This is later than I anticipated. But I still wanted to put this out there for those of you who might be interested. Back in October, on a weekend when my wife and girls were visiting with my in-laws, I and a friend hopped into the car and headed to Birmingham to do a bit of Lewis-related research.
We left out early on a beautiful Saturday morning, stopping off briefly for breakfast. We had two interviews on our agenda. Our first stop was with a wonderful lady, twice a widow, whose first husband succeeded Lewis in the pulpit at the Ensley church. Dick Moore (that was his name) has an interesting story of his own that I may recount in a future post. Our second stop, over supper at Cracker Barrel, was with a delightful church historian living in Trussville, northeast of the city.
In between these stops, we did some sightseeing. That’s what I want to focus on in this post. The Ensley section of Birmingham is on the western side of the city. In its heyday, it was a large and thriving independent city at the center of Birmingham’s iron and steel making industries. It had a large immigrant population (including an Italian quarter) and was the home of the Tuxedo Junction club, made famous in a tune recorded by Glenn Miller.
Driving through it this past fall reminded me of nothing quite so much as some of the photographs that one can see of Detroit. Most structures exhibit an advanced state of decay. Much of the population has fled. Everything in the downtown is boarded up, surrounded with chainlink fence. Housing stock shows the same traits: maybe every other house is occupied; many are caved in or otherwise severely run down.
Our goal in visiting a really unprepossessing area of town was twofold. First, I wanted to see the old Ensley Church of Christ building. This congregation was one of Lewis’ numerous plants. He established it in 1926 and much of his regular preaching after that date was done at Ensley.
As the pictures indicate, the building dates from 1949. The Disciples of Christ Historical Society has a file on Ensley that contains a pamphlet by Lewis in which he provides an exact accounting of the money that was collected and spent on the building. As far as I’ve been able to determine, it was in use until around the mid-1980s, when the last remaining members disbanded and went to other congregations. On this trip, while at worship on Sunday morning, I met the widow of one of the Ensley elders (who knew John and Della Lewis intimately) who filled me in on some of these details.
It’s hard to tell if the building is currently occupied. It seems to have changed hands recently.
Presumably, the Westside Church of Christ is responsible for the addition of a handicapped ramp to the front of the building. We weren’t able to contact anyone affiliated with the congregation, however. All told, however, the building is in great shape. The same cannot be said for the neighborhood.
The house pictured above sits immediately behind the church building and is typical of much of the housing stock in Ensley.
After a drive through downtown Ensley — filled with boarded up structures — our next stop was the Lewis home. (The highrise in the picture below is surrounded by chain link fencing. Numerous attempts at revitalization of downtown Ensley — which has good ‘bones’ from an urban planning perspective — have floundered over the years.)
The Lewis house, which sits at 1604 30th Street in Ensley, is currently unoccupied and sits in a neighborhood of similarly run-down housing stock. The construction of I-59 split Ensley in half; we had to take a somewhat circuitous route to get from church building to house, a journey that would have been simple (and close) in Lewis’ day.
That afternoon, we had a bit of time before our next interview. So we headed into downtown Birmingham. Destination: Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Not directly related to Lewis, of course, but we wanted to at least see the Museum and 16th Street Baptist Church. It was late in the afternoon, and close to appointment time, so we limited ourselves to the gift shop and some photos taken out of doors.
Lewis’ own comments on race are somewhat enigmatic. Some of his remarks seem to be in the vein of David Lipscomb’s views. There are some interesting stories to be told, but he never remarked directly (as far as I’ve been able to discover) on the marches, the church bombing, or any other part of what was occurring in the city in those days.
That’s all for now.