by Margaret Weinberg
We are excited to announce and share a four-part series of oral histories that were made possible through a community grant from the Alabama Bicentennial Commission. One story of Red Mountain mining and camp life will be released weekly through our website and social media. Our bicentennial project will culminate on July 10th with the addition of new destinations on our TravelstorysGPS app and the unveiling of a new interpretive sign memorializing the contributions of Ervin Batain, former Red Mountain Park Commissioner and founder of 3D at No. 11 Mining Camp and Nature Trail.
Today we begin with Juanita Hixon…
Juanita Osborne Hixon was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1926, coming to live with her grandparents in Wenonah in 1928. The Wenonah community was one of a series of mining camps west of Birmingham, built to house employees of Tennessee, Coal and Iron (TCI) who worked on Red Mountain. Juanita’s grandparents, William and Harriet Osborne, came to Wenonah from Hope Hull, Alabama, her grandfather becoming one of the first TCI African-American foremen in Jefferson County. This spring we sat visited Juanita Hixon over several months at her home in Titusville to learn about her life and her origins in the mining camps of Red Mountain.
“They Called it the Camp”: Growing Up in Wenonah
Before the turn of the century mining camps were often run-down or unsanitary; temporary quarters for an isolated workforce. But in the early 1900s, with the US Steel takeover of Tennessee Coal and Iron, the company piloted a series of “welfare capitalism” programs with the goal of reducing labor turnover and capitalizing on a more stable workforce, creating a living environment more conducive to long-term settlement and family life. Initiatives ranged from improved company housing to company-run schools and the employment of social workers that assisted on anything from sanitation to the production of pageants, festivals and other social events. These programs were at their peak between 1913 and 1933, when the last social worker left the Jefferson County mining camps. Juanita Hixon spent her early years at the tail-end of this fascinating labor experiment. Here she is talking about her grandfather and her early years in Wenonah.
Juanita Hixon, 3.28.19: He was an ore mining foreman and he was very proud of that – the first one, black one that they hired, along with another man, Mr. John McCain, who was one of his dear friends. And consequently he called as many, or wrote to as many of his relatives as he could and tried to tell them that there were many jobs available and that the company was very good to the miners families. They provided housing for them and they called – while they called it a camp, it really wasn’t a camp, it was just a lot of housing I guess, except for the fact that they were houses built, frame houses and so forth, as compared to the housing projects later on, and then the houses were not close, you know they were say a pretty good distance apart. So they provided housing, and adequate care, and school and they also had competitive sports where they had – and other areas where they had plants and so forth, in Fairfield and areas out that way, I can’t remember all the names of them. Ishkooda and another mine was in – close to Wenonah. And they – the people were able, the kids were able to compete who went to school, compete with the other schools, you know, and then they had, similar to parks, they benches under a number of the trees so that during the summer months they could have picnics and it really was a great big step away from the country. You know, Hope Hull, Alabama — they just thought they had it made I guess like the people who left here going to New York and Chicago and all. Everybody was always trying to better themselves in any way that they could.
Wenonah Grammar School
The company-run Wenonah school system, where Mrs. Hixon spent her early elementary school years, was segregated. Mrs. Hixon does remember a degree of integration amongst the faculty though — TCI recruited teachers regionally and nationally and did often place white teachers in African-American schools. In TCI communities neighborhoods with housing were segregated as well and even shared spaces, such as the commissary, had segregated features, such as separate counters.
One thing Mrs. Hixon remembers about her time in the TCI school system is the sanitation programs.
Juanita Hixon, 3.6.19: Kindergarten, I remember, you know, kindergarten – I went to the first grade teacher, I remember her, she taught us how to write, and second grade teacher did a little bit more. And we had something that they don’t have now, and I guess people wouldn’t remember this, but we had what they had called a toothbrush drill every morning before we went into school – before school started. We had to go into the classrooms and they had something like a cloakroom and like a hallway where they had a big class cabinet and every child had a cup and a toothbrush, so you knew when you came in. And we’d go out in the morning, “This is the way we brush our teeth,” you know, they played these little tunes you know, and we brush our teeth. And we took them in and we just enjoyed doing this.
Juanita Hixon returned to Wenonah to teach after completing her undergraduate degree at Talladega College. By this time the company schools had been turned over to Jefferson County. The switch was made in 1932, reflecting a decline in company welfare programs that preceded the closing of the mines in the 1960s.
Life After Wenonah
In the fifth grade Mrs. Hixon and her family moved from Wenonah to a neighborhood she remembers as “Truvellic.” By the mid 1930s, the Great Depression was in full-swing, affecting the implementation of TCI’s “welfare capitalism” programs. The schools had already been turned over to the county and her family was looking for better living conditions outside of Wenonah. Mrs. Hixon recalls the pride her family felt at the streetcar that stopped right in front of their new house and the anticipation of waiting for family members to come back, dressed up for their excursions into Birmingham, touting white bags of candy for the children upon return. She also remembers the fraught nature of going downtown during the segregation era. The development of the streetcar system in Birmingham was one factor in the development of the city’s suburbs, allowing industrial employees such as William Osborne to move their families out of company towns while continuing to work at the mines.
Mrs. Hixon’s family bought a house in Titusville, which she describes as being one of the first neighborhoods of African-American homeowners in Birmingham. She went to Parker High School and then on to Talladega College, which she describes as being “the best years of my life.” After a brief stint in teaching she went to nursing school in St. Louis, got married and had two children. She moved her family back to Titusville and Mrs. Hixon embarked on a 27-year career at the VA, integrating the outpatient and admissions unit in Birmingham.
Return to Red Mountain
We recently visited Mine No.13 with Mrs. Hixon. Even though her grandfather worked at Mines No. 8 and No. 9, this was her first time seeing any of the mines on Red Mountain in person.
“Life in a Company Town: The Mining Camps of Birmingham, Alabama, 1900s-1950s.” University of Alabama W.S Hoole Special Collections Library.
Longnecker White, Marjorie. The Birmingham District: An Industrial History and Guide. Birmingham Historical Society, 1998.
Rikard, Marlene Hunt. “‘Take Everything You Are…and Give It Away’ Pioneer Industrial Social Workers at TCI.” The Journal of the Birmingham Historical Society: An Anthology Honoring Marvin Yeomans Whiting, 2000.
Rikard, Marlene Hunt. “An Experiment in Welfare Capitalism: The Health Services of the Tennessee, Coal, Iron and Railroad Company.” The Journal of Economic History, 45:2, 1985.
This blog post was made possible by the Alabama Bicentennial Commission.