Painting of Cliff Road in Birmingham Alabama by Miriam McClung
"View from Cliff Road" by Miriam McClung, 1965. Oil on canvas.

Part 1: A Brief History of Birmingham, Alabama through Miriam’s Art

Miriam’s life and art career spans a large period of the city of Birmingham, Alabama’s history, as she painted in the city and surrounding villages her entire life. We will spend the next few weeks exploring one thread of Birmingham’s history through her art.

Birmingham got its nickname, “The Magic City”, because of its rapid growth during the late 1800s to early 1900s. The presence of iron to make steel, mining, and railroads combined with inexpensive labor (often Black Alabamians from rural areas) gave the city a competitive advantage in the market, eventually establishing the city as the industrial center of the South.

Miriam’s grandfather and father worked for steel manufacturing companies in managerial roles. Miriam’s mother used to say “if the windows (of the house) are black (from the soot of the steel furnaces), then you know the company is making money.”

By the time Miriam was born in the mid-1930s, Birmingham was trying to recover from the Great Depression. The significant demand for wartime steel in the early 1940s gave the city’s economy a significant boost and allowed it to build civic institutions and commercial a robust downtown. Though Birmingham was the center of cultural, religious, and business life, many wealthier, upper-middle-class families and mostly white families wanted to leave the crowded, hectic industrial environment to pursue a more idyllic life in the “country” just over Red Mountain.

This “magical” growth the city experienced over a sixty-year period and the migration of the upper class of Birmingham to establish smaller surrounding cities would have profound consequences on Birmingham’s geographic, cultural, and civil environment to this day.

In this painting, “View from Cliff Road” done in the fall, you can see several large churches and homes in the foreground, and in the background the downtown, which by 1965 when this painting was created, has a formidable skyline. Behind the city, you can make out the smoke rising from one of the steel mills in operation at that time. Over the city hangs both clouds and haze of pollution endemic to many medium-sized American cities of this era.

[Read Part 2]

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Miriam McClung is an artist from Birmingham, Alabama, and has been creating works of art in oils, pastels, ink, charcoal, pencil and everything in between for over 70 years. You can follow her on her Instagram account @miriammcclungart.