Civil Rights Movement in a state university in Florida, where the current administration has devoted itself to erasing, distorting and censoring the very history she seeks to explain, to herself as well as to the reader, with this book. It’s an irony she’s all too aware of.
Another irony is that the attacks upon critical race theory prove that theory to be true. Every time its opponents band together to try to prettify the conditions of slavery or reduce the Civil Rights Movement to what Armstrong calls “two names and four words” (Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and “I have a dream”), their actions are examples of the persistence of systemic racism, the foundation of critical race theory.
Huddling under a blanket won’t make American history go away, as Armstrong makes clear. Working through is the way to understanding.
Learning From Birmingham: A Journey Into History and Home
By Julie Buckner Armstrong
University of Alabama Press, 240 pages, $24.95
Meet the author
Julie Buckner Armstrong will be in conversation about “Learning From Birmingham: A Journey Into History and Home” with NPR media analyst and TV critic Eric Deggans at 7 p.m. Sept. 6 at Tombolo Books, 2153 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg. Free; RSVP at tombolobooks.com/events.