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The history of Birmingham, Alabama, is complex, so it’s no wonder following the Civil Rights Trail reveals many new possibilities. Cultural Heritage TravelingMom found as many culinary and artistic surprises as vital American history stories. People with personal ties to the history still live here, and so do newcomers. Find out the things to do to immerse in all of the flavors of historic downtown Birmingham.
For decades, I thought the things to do in Birmingham, Alabama meant civil rights history. Start and finish. Only stories with pain. I know better now after a three-day visit loaded with empathy.
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Historic downtown Birmingham and Civil Rights Trail neighborhoods gave me the depth of significant American events I expected.
Bonus discoveries involved many things to do both tasty and artsy, lush and green and always hospitable.
Tips To Follow the Birmingham Civil Rights Trail
Not necessary to overload powerful memories and new insight to honor the history. Empathy permeates the Birmingham Civil Rights Trail, so paying attention in small spurts helped me soak up the significance.
TravelingMom Tip: Start a Civil Rights exploration in Kelly Ingram Park. Symbolism looms large in artistic ways, lawns and trees soften the jarring messages and benches allow space to contemplate.
Save the famous Birmingham churches for next, and the Civil Rights Institute after them. Do the park first.
Messages resounding through Kelly Ingram Park weave together the stories told in those other iconic places. Sidewalk pavers, tall sculpture, small plaques reinforce lessons Birmingham claims:
- Our shared stories draw us together.
- Revolution and reconciliation work together.
- Learn from the past, face toward the future.
- Link arms.
- Honestly face the human ability to treat others inhumanely.
Birmingham wraps the tough lessons in positives in this park and along the Trail.
Surprised me to find a horse chestnut tree growing in the park. It looked like the one on the cover of Anne Frank’s diary. Her words fill a plaque at the tree’s base: “There is no need to wait a single moment to start improving the world.”
Making connections like that seem to be the Birmingham way. Big stories tie together.
Go To Lunch In Birmingham, Praise Resilience
Johnny’s Restaurant keeps the stories of people and their plights in motion. So I say eat here after strolling Kelly Ingram Park. This is tasty Greek food with a Southern flair – and immigration history.
The original Johnny Hontzopolous arrived in America in the 1920s, not through Ellis Island but a southern route. Think Mobile and New Orleans as entry points.
Now 25 percent of Birmingham’s population has Greek ties, says chef and owner Timothy Hontzas. He credits today’s solid culinary presence with the hot dog stands and small businesses of his grandparents and their neighbors.
“The Ku Klux Klan targeted Greeks, so those early food sellers could not shout “Greek food here,’” Hontzas says. Strikes me as a kind of civil rights trail too.
In today’s very public bustling Johnny’s Restaurant, I devoured Greek meatballs, Parmesan gritcake, turnip greens and squash casserole. The featured pot roast cooks for 15 hours.
Check In To The Tutwiler in Historic Downtown Birmingham
Old and new, history and modernity, classic and trendy kept merging in my three-night Birmingham holiday.
1914 is the opening year of the high-rise hotel I chose in lush, green downtown, officially a National Historic Landmark named The Tutwiler.
It’s also a Hampton Inn & Suites.
I was surprised to find national brand features blended acceptably with crown molding, valet parking and an intimate lobby. The walkable downtown is right out the door with shops, restaurants, night spots and parks.
Things To Do And Read At Reed Books
Feeling overwhelmed usually deters me. More likely to go right back out the door I entered if there’s too much stuff. Strangely, thousands of volumes stacked every which way in Reed Books Museum of Fond Memories in Birmingham lured me deeper.
“Every book is hand selected,” says Jim Reed, who’s been amassing 300,000 titles for 37 years. A mere 50,000 of them are catalogued.
“This is my calling: writing, reading, selling books,” Reed realizes. Topping his fun list is being invited to choose books from readers who are downsizing. Of some he declares, “Hoarders are the historians of the universe.”
Chances are very good just the book you want will catch your eye. Happened to me with “Miss Tibbett’s Typewriter.”
Find French Nuances In Southern Foods
Highlands Bar & Grill sets high standards for exquisite food and gracious service, so much so I lingered for hours. One cocktail was my self-imposed limit, because I wanted all my taste buds wide open for the foods of Chef Frank Stitt.
Can’t count the number of people who pointed him out at the vibrant farm market at Pepper Place but I do know each one raved about his zeal for fresh, French and Southern cuisine.
Intriguing to me this nine-time James Beard Foundation finalist learned to cook as a kid at home in Cullman, Alabama. Stitt’s culinary studies in the south of France in Beaujolais combined with early family lessons. Then his innate artistry took hold to present Southern staple foods nuanced with classic French techniques.
Birmingham has served as home base for Stitt’s kitchen since 1982 and local folks enthusiastically point to Highlands any time “Where should I eat?” is asked.
Allow Yard Art To Tell Civil Rights Stories
Storytelling often starts with art, and 1963 Birmingham was no different. That’s what folk artist Joe Minter knows and his front, back and side yards prove his point.
“African art was not accepted in museums because the stories told were too hard,” Minter says. “Then God released yard artists.”
A construction worker who takes pride in noting Jesus was a worker too, Minter expresses himself with what exists. That led to filling every inch of yard. He calls using found objects responsiveness.
“Each piece tells a story—that’s the African tradition of storytelling. Best I can I hold down all the hurts of my people for 500 years.”
TravelingMom Tip: Pack a big dose of respect when you go to Nassau Avenue to behold this garden of memories. This is Civil Rights sincerity and seeing history from Minter’s perspective is a privilege. Easy to gawk; far better to understand.
When you travel to a destination loaded with history, how do you find the people sharing stories with authenticity and personal experience?
Cultural Heritage TravelingMom continues to share the details in a separate story. There, she’ll tell of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, churches which are National Historic Landmarks on the Birmingham Civil Rights Trail and more of the restaurants to choose in between seeking the history.
Family-friendly things to do in her hometown Birmingham fire up TravelingMom with Twins. Find her science center, botanical garden, museum and sports recommendations here.