Sketch of Sloss Furnace
"View of Sloss Furnace" in Birmingham, AL by Miriam McClung, 1961. Pencil on paper. 3" x 4"

Part 2: A Brief History of Birmingham, Alabama through Miriam’s Art

In this series, we’re delving into Miriam’s art that portrays a significant slice of Birmingham, Alabama’s history—the city where Miriam dedicated most of her artistic career.
[Read Part 1 here]

Birmingham, Alabama, derived its name from Birmingham, England, a hub for iron and industry during the Industrial Revolution. The abundant iron ore in the Jones Valley, nestled along the Appalachian Mountains’ foothills, made Birmingham an ideal spot for steel production. By the 1950s and 1960s, Birmingham boasted numerous blast furnaces, with the Sloss Furnaces in downtown Birmingham being the most renowned and iconic.

Miriam’s grandfather played a role in Birmingham’s coal and steel companies, contributing to the establishment of medical facilities and housing for company workers. Following in his father’s footsteps, Miriam’s father, during his early years as a businessman, also worked for the steel company. His meticulous diary frequently documented steel sales and commodity prices.

However, the prosperity of the steel and mining industry came at a price for many rural Black Alabamians who migrated to the city seeking employment after Reconstruction. Challenging and perilous working conditions, subpar education, inadequate long-term pensions, absence of unionization, and racial discrimination laid the foundation for the Civil Rights struggle in Birmingham during the 1950s and 60s.

Miriam’s drawing in 1961, capturing the active Sloss furnaces (shown above), shed light on another issue tied to the steel industry—the significant air pollution these furnaces generated in the city. The enactment of the U.S. Clean Air Act in 1963 and enhanced operations both in the U.S. and abroad eventually led to the closure of older furnaces like Sloss within the decade. Steel production, smelting, and ore mining in Birmingham subsequently transitioned into historical relics. These remnants would go on to inspire Miriam’s paintings for decades to follow.

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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.