Southern Inaugural Trip
Day Six – January 17, 2021
Kelly Ingram Park
This morning, the LEAP students started the day with a visit to Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, Alabama. This memorial park, which holds a lot of history and tells many stories from the Civil Rights Movement, is named after Kelly Ingram, a firefighter and the first Birmingham service member (U.S. Navy) killed during World War I.
The Kelly Ingram Park was historically a meeting place for student-led protests. These protests were sparked after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four African American girls. There is a sculpture in the park dedicated to the four girls.
During the time of the bombing, Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor was Commissioner of Public Safety in Birmingham. Bull Connor was not in favor of the Civil Rights Movement and during one protest, ordered that fire hoses and police attack dogs be used against protestors. Both of these actions are depicted through emotion-invoking, interactive sculptures that force visitors to walk through them to emulate the experience the protestors endured.
Many sculptures in the park replicate the momentous moments of the protests of the time. One that really stood out to me was that of jailed children with the inscription, “I ain’t afraid of your jail.” These words, referring to Bull Connor’s jailing of many children after a protest, seemed so powerful to me. The opposite side of the sculpture is an upside-down jail inscribed, “Segregation is a Sin.”
The meaning behind this sculpture is so strong to me because it depicts the courage these children had and conveys how they refused to back down. I believe the upside-down part of the sculpture represents a world upside-down, showing that it is wrong; directly across is the “perfect” world where things are done fairly. This sculpture, and others throughout this park, capture in time the powerful impact of the Civil Rights Movement.
Birmingham Museum of Art
After concluding our stroll around Kelly Ingram Park, the LEAP students headed to their next destination: Birmingham Museum of Art. Birmingham Museum of Art was founded in 1951 and is considered one of the best regional museums in the United States. It is home to a collection of approximately 27,000 pieces of art from a diverse set of cultures, and includes Asian, American, European, African, Pre-Colombian, and Native American art.
For our first stop, we began our exploration in the American Art gallery. Unlike other countries, America only has a few art forms that are unique to the region, like jazz music and western movies. However, American painters were inspired by landscapes, especially Western American landscapes. This is best represented by Albert Bierstadt’s “Looking Down Yosemite Valley,” which gives a breathtaking view of sunrays beaming through Yosemite Valley, California.
Additionally, “Grand Canyon, Yellowstone River” by William Louis Sonntag shows a beautiful illustration of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone National Park, which one of our LEAP students has visited!
Another notable artist in the American Art Gallery is Charles Eugene Shannon. Although uncommon during the 1930s, Shannon liked to capture the everyday life of African Americans. His work entitled “Conversation Piece” depicts a shoeless African American couple drawn into conversation during the 1930s. Shannon took his inspiration from European style “conversation pieces,” which involved a group portrait of 17th century couples, family, and friends engaged in casual conversation.
Next, we moved to the most gratifying exhibit of the day: Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle. This exhibit includes a series of 30 panels that illustrate a narrative of people of color struggling to fight for social equity from 1775-1817 in America.
The Paintings which I propose to do will depict the struggles of a people to create a nation and their attempt to build a democracy. – Jacob Lawrence, 1954
Among the 30 panels, Panel 5 stuck out to me. This panel portrays an enslaved African American man who looks disheartened after requesting the liberation of all enslaved people in the Province of Massachusetts Bay. This panel highlights the use of nonviolence, which alludes to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s philosophy and means to fight against injustice.
In Panel 8, Jacob Lawrence shows the image of a Native American family reuniting with each other. Sacagawea, who is depicted in red with a long, unraveling braid, is reconnecting with her brother, Shoshone Chief Cameahwait, after having been separated during their childhood. This image that Jacob Lawrence has created juxtaposes the images of the reunification of brother and sister with the horrific tragedies that would unfold against Native Americans, which included forced relocation, separation, and assimilation.
In this series, Jacob Lawrence also wanted to emphasize and honor the role that women played in American history. Panel 18 presents a woman at battle, who has a pistol strapped to her waist. She stands tall, although to the side, taking over her slain husband’s post, exuding courage and strength.
Jacob Lawrence’s exhibit gave a clear visual account of the struggles many Americans faced. This exhibit allowed us to revisit our nation’s past and recognize how far we have come, all while looking forward to our future.
We didn’t have much time, but we did get to walk through the sculpture garden where we saw a kinetic sculpture by George Rickey, a sculptor whose work we’ve seen before, and on this trip (Besthoff Sculpture Garden, NOLA). After concluding our time at BMA, we headed outside for a bit of a nature walk!
Birmingham Botanical Gardens
The Birmingham Botanical Gardens spans 67.5 acres and is made up of more than 30 thematic gardens. As we entered the white gates that led us into the gardens, we were met by yet another Jesús Moroles granite art sculpture. This one was called “Granite Garden,” which I thought was very fitting for the site. (Interestingly, we learned that the Japanese Garden was donated by the Japanese Ambassador to the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.)
As we made our way to the Japanese Garden, we took in the garden’s stunning scenery along the long, spacious, winding path that leads to the various gardens. We knew we had arrived when we made our way onto the graveled path that took us under and through a beautiful red torii, a traditional Japanese gate commonly found at the entrance of a shrine. Symbolically, the torii marks the transition from mundane to sacred. The path led us through some breathtaking places, but our first stop was at a tea house, originally called a chashitsu. This house perfectly reflects the traditional Japanese architectural space that was used for tea ceremonies.
After marveling at the koi pond, our time in the gardens – and sunlight – began to run low, so we quickly made our way through a bamboo path (which was my favorite part of this garden).
It was a quaint trail loop and a great place for a photo op. The bamboo stood tall over the pathway, casting shadows, and when you looked up, the sun sparkled in between the branches, making the view even more enthralling.
Our final stop in the Birmingham Botanical Gardens was the Dunn Formal Rose Garden, which was aesthetically paved with red brick. We came to look at the Moon Tree, which was grown from a seed that once orbited the moon. The Moon Tree is an American Sycamore Platanus occidentalis tree and its seed came from a part of a space study that examined the effects of weightlessness on seed germination and growth. Of the 450 “moon seeds” planted, 420 of the trees were successful in growing. This Moon Tree was dedicated and planted in the Birmingham Botanical Gardens on February 25, 1976.
Although our visit was short, it was nice to get a breath of fresh air while walking through the garden.
Vulcan Park & Museum
To wrap things up on this sixth day, we ventured to the Vulcan Park & Museum. If you are wondering why there is a statue of Vulcan in Birmingham, it is because Vulcan is the Roman god of fire and forge, which is symbolic of the steel and iron industrial origins of the city of Birmingham.
The Vulcan Statue was built seven months before the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair to “represent” Birmingham, which puts it at well over a century old. Due to its massive scale, the Vulcan had to be constructed and built in two different cities. The statue is 56 feet tall and was designed by Giuseppe Moretti – a Tuscany sculptor who moved to Alabama in 1903 – as an indoor display, but when it was moved back to Birmingham, a pedestal and tower were built for it to stand on.
After seeing the tower from below, we were pumped to rise to the challenge of taking the stairs to the top of this tower – which is roughly 160 feet high – but to our disappointment, the staircase was closed. Instead, we took the beautiful glass elevator, which allowed us to see just how high we were going. Toping off the elevator trip was a see-through (metal grate) bridge that also allowed us to see the ground walking from the elevator to the tower’s observation area. I found this cool; others thought it scary.
The sight from the top of the tower was very beautiful and a sight worth seeing, especially since it ties back to the origins of the city of Birmingham. A very fitting end, I believe, to our day in this historic city.