Death is not frightening, according to Birmingham Historical Society Trustee Wilhelmina Thomas, who leads tours through the historic Oak Hill Cemetery. She is among a number of volunteers who dress in period costumes and portray a deceased character buried there. Ms. Thomas brings to life the stories of Birmingham’s founders, politicians, and civil rights leaders. But she particularly likes to draw attention to the black elitists who are buried there as they are often overlooked in Birmingham’s history.
“The majority of the Black people in the cemetery were business owners, pastors, and started churches,” Wilhelmina explained. “When we’re looking at the Black people buried at Oak Hill, in the late 19th century, they’d have been the elitist. They were defined by the color of their skin and by how much money they had. The Black people who are buried there were very well educated, spoke more than one language, and were trying to build a community.”
In researching and telling the stories of residents buried there, Wilhelmina Thomas has become a compassionate voice of black history, and along with other volunteers, keeps Oak Hill residents ‘alive’.
Volunteers lead walking tours on the second Saturday of every month. Learn more and get tickets on Oak Hill’s website.
It’s rewarding when the efforts of Birmingham Historical Society trustees to preserve a first-class historical site are not only recognized, but seriously considered by city leaders and developers in urban planning. Thanks to the research and site visits of BHS Director Marjorie White, and BHS Trustee and Hoover resident Birgit Kilbeka, plans for a 4 mile parkway that could potentially destroy the landmark Brock’s Gap are now being debated. This article in The Hoover Sun by Jon Anderson highlights the importance of what is being proposed.
Thank you to Birmingham Historical Society Trustees for bringing historical sites to the attention of developers. And thank you to developers and city planners for listening and responding to these concerns!
We met at the entrance gate to the Brock’s Gap Training Center at South Shades Crest Road where Jim gave an overview of the history of Brock’s Gap followed by Birgit’s introduction of the map and of the walk ahead. As we walked we took a look at the 1907 Atlanta, Birmingham and Atlantic Railroad cut before stepping into the woods for a peek at the epic original 1871 railroad cut that led to the founding of the city of Birmingham. The large heaps of rock that line the rim of the cut impressively illustrate the magnitude of the work with the limited tools available at the time.
At the point where the cut and the current driveway meet we stopped to take in the ascent of the railbed from the south into the crest of Shades Mountain. We continued on into the wide views of the woods atop the tall fill that takes the historic railbed through the valley toward the steep towering slope of Pine Mountain. The newer, taller 1907 railroad track stays within view to the right as a constant reminder of the progress that followed the initial struggle to access the mountainous mineral regions of Alabama.
The railbed then led us through the two cuts in Pine Mountain that time and again are awe inspiring. The rock layers rise at an angle and show drill marks in some spots. A drill bit that got lodged and broke off 150 years ago can be seen and invites to share Jim Hahn’s story of the wrought iron rings attached to the rock, used to tie up convict laborers during construction of the railroad. As we reached the stark slope in the driveway we talked about the 924′ long dry trestle that used to span the valley between Pine Mountain and Chestnut Ridge atop the 30′ tall embankment.
At this spot the difficulty of getting the railroad up the mountain was finally evident to everyone. We had seen and walked deep cuts, and tall fills and were now faced with a third method of building the railbed at the needed 1.25% grade. Walking down the slope to the long lower fill we took in the full extent of the former trestle. Once we reached the lower fill, the view into the valley and onto the shooting range was wide open.
Established in 1962, the Brock’s Gap training center is the reason why the historic railbed was preserved during the development of the surrounding areas into residential neighborhoods. As the training center prepares to move on, this view into the valley also represents the wide view into the future of west Hoover with its planned parkway and development corridor.
While we headed toward Chestnut Ridge the other active CSX line drew close on the left. Historic railbed and active railroad run parallel as they cut through Chestnut Ridge. We emerged from this last cut and found ourselves at the western end of Stadium Trace Parkway, high up on the southern slope of Chestnut Ridge. Toward the south the terrain drops toward the Cahaba River. To the left lies the new Black Creek Mountain Bike Park that would make a great anchor for a Brock’s Gap Greenway. A closer look from the opposite side of the street revealed that the original railbed continues south until it meets the active rail line. Could a greenway extend in this direction to reach the planned Cahaba Park?
Several changes were approved at the last board meeting including a slight increase in membership fees. Your generous membership fees and gifts pay for research, publications, society events, annual book signings, tours, newsletters, and educational events. We encourage you to renew your membership or join us now! For more information, please click HERE. Note that our membership year runs concurrently with the calendar year, January 1st to December 31st and membership renewals are now due. Thank you for your support!
Covid-19 is not Birmingham’s first epidemic. For a little historical perspective, and some information on how Birmingham coped in the past, please read our current newsletter! It includes memories of those who experienced the Spanish Flu of 1918.