Sunday, April 2, 2017

Another Installment of "Did you know"

Did you know that the first speech given in the south by a sitting President occurred in Birmingham?

When Birmingham Alabama was founded in 1871, it was a model city.  It boasted railroads, blast furnaces and steel mills.  There wasn't a more bustling industrial giant in the south at that time.  So it was no wonder when in 1921, President Harding decided to give a speech in the south that he chose to do so in Birmingham, Alabama. The remarkable part of this story is the fact that this was the first speech given in the South by a sitting president in which he called for racial equality.

The city threw a huge birthday party which lasted two days on its 50th anniversary in October 1921. President Harding arrived at the Birmingham Terminal Station at 8:45 A.M. aboard a special train from Washington.  A grand parade began at 10:00 A.M.  Sitting in the lead car President Harding greeted thousands of onlookers waving American flags.  His motorcade eventually traveled to the Tutwiler Hotel where the hotel's balcony served as the reviewing stand for the President and his party as the parade traveled past.  The parade included Civil War veterans, groups of industrial workers and National Guardsmen.  It seemed that the whole city had turned out for the Presidential visit.

Harding’s official address to the city was delivered in Woodrow Wilson Park in mid-morning to a large crowd. He planned to use this speech as his first public show of support for the Republican National Committee and their plan to reorganize in the South.

President Harding spoke of the great migrations of black laborers to the North during World War I and the meritorious service given by black soldiers during the war.  He then spoke of political equality as a guarantee of the U.S. Constitution: “Let the black man vote when he is fit to vote; prohibit the white man voting when he is unfit to vote.”  White listeners fell largely silent, the African American spectators cheered from their segregated section of the park.  In his call for “an end of prejudice” Harding went further than any president since Abraham Lincoln.
President Harding also participated in the cornerstone laying ceremony of the Masonic Temple and was given an honorary degree by Birmingham-Southern College in ceremonies conducted at the First Methodist Church.

The President observed a parade which included 67 women who selected by the different counties of Alabama to be their "Queen", and 1,000 members of the American Legion selected from every post in the state. Each Queen was provided a decorated car for their use in the parade.

(Jefferson County's Queen - Mary Elizabeth Caldwell)
To mark this historic event, commemorative coins were also made that same year. The coins were half-dollars issued in 1921 to honor the 100th Anniversary of Alabama Statehood, which occurred a few years earlier in 1919 but war time conditions had delayed the production of the coins until 1921. The coins were first placed on sale in Birmingham on Oct. 26,1921 in connection with Birmingham’s celebration and the first coin was presented to President Harding. 
Also, a special postage stamp was made that year in honor of Birmingham’s anniversary. It was the first postal commemoration of Birmingham.  Surviving copies are very rare.
The official start of this celebration began at noon on the 25th of October with the blare of bands and the blowing of whistles at every industrial plant in the district. The ceremonies started at Woodrow Wilson (Capitol) Park with a speech by Chairman Sydney J. Bowie.
President Harding arriving for festivities
The festivities began at noon and continued on into the night.  Highlights of the festivities included a fashion show by the Fashion-Industrial Exposition that took place in a long tent that extended the full length of West Twentieth Street. The Birmingham municipal band provided music. Henderson and his flying circus performed in the air over the middle of the city. His act ended with death defying stunts from an airplane while gripping the rope with his teeth.
In addition to the above activities, there was a children’s costume and baby parades on Friday with prizes awarded.  Baseball at Rickwood Field took place with a double-header. The first game was according to rules in 1871 and second according to rules in 1921.  Free bank concerts and orchestras continued throughout the event. Some orchestras came all the way from West Virginia to perform for the President.  
There was the Queen of the event contest, a Masquerade carnival, pageant at Avondale Park, and a Queen’s Ball at the Tutwiler hotel on Tuesday night.  These are just to name a few of the many events held.
While the President was in town, he also somehow made time to head the grand civic parade, attend a luncheon given by the Semi-Centennial committee at Tutwiler, attend the opening of Alabama division of American Cotton Association at Tutwiler, attend the Birmingham-Southern College inauguration of Dr. Guy Snavely where the President received degree of LL. D. Ceremonies were held in First Methodist at Sixth Avenue and Nineteenth Street, North.
As if his day wasn't already packed, the President also attended a reception in his honor at the Birmingham Country Club and witnessed mine demonstration at US bureau of mines station at West End. To round out his day, he took an auto ride through the city.

While I'm sure everyone involved needed a restful vacation after this week of constant festivities, overall, it was a very successful event.  Certainly never seen before or since.

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