The Death of Legion Field in Birmingham: Paul "Bear" Bryant’s True Legacy

PK Note: Tomorrow, we tug on Superman’s cape. Tonight, read up on this VDare article (Alabama’s Iron Bowl And Integration—Was Football Victory Worth It?, November 26, 2012) and this important article on why Birmingham Southern College – located in the heart of one of the worst Black ghettos in America – built a high-security fence around the school (Martyrs, Civil Rights and Quenette Shehane: The Tale of Birmingham, January 14, 2011). One man is directly responsible with the horrible state of 2012 Birmingham, Montgomery, Mobile, and Huntsville.

In 2012, the only industry that 71 percent Black Birmingham can produce – outside of payday loan stores – is to live off the legacy of “Civil Rights” (Birmingham Civil Rights District named Attraction of the Year, Birmingham News, August 30, 2012); the sorry condition of the city being the ultimate legacy of “Civil Rights.”

Bear Bryant at Legion Field, once the capital of football in a long dead America

Though the University of Alabama had already started recruiting Black athletes in the late 1960s to play on the famed Crimson Tide football team, coach by Paul “Bear” Bryant, the 1970 season would mark the final year an all-white team would be fielded. And it was on September 12 of that year in a game played at legendary Legion Field in Birmingham that an undersized Crimson Tide team (coming off of the two worst seasons since Bryant took over the team in 1958 — largely due to changes in the rules that ended the era of “two-way” players and created the modern-era of specialized offensive and defensive units) would be soundly defeated by an integrated University of Southern California team:

On Sept. 12, 1970, a freshman basketball player named Wendell Hudson rode a bus packed with athletes to Birmingham, taking his seat at Legion Field. He watched as Sam Cunningham, the black USC fullback, torched the all-white Crimson Tide defense for 135 yards and two touchdowns in a 42-21 Trojans win. Hudson didn’t like seeing his school embarrassed, but there was something sweet about a black player showing the holdovers from the Jim Crow South what they were missing. It was a loss for the Crimson Tide, but it represented something different, Hudson says, to the black community.

“I don’t think there’s any question,” he says. “It was a win.”

Later, it was suspected that Bryant brought the Trojans to Birmingham to show locals that it was time to desegregate his team. Was this all it took to be a contender again, five years after Alabama’s most recent national title?

Bryant’s actions, whether they were premeditated or not, prevented the Tide from falling behind — despite resistance from boosters and even in the statehouse. Some say that game at Legion Field was the turning point; others say the story has been overblown, its significance mythologized.

Hudson says that, if nothing else, that fall Saturday helped to open minds and to ease the stress directed toward young black players.

“If Coach Bryant thought it was OK,” Hudson says, “the state of Alabama thought it was OK.”

Alabama was coming off of an 8-3 and 6-5 season (1969 and 1970) and though the Tide would field only two Black players in 1971 ( a virtually all-white team exacting revenge and beating heavily favored USC 17-10 en route to an 11-1 season – after going 6-5-1 in 1970 – thanks to the institution of the wishbone offensive attack),the idea that Black players were the key to winning national titles was set in the eyes of Bryant and his faithful — the Crimson Tide Nation.

Starting the 2012 season, the University of Alabama football program is more than 70 percent Black: at a school whose enrollment is less than five percent Black male. And yes, Alabama has won two of the last three national titles; yes, Alabama won national title in 1992; and yes, Bryant would win 1973, 1978, and 1979 (teams that were overwhelmingly white), but the question of at what cost is never, ever asked.

The answer rests in the sorrowful state of what was once the south’s greatest city, Birmingham, a veritable Black hole full of decaying memories of a storied past. The saddest building still standing that reminds those who look upon it of an era long dead is Legion Field, the 85-year old football stadium that played host to many of the Bear’s most famous wins: (Alabama Forced to Abandon Unsafe Legion Field, NBC News, August 19, 2004)

So much for “The football capital of the South.”

Once proud to proclaim itself as the gridiron hub of an entire region, the city of Birmingham’s 77-year-old Legion Field is in such disrepair it’s no longer safe to use the 9,000-seat upper deck, which has structural problems. Its metal supports are dappled with peeling gray paint and rust.
With renovation or repair unlikely, the city and the University of Alabama on Thursday said they were ending their contract, meaning the Crimson Tide would no longer play any home games at the 81,000-seat stadium. The announcement marked the end of a long association between one of the South’s most storied football programs and the old field on Graymont Avenue.
“The Crimson Tide has played some of its greatest football at Legion Field, and Alabama fans will forever enjoy fond memories of those wonderful games,” athletic director Mal Moore said in a statement.
But none of those hold a candle to images of the stadium’s past: coach Paul “Bear” Bryant leaning on a goalpost during pregame warmups or Alabama vs. Tennessee on the third Saturday in October.

Legion Field was allowed to decay because the white tax-base fled Birmingham after the post-Civil Rights world made it untenable for white people to live safely and peacefully in the Magic City. Once Black people took control of City Hall, the precious little tax-revenue collected had to pay for basic services; maintaining a stadium that was but a symbol of the old “Jim Crow” was luxury that Black people couldn’t afford.

At exactly the moment the University of Alabama football integrated (1971), the city of Birmingham died

In 1992, the inaugural Southeastern Conference Championship (SEC) game would be played at Legion Field. After one more game in 1993, it was announced that the game would be moving from Birmingham to Atlanta, largely because the Georgia Dome was a more adequate facility for hosting the game. Also, because the city hadn’t gone as Black as Birmingham, Atlanta offered more attractions and safer streets for the alumni and fans who would attend the game.

In 1998, the last Iron Bowl – the Auburn University/Alabama football game – would be played at Legion Field, depriving the city of one of the last big revenue generating events (The House That Bear Built
Birmingham’s Legion Field is, sadly, no longer a football mecca, Sports Illustrated, by Jack McCallum, November 29, 1999):

Nothing captures the fall from grace of the self-proclaimed Football capital of the South better than this: As 85,214 fans were preparing last Saturday to go to Auburn‘s Jordan-Hare Stadium, where Alabama would defeat Auburn 28-17, only about 5,000 people, many of them mommies and daddies, were gathered at 83,000-seat Legion Field in Birmingham to watch 12 of the city’s youth football teams play six games in the 32nd annual Shug-Bear Bowl. For much of the 20th century it was the games played at Legion Field that allowed Birmingham to adopt the aforementioned billing, which stretches in large, painted letters across the facade of sections 33 through 37 of the 72-year-old stadium. The slogan was particularly true on those Saturdays when the Crimson Tide and the Tigers engaged in the blood rivalry that brought all other activity in the state to a halt. But when Alabama made it official in February that beginning in 2000, as part of a new contract, it would host its renewals of the season-ending civil war on campus rather than at Legion—a change Auburn had made 10 years ago—big-time football at the House That Bear Built effectively came to an end.

Ah, but it breathed once. It was at Legion in 1970, after Sam Cunningham led Southern Cal to a 42-21 rout of the Crimson Tide, that Bear Bryant finally became convinced that ‘Bama needed a new kind of player—one with a black face. No doubt you’ve heard the line that emerged from that game: Sam Cunningham did more for integration in Alabama in three hours than Martin Luther King Jr. did in a decade. It was at Legion in ’81 that Bryant passed Amos Alonzo Stagg‘s career victory mark of 314 with a 28-17 win over Auburn.

So whither Legion Field? Around Birmingham there seems to be little of the warm and fuzzy feeling attached to Legion that there is to Rickwood Field, the city’s historic minor league baseball park, which is being lovingly restored. Art Clarkson, a Birminghamite who once owned the minor league Barons, has a plan for Legion: “Let’s get 30,000 people lined up around the stadium, sing a few songs, make a few speeches and—wham!—blow the thing up.”

Perhaps it was the sad story of losing the Alabama High School championship games to the campuses of Auburn University and the University of Alabama that illustrate the sad ability for those Black people in control of modern-day Birmingham for allocating money to keep the buildings and infrastructure they inherited from white flight in working conditions:

The Super 6, Alabama’s annual high school football championship series, is leaving Birmingham and will be played in Auburn and Tuscaloosa for the next six years.
The Alabama High School Athletic Association on Wednesday approved a six-year agreement to move the state football championship games from 83-year-old Legion Field. The series will alternate between stadiums at Auburn University and the University of Alabama. 

Birmingham’s Legion Field had hosted the football championships every year since 1996. The championship games for the state’s biggest high schools have been at Legion Field for four decades.
Jefferson County Commissioner Sheila Smoot said she was stunned by the decision.
“For me, it’s a loss of sales tax once again in this county that we just can’t afford. We’re going to have to figure a way to replace not only this event but the money it generates,” Smoot said. 

Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford said the city’s bid included doubling financial support for both events. The mayor’s office said it had budgeted $50,000 in financial support for the basketball game playoffs and doubled its pledge to $100,000.

“I had sweated what the results would be,” Langford said. “All and all, I’m delighted because, to be perfectly candid, we raised the offer so high because we knew what we were faced with — inadequate facilities.”

Langford said the city continues to risk losing events unless new venues are built. Both the BJCC and Legion Field are outdated and inadequate, he said.

“Had we moved on that domed stadium or just shown the intent, the football games would never have gone to Tuscaloosa,” he said. “No matter how much paint we put on Legion Field, it is a stadium that has served the state well, but is outdated.”

Legion Field: Won’t be demolished because of its “Civil Rights” importance

Jordan-Hare Stadium at Auburn and Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa are both old stadiums as well, but the alumni of each school are able to engage in capital campaigns that bring revenue and donations in to the schools for improvements to both the stadium and to the campus. The 71 percent Black residents of modern-day Birmingham… lack that financial acumen and planning ability for ensuring the structural integrity of the buildings they inherited from white flight and long-term initiatives for building capital to pay for renovations.

In 2007, the Birmingham News published a special report called Birmingham at a Crossroads: the reality is the city of Birmingham crossed the Rubicon on September 12, 1970.

It is a dead city as long as Black people are in control of the city’s destiny, and a recent story about the inhabitants of the neighborhood that surrounds Legion Field illustrates this point powerfully (Neighbors around Birmingham’s Legion Field languishing with blight, Birmingham News, December 4, 2011):

Boarded-up houses, darkened storefronts and a gutted hotel line the path thousands took recently on their annual caravan to Legion Field, where vendors and spectators indulged in a weekend of entertainment, celebrity and football.

Long after the echoes of music and roaring crowds of the Magic City Classic drifted past her house and faded until next fall, Iris Billups remains in Legion Field’s shadow, where blight and neglect are her closest neighbors.

“After a period of time, I guess nobody cared,” said Billups, a retired New York schoolteacher who returned four years ago to her family home off Graymont Avenue, one of only a few occupied houses on her block. “People moved away, and the people who owned houses died.

“Their children didn’t move back and it just deteriorated.”

Residents, planners and development experts say that’s a problem not just for residents of Birmingham’s Smithfield community, but for anybody who wants to keep Legion Field viable and attract more events to the 84-year-old stadium. Its future is linked to the struggling neighborhood in which it sits, they say.

With longtime plans for a domed stadium in the city shelved and a proposed UAB on-campus stadium axed by University of Alabama trustees, Legion Field remains the sole venue for major football games in Birmingham. Mayor William Bell has said he’s working on bringing more games to the stadium and has announced upgrades to be completed in time for next month’s BBVA Compass Bowl.

But some say revitalizing the surrounding community is just as crucial a need as improvements to the stadium itself.

Redevelopment plans have been pitched over the years, most recently in 2003, with little action. But with work under way on the city’s first all-new comprehensive plan in 50 years and Bell proposing a $75 million bond referendum for yet-to-be-named projects across the city, hopes have been rekindled for improvements to the area around the stadium.

“What do you have to offer the people to come into the neighborhood?” Billups said, citing the scarcity of retail, restaurant and other development in the area for both visitors and residents. “The city has to think in terms like that. Why would we want to lose Legion Field? That’s the only thing we have going.”

The marketability of facilities such as Legion Field depends on visitors’ experiences both inside and outside, said David Fleming, president of Operation New Birmingham.
“In general, it is clear from the trends of stadiums and sports facility development that people think about developing those facilities in context and not in isolation,” he said.

Improving the condition of the area around the stadium is critical to the venue’s marketability, said Arthur Allaway, a University of Alabama marketing professor.

“Some of it is just cleaning the streets and painting, because empty buildings that look good aren’t dangerous-looking, while burned-out buildings don’t look too attractive,” Allaway said. “It will take private money in the long run, but in the short term, a commitment to the area from the city would go a long way.”

Allaway said cosmetic improvements, along with incentives for redevelopment, should be the city’s first steps.

Billups’ father and uncle built the family house the same year she was born, 1950. After retiring, she returned to a street and community drastically different from the one she had left in 1972.

“You don’t hear anything about this community until the next Classic comes,” Billups said, sitting in the living room where black-and-white portraits of her mother and father still sit on the vintage furniture of her youth.

Back when the photos and furniture were new and Billups’ house was filled with family, Legion Field was a premier sports destination hosting several Alabama football games a year, including the Iron Bowl matchup with Auburn. Those teams are long gone, and the statue of Paul “Bear” Bryant just past the resting lions at the gate stands as a memorial to Legion Field’s place in sports history.

But Billups and others say the stadium and its neighborhood need not be consigned to sports manuals, yellowed newspaper clips and old television reels.

In 2003, the Graymont and College Hills neighborhood associations commissioned Auburn University’s Center for Architecture and Urban Studies to canvass the area and draft a master plan for its rebirth.

The group led by Cheryl Morgan, director of Auburn’s Birmingham-based urban studio, produced concepts that included preservation of historic homes, new neighborhood-based businesses and landscaping changes at Legion Field, making the area more park-like.

Morgan said she knows the drawings of trees at the stadium, and of fresh new homes mixed with renovated older ones near a new retail commercial district, are visionary.
“We really believe that you should set the bar high,” Morgan said. “Part of what we believe is that the neighborhoods really do have the most responsibility and opportunity to make things happen locally, but they need tools to help them build partnerships to attract economic development to their area.”

Morgan said Smithfield’s location just west of downtown and its long history are assets that could aid in a revitalization.

“I’m a stubborn optimist. I look around and see so many amazing things in the city,” she said. “Neighborhoods are living, breathing things, and change happens incrementally. Managing the change is one of the things that good planning helps you do.”

Allaway said the area, which includes Birmingham-Southern College to the west, has elements that could be marketed to developers, including a natural customer base of students, residents and stadium users in addition to a supply of cheap land.

“There’s got to be a market, and if there’s a market, then there’s an opportunity,” he said. “All the commercial real estate guys are pretty smart in knowing what an opportunity looks like. Every place goes down and comes back up eventually.

Somebody could get in and get in cheap, and bring in some retail.”

Fleming — the former director of Main Street Birmingham, a neighborhood revitalization agency — said plans such as the Auburn study require extensive support to analyze what is doable and put it into action.

“Somebody’s got to be focused on making that happen and in that specific place,” he said. “That’s one of the challenges with redevelopment, keeping a focus and sustained effort of what’s truly going to work in the marketplace.”

City Councilwoman Maxine Parker, chairwoman of the Parks and Recreation Board that oversees Legion Field, agreed that Smithfield redevelopment should be tied to any effort to promote the stadium.

Birmingham is at a disadvantage in part because other cities have what is absent here, she said.

“When people go to other cities for games, when the game is over they want additional activities,” she said. “Every time I went to a game I wanted to find the next place to have dinner and the next place to shop. You don’t have it now, but if you make it a top priority you could have it soon.”

City Councilman Johnathan Austin, whose district contains the neighborhood, agreed the city must shift more attention to the area.

“It’s as if everybody has forgotten that there is a neighborhood around Legion Field that once was a thriving neighborhood,” he said.

Change can occur gradually with city support, he said. Austin cites the recent vote to allow a Family Dollar store off Graymont. While that rezoning created a dispute between residents who backed it and members of a nearby church who opposed it, Austin said the store is an example of fledgling commercial interest in the area that must be championed.

“That may seem like something small, but in the large scheme of things, when is the last time we’ve had a new building built in Smithfield?” he said. “We don’t have to go in and build huge grocery stores, but we can build neighborhood markets. We have an opportunity for neighborhood revitalization that we can mimic and replicate throughout the city.”

Birmingham’s project to develop a new city-wide master plan could shine new attention on the Auburn study, said Paul Neville, president of the College Hills neighborhood and Smithfield Community. “Moving from ideas to resources and implementation — that’s been our challenge,” he said.

Neville said Legion Field, with its proposed green space and redesign of McLendon Park, could mimic the success of other neighborhoods where parks serve as anchors.
Capital needed to begin any major overhaul could come in a proposed $75 million bond issue that Bell announced recently.

Bell, who lives in College Hills and represented the area for years as a councilman, wants a citywide vote by early 2012 to finance projects across the city. The mayor has not named specific projects but said he would meet with each council member to compile a list of needs.

Repeated efforts to reach Bell for comment on possibilities for the area around Legion Field were unsuccessful.

Billups can easily give city officials her own list of needs, pointing out the number of empty houses on her street. That includes the Parker House, the home of A.H. Parker, founder and principal of the high school bearing his name. That house, and others in the area, were designed by Wallace A. Rayfield, whose other work included Sixteenth Street Baptist Church downtown.

The late principal would have to look closely to recognize his former home past the boarded-up windows. The city bought the house in 2001 and has stabilized it, but efforts to reuse it remain stalled.

“There are plans that the city has had for Smithfield, and they need to blow the dust off of them,” said Emanuel Ford, a Birmingham Board of Education member and former longtime neighborhood officer. “It’s not that the citizens have not raised their voices and given their ideas. It’s just that sometimes it takes a long time to get something done. When you ride through Smithfield and you see all the blight and lots where houses used to stand, you wonder what happened.”

What happened, Ford said, was that city officials turned all their attention to downtown revitalization while the neighborhood just west of downtown declined.

After years of little progress, Ford admits his optimism has dimmed a bit.

“You still keep pushing; you don’t give up,” he said. “I guess as we get older we learn to keep working, but then we also learn to deal with reality.”

 Urban Blight? Declining property value? Virtually no legitimate economic activity? Crime and poverty? All hallmarks of a community that is all-Black. And not once in Joseph Bryant’s article for the Birmingham News do you learn that the area around Legion Field has been all-Black for decades.

Once, the driveways of Black homeowners around Legion Field served as parking spots (and big-time money generators) for Alabama alumni and fans when they would attend games where the beloved Coach Bear Bryant would the Crimson Tide to victory. This all ended when Black political power took over Birmingham and completely neglected the infrastructure and public buildings they inherited from white flight, Legion Field included.

Now, the neighborhoods around Legion Field no longer accommodate University of Alabama alumni, students, and fans tailgating before a big game; they instead accommodate the camera crews of A&E’s The First 48, with 71 percent Black Birmingham serving as one of the main cities for this show about murder and the police response to heinous crimes 

Legion Field needs to be demolished, like all of Birmingham; bulldozed, razed and ultimately, rebuilt again. But it won’t: it will sit, decaying (with echos of a glorious past haunting all who enter the stadium; if you close your eyes you can even see the shadows of the 1971 Iron Bowl participants, as undefeated Auburn and Alabama battled in the last true game between the schools — when both schools only had two Black players each, who were recruited for both academics and their athleticism), with the “blight” created and sustained by the Black residents of the neighborhood surrounding the stadium a reminder of the type of community they can create.

This is the true legacy of that September 12, 1970 game; the destruction of an entire state, though people are still too busy yelling “Roll Tide” or “War Eagle” to notice.

Tomorrow, we pull on Superman’s cape. 


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