Greater Birmingham

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This article refers to the 1910 annexation campaign, for other uses see Greater Birmingham (disambiguation).

The Greater Birmingham campaign was a movement which led to the annexation of several surrounding municipalities into Birmingham's corporate limits, taking effect on January 1, 1910.

Early efforts

Efforts to bring neighboring communities and municipalities into Birmingham began in earnest in 1898, led by city boosters who wanted to trumpet the city's growth to potential investors and businesses. A similar effort in 1889 had succeeded in bringing thousands of residents within the city limits, but 20,000 more were still then living in communities just outside the city. Helped by the growth of streetcars and other means of travel, these suburbs were the fastest-growing residential areas during the 1890s, frustrating advocates for Birmingham's growth.

An editorial in the October 14, 1900 Birmingham Age-Herald lamented that "the city stands before the world belittled by its cramped confines." Under the Alabama Constitution of 1901, the only means for expanding the city's chartered limits was through the Alabama Legislature.

Legislative push

Efforts were jump-started after the 1906 general election in which the progressive-minded B. B. Comer won the governor's race and fellow Birminghamian Henry Gray was elected Lieutenant Governor just as the legislature, which then met every four years, was about to go into session. At the top of the agenda was debate on a "Greater Birmingham" bill. Attorney E. J. Smyer had drafted and published several proposals for consolidation and State Senator Nathan Miller had introduced legislation that would allow cities of a certain size to annex neighboring municipalities which had themselves voted to merge. It was a busy legislative season, however, and the Birmingham bill was tabled for a planned summer session.

Fueled by increased difficulty in forging an area-wide agreement for construction of a sewer system, Mayor George Ward and other leaders spent the interim drafting a new consolidation plan, which was introduced by Representative Jere King in May of that year. Under the agreement reached with various local governments, East Birmingham, Woodlawn, East Lake, West End, Avondale, Graymont, North Birmingham and Pratt City would become part of a newly-formed Birmingham, leaving Ensley and Elyton independent. During debate that July, North Birmingham was also excluded, and the House passed King's bill by a vote of 40-14, with three of the dissenting votes coming from within the Jefferson County delegation.

The bill had less luck in the Senate as the county's sole Senator, Nathan Miller, made his opposition clear, which, by "legislative courtesy" for local laws, resulted in the apparent death of the bill. In an unusual twist, however, Randolph County Senator John Overton moved the next day to clear the way toward a vote, arguing that it was too important to be killed by customary "courtesy". An amendment was added, stipulating that the bill would only take effect if ratified by popular referendum over the entire affected area. After much debate, that version came to a vote: a 14-14 tie which was broken by Lieutenant Governor Gray.

Jublilation from Greater Birmingham supporters was tempered by news that Governor Comer objected to the final form of the bill and would not sign it unless it were amended to include North Birmingham, a demand that was approved by the Senate on August 7, the final day of the summer session. The referendum was set for January 6, 1908.

Referendum results

City For Against
Birmingham 2,486 186
East Lake 179 70
Avondale 118 59
Woodlawn 222 103
North Birmingham 122 127
West End 98 52
Elyton 46 23
Graymont 39 32
Pratt City 109 152
East Birmingham 40 49
Osceola 40 44
Total 3,499 897

Court challenges

Before the desires of the voters could take effect, however, a number of lawsuits were filed challenging the law. Sigsbee, et al. v. City of Birmingham (1908) was dismissed. State ex rel. Ward et al. v. Martin (1909) established that a defect in Avondale's voting excluded the Mountain Terrace subdivision from the merger.

State ex rel. of McKinley v. Martin (1909) went to the Alabama Supreme Court with attorney F. E. Blackburn arguing that the Senate Journal had failed to record the "nay" votes in accordance with the Alabama Constitution of 1901. The court agreed, requiring the Senate to correct the oversight in its next session, scheduled for 1911.

Because of the urgency of the issue of Prohibition, however, the Legislature was called into a special session on July 27, 1909. By that time progressive supporters of "Greater Birmingham" were calling for changes to ancillary legislation that would have established as many as 40 seats in Birmingham's newly-expanded Board of Aldermen. They suggested a Birmingham City Commission be formed by an at-large vote to manage the business of Greater Birmingham. At the same time others called for Ensley to be included in the merger.

The bill establishing a commission form of government was amended to exclude Sloss Furnaces and Thomas Furnaces from the incorporated city and passed the House 68-1 (with the newly-elected Felix Tarrant the lone dissenter). It passed the Senate 20-6. Governor Comer made an executive amendment to include Ensley in the merger and signed it.

That amendment triggered another lawsuit, Simpson v. City of Ensley (1909) which sought an order preventing Ensley's municipal government from cooperating in the merger on the grounds that its inclusion was unconstitutional. The countersuit, City of Ensley v. Simpson (1910), reached the Alabama Supreme Court. The Court ruled against the contention that the Legislature was prevented from passing local laws on subjects covered by general laws; against the contention that the law was void because it wrongly violated the charters of incorporation; and against several contentions based on technicalities of the legislative process. On the claim that a holder of Ensley's municipal bonds was damaged by the merger, the court invited the appellant to file a claim only after such damage became material. With that decision, "Greater Birmingham" passed its final hurdle and became the law of Alabama.

Results

The result increased the city's area from 3 to 48 square miles, stretching about 14 miles from Ensley in the west to East Lake in the east and occupying the entire 5-mile wide urbanized strip in Jones Valley north of Red Mountain.

The annexation more than doubled Birmingham's population, estimated at 45,000 in 1909 to 132,685 counted in a Census Jubilee held in November 1910. With the newly-increased population, Birmingham immediately became the third-largest city in the former Confederate states. Because of the annexations, the actual 82% rate of growth in the district between 1900 and 1910 was inflated to a more spectacular 245% for Birmingham itself. The effect in the national press was immediate as journalists referred to the city as a "fast growing metropolis" in extolling the industrial capital of the New South.

Formerly-incorporated cities like Avondale, Woodlawn, North Birmingham and Highland turned over their city hall buildings, public works and police departments to the city of Birmingham with various degrees of elation or umbrage.

Because certification of the change in government was delayed until 1911, an immediate effect of the annexation was to double the number of voting wards in the city from 8 to 16, thereby increasing the membership of the Birmingham Board of Aldermen to 32 before the first Birmingham City Commission took office.

Annexed communities

Section 1909 pop.
Birmingham (inc) 45,000
Pratt City (inc) 7,000
Ensley (inc) 6,000
Avondale (inc) 4,000
Woodlawn (inc) 3,750
East Lake (inc) 3,500
North Birmingham (inc) 3,500
Wylam (inc) 2,000
West End (inc) 1,000
Kingston (inc) 1,000
Elyton, Smithfield, Powderly (uninc) 4,500
Gate City, Irondale (uninc) 2,500
Sayreton (uninc) 2,500
Thomas (uninc) 1,500
East Birmingham (uninc) 1,000
Lewiston (uninc) 1,000
Clifton (uninc) 1,000
Total 90,750

References

  • Farley, Joseph M. (November 1963) "The Greater Birmingham Struggle of 1907-1910". Journal of the Birmingham Historical Society. Vol. 4, pp. 1-15
  • Harris, Carl V. (1977) Political Power in Birmingham, 1871-1921. Twentieth-Century America Series. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press. ISBN 087049211X