"Between 1900 and 1940 tens of thousands of rural black Southerners chose to make a dramatic change in their way of life. They uprooted themselves from postbellum rural life–a life of sharecropping and tenant farming on someone else's cotton farm–and they migrated into cities in search of jobs and industry. Living in the shadow of emancipation, they and their families dreamed of getting their share of the benefits of modern America. No aspect of this dream was more poignant than the Birmingham story."

Birmingham, the Magic City, sits in the heart of Jones Valley in the foothills of the Southern Appalachians, an area rich in iron ore and mineral deposits. Before the Civil War, it was still a largely agrarian region where few mines and foundries operated. The arrival of railroads and keen businessmen brought new opportunities after the Civil War, sparking a building and industrial boom. Birmingham was bought, planned and built to be a new industrial center in the South, with its financial successes focused solely on its iron and steel industries. Enoch Ensley bought the region and use of its natural resources with a specific plan in mind: to build a Southern, industrial metropolis centered around mining and the steel industry. The city and its economy grew from his company.

The city boomed quickly–by 1900, Birmingham had a population of 38,415 even though the city was only about thirty years old. Pig iron ore production increased more than tenfold between 1880 and 1900. The companies' new prosperity gave birth to a great need for workers in the region; Southern whites, blacks and foreign workers were all drawn to the city by the prospects of full-time employment and better pay. Mining and steel industries offered a new way of life for the workers, most of whom had only been involved in agriculture before arriving in Birmingham.
Blacks particularly were attracted to the industries of this new city. Their opportunities were limited in the rural South, and most were tenant farmers at best. Wanting to get out from under the thumb of white landowners, they flocked to Birmingham for the chance to gain more control over their lives as independent laborers. Birmingham was the first stepping stone of the Great Migration for many Southern blacks; there they learned the skills necessary to succeed in the North, and increased their desire to go there.

Steelworkers' factory housing in Birmingham

When blacks arrived in the city from the rural areas to work in the mines and foundries, they were disillusioned by the living conditions they found there. Workers and their families were made to reside in company housing and to purchase all goods in the company store on credit, often at exorbitant prices. Housing, especially for blacks workers, was no more than rundown shacks and shot-gun houses. The company store charged workers more than they could possibly earn, tying them to their menial job with the company year after year. Trapped under the thumb of the company bosses, they were unable to realize the freedom they sought in escaping the rural life. This, coupled with the physically grueling working conditions in the mines and foundries, planted the seeds of discontent with the workers' lot in Birmingham.
While many African-American workers in Birmingham began to look northward to find a better life, many just tried to make the new situation more bearable. Black communities turned inward to create social, recreation, and support systems that provided an escape and relief from the daily grind. Recreation and leisure offered a great escape; sports such as baseball quickly grew in popularity in the Magic City. Formal organizations offered a great opportunity to provide support for one another both economically and in society as a whole. Black-run newspapers also provided a new focus on black people in the news, and helped laborers feel included in the city. Women realized a new sense of community as they lived and worked closer together in the city, and a whole new world of aesthetics, beauty and good looks emerged that addressed the African-American worker's new needs and desires. The racial polarization in the South allowed these new institutions to grow and flourish in the black community; they not only provided support to African-Americans in Birmingham, but provided the tools to aid them in their Northern migration.