Birmingham: A Vital Visit during Black History Month

Birmingham: A Vital Visit during Black History Month

By Bobbie Christmas, Woodstock Resident

Birmingham is known for having been the battlefield for the Civil Rights Movement in America. With Black History Month in mind, my sister and I visited Birmingham in February a few years ago. Our three-day trip became even more rewarding and educational than we anticipated.

The drive took less than three hours, and soon we parked in a hilly suburb of Birmingham, Alabama, and entered a French café for lunch. Online sources had called Chez Lulu funky and eclectic, and those words described it well. I ordered a roasted vegetable sandwich on rustic hearth-baked bread. It pleased my palate perfectly.

My sister, the ultimate organizer, had planned our entire itinerary, so we knew our next stop would be the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The institute sits across the street from the 16th Street Baptist Church that a White supremacist bombed in 1963, killing four young African American girls. The restored church has been designated a National Historic Landmark.

The 16th Street Baptist Church, pictured above, holds much significance to Black History and the Civil Rights Movement.

We had no trouble finding parking, and soon we entered the exhibition rooms of the Civil Rights Institute. Through intricate and artful exhibits, some that were even interactive, we learned dozens of details about the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s. I was in college when the South finally integrated its schools in 1965, and I thought I knew all about the struggles in that era, but oh, was I wrong! Through detailed displays I learned much more than I had witnessed or read in the newspaper. The experience was moving, and one visit isn’t enough. It is a must-see museum for anyone of any age or ethnicity.

We later checked into the Hampton Inn with enough time to relax and discuss our individual experiences during the Civil Rights Movement and share our reactions to the information at the Civil Rights Institute.

Soon we had to freshen up, because we looked forward to dinner. Sis had made a reservation at Ocean, a Michelin Star restaurant. We were prepared to stretch our budget and treat ourselves to a gourmet meal. We found a paid parking lot nearby, but the evening was chilly and breezy, it being February, so we opted for the valet service that Ocean offered.

Soon we were seated by a window in the modern establishment. We found the low lighting and quiet ambiance a delightful change from the less-than-quiet restaurants in Atlanta. Our server treated us like royalty, responding quickly to any of our questions and graciously accommodating us with anything we requested. Sis and I shared a delicious appetizer of Kobe beef carpaccio. After discussing our choices for an entrée, we asked our server if the bouillabaisse might be enough for two. He assured us that it was. The bouillabaisse arrived and smelled scrumptious. The huge bowl was filled with pineapple ginger jasmine rice, lobster tail, shrimp, grouper, and mussels swimming in Thai green curry sauce. Our server was right. We split the generous serving, and we each had plenty to eat. When we finished we still had some sauce left. We laughed when we both admitted we wanted to lick our plates, but we were in an elegant restaurant, so we chose a more appropriate tactic. We mopped up every drop of the remaining curry using the variety of enticing breads we’d been served. Sis and I both found the meal at Ocean so delectable that we still talk about it today.

A pleasant spring afternoon is well spent exploring the landscape at the botanical gardens.

Only when we asked about the cost of the valet parking did we learn that it was free. Wow! An unexpected and pleasant surprise. We did, however, tip the driver who delivered the car.

Sunday morning we ate brunch at The Veranda on Highland, a sprawling 1900 house transformed into an eye-pleasing restaurant. The place has recently changed hands, though. Chef James Boyce and his wife and business partner, Suzan, of Huntsville, Alabama, have taken over. They are redesigning the space with respect to its 106-year-old history. The new name is Galley & Garden, in reference to the kitchen (galley) and the newly landscaped surroundings. Sis and I will try it out when it opens.

Next on our agenda was Sloss Furnaces, a National Historic Landmark. It operated as a pig-iron-producing blast furnace from 1882 to 1971. The day had warmed enough that we left our jackets in the car and strolled in and out of the sun examining the workings of the blast furnace and reading inscriptions to learn about the dangerous and difficult processes associated with making steel and pig iron from the local iron ore, coal, and limestone. I found the process, the information, and all the machinery mesmerizing. 

After buying mementoes in the visitor’s center, we left Sloss Furnaces and drove to the Vulcan Park and Museum for a closer look at the towering Vulcan, the city symbol of Birmingham and a gargantuan sculpture we had seen several times from the road. The museum focused on the founding and history of Birmingham as well as the making of the colossal Vulcan, the largest cast iron statue in the entire world. The statue depicts the Roman god of fire and furnace and reflects the city’s roots in the iron and steel industry. Wanting the full Vulcan experience, Sis and I rode the elevator up the fifty-six-foot figure and walked out on its observation deck. Although it was windy way up there, the view of Birmingham was spectacular. 

The grand exterior of Galley & Garden, an American-French restaurant in a transformed 1900 home.

After breakfast at the hotel Monday morning, Sis and I ambled through the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. Even in February some of the plants bloomed to add color to the surroundings. Flowers were not essential, though, because of all the appealing plants and the information on the identification markers. We especially enjoyed the tasteful Japanese garden with its graceful arched bridge over a reflective pond. Sis and I are not spring chickens, so we appreciated the benches along the way that allowed us to rest a few moments here and there before we continued our tranquil meandering through the 67.5 acres of gardens. At the end we entered the warm and aromatic gift shop brimming with plants, books, games, jewelry, and more. 

With packages from the gift shop tucked under our arms, Sis and I left the botanical gardens and headed for lunch at Bellini’s Ristorante on Chaba Valley Road. Sis described her chicken picatta as the most delicious and delicate she’d ever eaten. I raved over my shrimp scampi as well.

I needed to pick up my dog in Woodstock before the kennel closed, so over lunch my sister and I bemoaned the fact that we had run out of time. We had missed seeing the Birmingham Zoo, the Birmingham Museum of Art, the Southern Museum of Flight, the Arlington Antebellum Home and Gardens, and more. I shrugged and said, “We’ll just have to come back to Birmingham another time.”

We look forward to our return trip.

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