“Cast iron production flourished as well, with the raw materials in the area good for certain types of pipe—American Cast Iron Pipe Company (ACIPCO) was founded in Birmingham in 1905. Ultimately, however, the phosphorus content of the iron supply limited the area’s ability to produce high-quality steel products, although it was ideal for foundry pig iron, to the extent that in 1940 Birmingham provided 40 percent of the U.S. supply.” –Carolyn Trent, Center for Business and Economic Research (2007)
A majority of Alabamians would readily vocalize their opposition to President Obama’s healthcare initiative, calling it meddlesome, unnecessary, and downright socialist. I grew up in Alabama, so I should know. Little do they realize, however, that universal healthcare began in Birmingham under one of the most popular administrations in American history, a President that 86% of Alabamians supported in the Election of 1936.
A great example of FDR’s New Deal zeitgeist in action was Dr. Thomas Boulware, who delivered 21,000 babies over 62 years in Birmingham. A decade’s worth of those deliveries took place at the Slossfield Community Center, which was built by the WPA during the Great Depression. The Slossfield complex serviced ~50,000 local black citizens in one of the most underprivileged neighborhoods in America.
According to Birmingham public historian, Liz Ellaby:
Boulware crossed [racial] barriers, for a time being one of only a few white doctors to deliver babies in black homes, or perform life-saving Caesarean-sections on black mothers in emergency labors…Nowhere were conditions more extreme than in Slossfield, a district surrounding the American Cast Iron Pipe Co.’s plant, where thousands lived without plumbing, in shotgun houses built on stilts over undrained dirt streets. Seven of the county health department’s 22 “blighted” areas fell in this district, where 8-10 babies died out of every 100 born.
A health wing opened at Slossfield in July 1939, and the maternity ward that hosted Boulware opened in 1940. Although medical journals of the time suggested grand plans for the health center, the end of World War II brought with it the expansion of public health facilities and programs elsewhere in the city. These were specifically designed to serve the black citizenry, and the redirection of funding (to places like the Holy Family Hospital in Ensley) led to the closure of Slossfield’s medical center in 1948.
The rest of Slossfield Community Center was officially shut down in 1954, but evidence suggests that it may have offered educational and recreational opportunities sporadically until 1977. After at least 30 years of sitting empty, it was finally put on the National Historic Register in 2008. Two years later, the Slossfield Branch Library across the road closed as well. The whole block remains a ghost of yesteryear’s north Birmingham.
I’m writing about Slossfield today because I happened to get some good pictures of it when I was home on Christmas break. A friend and I were meeting up at Niki’s West, a standard for Southern “meat & threes.” Unfortunately, Niki’s was closed for the holidays, so we agreed to meet at Jim ‘N Nick’s instead.
I stopped for gas on Finley Blvd before heading to Five Points. I never lived in north Birmingham, so I’d never really noticed the massive yellow building along I-65. As I stood there pumping gas and staring at it, my curiosity got the better of me. I thought the campus was an old high school until I pulled up to it and saw the faded paint on the southern entrance. This, I thought, would make a cool and original article.
Alas, plenty of historians have studied Slossfield before me, but I don’t mind adding to the historical record. Even the photo album on Flickr is better than the pics I took, but I don’t own a $15,000 commercial-grade camera and some of mine are still very unique, so enjoy the visual tour of one of Birmingham’s historical gems.
As always, feel free to use photos elsewhere as long as they are properly cited/linked.
Before & After Photos
Below is the Slossfield Community Center’s administrative building. After this photo, we will work our way counterclockwise around the aerial photo above, to the Education Building (east bldg), Recreation Building (north bldg), and the Medical Building (west bldg).
Slossfield Community Center: Education Building (East)
Slossfield Community Center: Recreation Building (North)
Slossfield Community Center: Medical Building (West)
In summary, it’s a very interesting building with a lot of history. Unfortunately, it’s also in pretty bad shape, and despite being on the National Historic Register there is no renovation planned for the facility or complex.
If any kind of redevelopment took place in the area, this would be a great candidate for a museum of north Birmingham. However, the trends for population (-0.04%), new households (0%), and new families (-0.16%) within 3 miles of the complex don’t point toward any significant community renaissance in the next 5 years, and Slossfields future appears as bleak as its crumbling, yellow façade.