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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Glennon Threatt, June 16, 2005. Interview U-0023. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Legacy of racism in Birmingham

Like many educated black Alabamians in the 1960s, it did not take Threatt long to decide that he was "getting the hell out of here as soon as I can." More than twenty years later, he returned to a changed city with numerous black leaders. Its deep-seated racist beginnings remain. It is a city built on slave labor and the labor of black convicts, and where black neighborhoods suffer from polluting industries.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Glennon Threatt, June 16, 2005. Interview U-0023. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

GLENNON THREATT:
If you were an educated black person in the early 1960s here, it was just a tremendous push to leave. What were you going to do? The only thing you could do was teach, cut hair, or try to open a little business. A lot of things that are available to us now, professions like fire, police, public safety, and law enforcement were not open to blacks. There wasn't going to be a black policeman under Bull Conner. The fire department was the same way. County government, which is one of the largest employers in the state, that wasn't here. The steel plants, you could work there but you were basically restricted to being laborers. So, if you were some parents and your kids got a college degree, why would you want them to stay here? There was nothing for them to do unless they wanted to teach.
KIMBERLY HILL:
How early did you decide you were going to leave?
GLENNON THREATT:
Probably when I was about nine. Well, I wasn't going to go to the University of Alabama. I had bad experiences with them working at those football games. When the University of Mississippi, Ole Miss used to come here to play there band used to play Dixie at half time and they would wave confederate flags. That was accepted, and I was like I'm getting the hell out of here as soon as I can. So, I got a chance to go to Princeton. When I went to Princeton I got an opportunity to meet black people from more progressive areas of the country and it made me realize that I wasn't ready to come back here. I changed a lot and the city changed a lot, and it was the combination of those two transformations that allowed me to be able to live here. I stayed away from Birmingham for-I left in 1974, and I moved back in 1997.
KIMBERLY HILL:
And now you feel like you're ready to be back?
GLENNON THREATT:
Oh yeah. The city has changed a lot. I mean, we still have a lot of work to do but it has changed a lot. We have a black mayor, we've had black mayors for the past twenty years. We have a black fire chief, a black police chief, and several black owned businesses. I would have never thought that I would have the opportunity to be an adjunct professor at the University of Alabama, I mean when I grew up they didn't even have black students. I'm an adjunct professor on their faculty now, and so things have changed a lot in a relatively short period of time. From a historical standpoint, about half of my life, but from a historical standpoint twenty-five years is not very long.
KIMBERLY HILL:
That's part of why we do these projects, because people will think it's long and then they'll think that they don't need to know about how things were- [person speaking interrupts conversation] back when schools were desegregated because that can't possibly apply anymore.
GLENNON THREATT:
You absolutely need to know it. Not just from the standpoint of being informed, but it allows you to understand the institutions that still survive. I was reading a story recently in the Wall Street Journal about how Morgan Stanley and several other investment banks found out that they got started because of investments in slaves. So you have institutions that have institutional wealth still in this day that is the result of slavery. Not just the exploitation of labor, but slavery.
KIMBERLY HILL:
Clear profits from slavery?
GLENNON THREATT:
Sure. Buying and selling of slaves. You had people that owned land and businesses here-if you ever want to read some interesting stuff about Alabama, you ought to read about convict labor. That will blow your mind, because what happened was that the mines more so than anything else, to some degree the steel mills, but the mines used to have arrangements with the Alabama Department of Corrections to get prisoners to work in the mines for free.
KIMBERLY HILL:
I've heard some stories about it.
GLENNON THREATT:
Horrible. Horrible, people were dying. Not only were they not getting paid, but they were dying in these mines. If the mines needed additional work they would just go round up some brothers and put them in jail on some trumped up charges, then let them go work in the mines until their need for work went down. Then they would let them out. That was worse than slavery because at least slaves were given a place to live.
KIMBERLY HILL:
Yeah, these guys were just worked like animals.
GLENNON THREATT:
Uh huh, they were worked like animals and they were in jail for completely trumped up charges. It's horrible, it is one of the worst black eyes in the history of this state. In my view it is even worse than the fire hoses, it is worse than the police dogs, nothing is worse than bombing of churches, but it is second to that. That a state agency would incarcerate people who were innocent just so they could work for free in coal mines.
KIMBERLY HILL:
There was a little exhibit about that up in Vulcan that I saw on Monday, but yeah, just the tip of the iceberg.
GLENNON THREATT:
And then you have the same companies who benefited from that, like the McWanes for instance, that are still polluting in the black community. They just got convicted of it last week. For spewing polluted water into Village Creek, this is a waterway that runs right down the middle of the black community in Birmingham. They would have never done that in Vestavia.
KIMBERLY HILL:
Yeah, because they would have gotten caught.