Projects with Permanence
In light of Odessa Woolfolk’s challenge to revisit study-group projects, here are four group and class initiatives that have left lasting traces in the community.
The lost miners of Pratt City: Inspired by Douglas Blackmon’s book Slavery By Another Name, which details the practice of convict leasing that primarily targeted Black prisoners, a group from the Class of 2013 illuminated its impact on Jefferson County. “The history of convict leasing, the complicity of the state and local law enforcement, and the interplay between industry and labor leaders all played a role in shaping the city in ways that still affect us today,” says Ed Fields (’13), senior advisor and chief strategist to Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin. The group especially wanted to bring attention to Pratt City’s dilapidated, unmarked “convict cemetery.” So they worked with neighborhood residents and local and state leaders to recognize the forgotten miners by proposing memorials at the cemetery and the Pratt City Library as it reopened following the 2011 tornadoes.
Group members: Elizabeth Barbaree-Tasker, Keith Brown, Ed Fields, Darren Hicks, Christopher Hoyt, Joseph McCarthy, Robert Parker, Virginia Patterson, Mark Smith, Mark Wilson.
The city’s most famous missive: After visiting the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and Sixteenth Street Baptist Church with his class, Lee Sentell (’12), director of the Alabama Tourism Department, set out to solve a mystery: Where was the actual jail where Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his world-famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in 1963? Sentell asked several people and received several different answers. Finally, after some research, he identified the location of the old jail on 6th Avenue South and rallied his class to fund the installation of a historical marker. It was dedicated in April 2013, 50 years after King wrote the letter, with King’s daughter Bernice in attendance.
The people behind the history: An opening-retreat visit to Birmingham’s “Dynamite Hill,” a pivotal front line in the civil rights movement, prompted a group from the Class of 2022 to spotlight the “voices of those who have lived its history,” says Sam Miller (’22), owner of Champ Creative. The nearly complete project, titled I’m Still Here, includes a short documentary film and a website featuring letters written from Birmingham in the 1950s and 1960s. “During our time on Dynamite Hill, [civil rights foot soldier] Jefferson Drew encouraged us to not just take this story to heart, but to take action and tell this story,” Miller says. “Our project began that day.”
Group members: Damian Carson, Robby Hayes, Sam Miller, Jameria Moore, Lindsay Puckett, Dawn Helms Sharff, Leigh Sloss-Corra, Adrienne Starks.
Early learning system: For members of the first Leadership Birmingham class, the fragmentation of local school systems was a key discussion topic, Odessa Woolfolk recalls. They realized that the silo effect dividing the area’s neighborhoods and municipalities extended to its schools, meaning that a student attending a primarily Black, inner-city public school might never connect or communicate with a student at a primarily white private school or a public school located in a suburban or rural area. So the idea of Youth Leadership Forum (YLF) was born, and it quickly evolved from a group project into an initiative that won the support of the entire class as Mimi Tynes (’84) began developing the program. In the years since its 1985 debut, YLF has brought together nearly 1,300 sophomores and juniors from high schools across Jefferson County to learn about their community, their common bonds, and their roles as future leaders.
Tell us about your group’s project and its impact. How did it inspire you to take action? Email your memories to email@example.com. Your answer might appear in a future issue.