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The Historic Red Ore Express tells the story of Birmingham. Founded in 1871, Birmingham quickly grew to become one of the country's largest producers of iron and steel. The artifacts of industry are all around Birmingham — in old factories, mines, mills, and machinery.
When you take this tour, you'll hear not just about places and processes but about the people who built Birmingham -- the workers and entrepreneurs, artists and educators, reformers and civil rights leaders, migrants and immigrants who made the dream of Birmingham a reality.
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Narrator: The idea that Alabama is some sort of scientific outpost: Let's explore that. Aeronautics to our north, in Huntsville, is one counter argument. Medical research in Birmingham is another. John Sparkman and Lister Hill helped make both of those happen. Their names are found on several buildings here at UAB, including the Lister Hill Library of the Health Sciences, one of the largest medical libraries in the southeast. Lister Hill and John Sparkman were people of their times, opportunists in the best sense. During the New Deal era, they aggressively fought to bring WPA money to Birmingham. This enthusiasm continued through World War II and on into the postwar era, when federal science funding was remaking America's economy. At the time, everyone saw the need for a new medical college in Birmingham. The University of Alabama wanted the medical college off its plate. U.S. Steel wanted a reliable system for treating workers and getting them back on the job. Hill and Sparkman saw a way forward for building a medical school in Birmingham. They saw it as a way to move Birmingham forward. UA president John Abercrombie was tasked to fill the post of dean, but UAB historian, Tennant McWilliams, says that convincing a qualified person to move to Birmingham was a nonstarter: Tennant McWilliams: "No sitting dean of medicine would look at the job. It'll break your heart to read the correspondence files of the UA president trying to hire a medical dean from a noted medical school. 'Why would I want to go there? It's segregated. It's a dirty steel town. You're trying to build something you'll never get off the ground.' Five major deans turned them down." Narrator: To John Sparkman's credit, he recommended a viable workaround: McWilliams: " ...that they look towards someone who had never been a dean, but who felt a strong emotional stake in making Alabama a better place, and who could take his state loyalty and transfer it or let it evolve into also loyalty to making the quality of life in Birmingham better." "And he told them to start looking at beautifully educated medical scientists with Alabama roots." Enter Roy Kracke. Born and raised in the north Alabama town of Hartselle, Kracke had all the credentials. He earned his MD at the University of Chicago Rush School of Medicine. He had built a stellar reputation at Emory University as a hematologist. And, maybe best of all, he was, politically speaking, in the mix. McWilliams: "The stars really lined up here. Kracke had been Senator John Sparkman's roommate at the University of Alabama, so you've got a new dean coming in who's the close friend of an increasingly powerful U.S. senator, who is very close to another senator from Alabama, Lister Hill, who is just God as far as writing bills for funding health care. Suddenly, you've got this noted Alabama doctor who is coming back to the state, and he has access to power. He has access to federal money." Narrator: Roy Kracke's first task as dean: to fill a spate of academic posts. This was postwar America, and the Marshall Plan had tied up the nation's medical faculty with the rebuilding of healthcare in Europe. So Kracke first brought in private practice physicians to staff his department, but early on, as former academics left military service, Kracke brought them to Birmingham to help with a gargantuan task. McWilliams: "Many of those first wave of faculty come in having had not just war experience, but immediate postwar experience in European reconstruction. When they came to Birmingham, their plan was reconstruction of Birmingham, beyond the civil rights period, which had not even begun yet, and beyond reliance on heavy steel. They wanted a transformation in Birmingham the way there was a transformation in Europe after World War II. They had a social ethic that went way beyond their professional ethic."
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Narrator: For years, the adage went: Business owners graduate from the University of Alabama, their employees, from UAB. UAB. That's the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and early in its history, it was a fair generalization. Today, not at all. What started in Birmingham as an extension campus for the University of Alabama is now a tier one research institution, with more than 20,000 students and, according to US News and World Report, 13 top 25 graduate programs. Nationally, it's in the top four percent in federal research funding, the top 2 percent among public institutions in funding from the National Institutes of Health and the accolades go on. UAB has changed since its early days as a satellite of the mothership in Tuscaloosa. But what does UAB have to do with early Birmingham's industrial history? The story of UAB begins with the stock market crash and the Great Depression that followed. The main campus in Tuscaloosa was struggling with low enrollment. Launching a satellite in Birmingham might be a way to attract new students. Tennant McWilliams: "Like everything else in America, the University of Alabama took major hits in funding when the crash came. There were very few students who could even afford to come to the University of Alabama. So, for that reason as well as many others, the revenue streams going to the University of Alabama, and it takes revenue to run a university, were slip--sliding in a hurry." Narrator: Tennant McWilliams literally wrote the book on the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He is a retired Professor of History and Dean Emeritus at the institution, and the author of New Lights in the Valley: The Emergence of UAB. McWilliams: "Suddenly there's this man named Franklin Roosevelt as President with a very big vision for getting the United States out of the Depression, the New Deal." Narrator: The New Deal sent federal money to universities like the one in Tuscaloosa to build dormitories, cafeterias, academic buildings ... and extension centers all around the state. The strategy allowed the University of Alabama to shore up revenue streams. And it allowed people out of work to use the downtime to pursue a degree. They could return to the workforce in a better position once the job market rebounded. Nowhere was unemployment worse than in Birmingham. Smaller foundries like Sloss laid off thousands. The city's largest employer, US Steel, trimmed back its Birmingham operations to preserve its primary facilities up north. McWilliams: "I mean, no one's buying steel, but US Steel also assumes correctly that this Depression will end, and once they take off again in sales of steel, they will need more engineers. So, they felt a stake in growing the engineering school." Narrator: After December 7, 1941, America found itself facing a new challenge -- one that would send the country's demand for iron and steel through the roof. McWilliams "Let's face it, as soon as Japan bombs Pearl Harbor, certainly the U.S. economy is hitting it really hard again, because we've got to have steel to fight in World War II. Birmingham's economy just shot back to life. As it came back to life, it was just hiring people left and right, blue--collar labor, Black and white, and a tremendous demand for engineers." Narrator: But there were questions. Would the extension campus just serve iron and steel by focusing on engineering? Or would it take advantage of this new funding and help expand the city's economy? Some leaders were satisfied with the extension school just the way it was. US Steel enjoyed being the most important player in town. It gave the company clout. And many in Birmingham's professional class were University of Alabama graduates. They did not want a Birmingham rival draining students and resources from their alma mater. But there were others who saw potential to transform the extension school and remake Birmingham. McWilliams: "You had some well-educated, rich, sophisticated, modern citizens in Birmingham who wanted Birmingham to be more than a steel town. They may have had their own self-interest, but clearly they articulated an idealism about Birmingham being more than a steel city. They learned from the Depression, if you have a unitary economy, just steel, if something happens nationally or internationally like a Depression, you have nothing to fall back on." Narrator: There was William R. Lathrop, who owned a life insurance company. And Mervyn Sterne, a stockbroker. Look for Sterne's name on the UAB library. Cosmopolitan and well--educated, they were part of a cadre of civic leaders who wanted a Birmingham that looked more like a mini Boston: a city with arts, a great orchestra, public parks, and a modern, equitable school system. Those pushing this cosmopolitan vision caught a lucky break. Alabama needed a dentistry school and, in the postwar era, Tuscaloosa decided that school needed to be in Birmingham. So, in 1948 the extension campus brought in Boston dentist -- Joseph Volker. Urbane and with a knack for politicking and fundraising, Volker envisioned not just a dental school but a full--blown medical center. Visionaries like Sterne and Lathrop had found an instant ally. McWilliams: "The pro-growth, pro--university education group in Birmingham may have been small, but they were extremely forceful, and they were extremely sophisticated. Some of them were very wealthy, with great political contacts, and they ultimately prevailed. They won." Narrator: In the postwar era, the federal government launched massive funding efforts in science and public health. Volker and others sought and won this money from Washington. A medical college sprung up around Southside's Hillman Hospital. Remember that the postwar era was a time of massive social change. Though reluctantly, Birmingham was becoming an integrated city. This means that a new market was opening up -- first generation African Americans students -- to a school less burdened by memories of George Wallace's infamous stand at the schoolhouse door in Tuscaloosa. With the pieces in place -- engineering, dentistry, medicine, and a teacher training program that had developed elsewhere and on its own -- all that was needed was to snap them together into an autonomous university. UAB took that leap in 1969, six years after the Birmingham Campaign, five years after the signing of the Civil Rights Act, four years after the Voting Rights Act. UAB continues to offer local first--generation college students an affordable, accessible option for school. That's in UAB's DNA. But today, UAB is a legacy school, where alumni send their college age kids. It's a destination for academically gifted students not just from Birmingham but from every continent. And it is top ranked. The Wall Street Journal Times Higher Education poll has named UAB the top young university in the country.