By Margaret Weinberg and Naomi Woods

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 continue with Margaret Osborne’s story…

When she was a child, Margaret Osborne’s father worked in the mines on Red Mountain. At age three she moved with him to central California and over the next several years they lived in Bakersfield and Corcoran—the only years of her life during which Margaret Osborne lived more than ten minutes from Red Mountain. She grew up to be a long-standing faculty member of Lawson State Community College, joining the teaching staff in the 1970’s as the first female Master Plumber in the state of Alabama. Today Margaret Osborne works in administration at Lawson and is an active member of the Lawson State Historical Preservation Committee.

We highlight Mrs. Osborne’s story today as the tale of a life lived in the periphery of the mountain and mines. She is a lifelong community member with insight on the ways in which life around Red Mountain changed in conjunction with the presence of the mining industry. Naomi Woods, a journalism student from Lawson State, assisted in the preparation, research and writing for this oral history feature.

A Part Of and Apart From the Mines

Not all mining families lived in company towns. Unlike Juanita Hixon and Jack Neal, Margaret Osborne and her father Leroy Cole did not live in a “mining camp”, even though he worked in the mines. They lived in a TCI (Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company) -constructed home, but Mrs. Osborne recalls that her father bought it from the company, instead of renting the property. Her father drilled for iron ore during the day and stopped by the bathhouse on his way home. Sanitation was part of TCI’s efforts towards a healthy and happy workforce. In 1911 TCI became the first major steel company to provide bathhouses for all workers at all operations and you can still see the foundations of these structures in several locations inside Red Mountain Park.

Like Jack Neal, Mrs. Osborne remembers her neighborhood as feeling very rural, despite its proximity to the city of Birmingham.

00:01:11 – 00:02:00 (break) 00:02:07 – 00:02:25 Margaret Osborne, 4.29.19: I was born on Grasselli Avenue, about five blocks from here, in one of the mining camp houses. We had outdoor toilets, we raised chickens, we grew gardens, neighbors had hogs and cows and we bartered. So I grew up kind of like in the country. MW: Do you know which of the mining communities you lived in? Was it Wenonah? MO: Well we didn’t call this area a camp because it’s only five blocks from here. But it was one of the company houses that they sold to the people who worked in the mines. (transition) He did work in the mines, but I was about three years old. And when he came home from the mines he had already been to the bathhouse which was across from the school, so he was always nice and clean by the time he got home. He didn’t have the ore from the mines on his clothing or anything.        

Grasselli Avenue to California and Back

Mrs. Osborne speculates that her father wanted to leave the mines because his own father’s young death was possibly related to exposure to dangerous dust from iron ore mining. Mrs. Osborne’s father was a first generation Jefferson County resident. His parents, like Juanita Hixon’s, came from Hope Hull, Alabama to work in the mines. In California, Mrs. Osborne’s father drove a truck delivering produce and she fondly recalls digging ice potatoes out of the ground to eat them raw and driving to new parts of the country on deliveries with him.

Mrs. Osborne and her father returned to Birmingham when she was in the fourth grade. They moved to George Road, only a few blocks from their old home on Grasselli Avenue. When we asked about the move back to Alabama she described the shock of leaving a diverse agricultural community, populated mainly by migrant farm workers, and returning to the segregated mid-century South. Before leaving Jefferson County Mrs. Osborne had attended a segregated TCI school. Upon return she had to adjust to the fact that the neighborhoods surrounding the camps were still segregated as well.

00:08:50 – 00:09:40 Margaret Osborne, 4.29.19:  The first thing I remember when I came from California, I didn’t know about the segregation. We stopped at a Dairy Queen and I saw this sign that said “Colored”. I jumped out of the car before Daddy could stop me. I went to the drinking fountain that said “Colored”, and I was so disappointed, I said, “Daddy, daddy, this is not colored water. This water looks like any other water.” Because I thought that’s what colored water meant, I thought it meant white water and colored water. I can distinctly remember that because he wouldn’t let me forget it. He’d say, “You remember when you thought the drinking water meant colored water?” It was an experience I can remember from that young age.  

A Life at Lawson

One aspect of life near the mountain that Mrs. Osborne appreciates is that one could and still can obtain an entire education within their community. The Wenonah mining camp nearby had an exceptional educational system, especially in the context of other schools for African-American students at the time. Lawson State Community College began as the Wenonah Vocational and Trade School in 1949 and added its academic division in 1965, renaming itself in 1969 after its first President, Theodore Lawson. Mrs. Osborne discussed with us the legacy of education in the community she grew up in.

Margaret Osborne 4.29.19.  Well I went to one of the TCI schools. TCI took very good care of the workers and they provided schooling for the children who went to TCI. So I started Kindergarten off in a church – Galilee Baptist Church – that was near the mining camp. And they had the bathhouse across from the Church. They called it the Cottage, and the bath house, where I said my Daddy used to take a bath. He’d get all cleaned up before he came home. But I started off in the Church where they had grades Kindergarten through eighth grade in one room, you know a large Church sanctuary. [transition] Well Leon Kennedy, who was one of the Presidents of Lawson State was the Principal at the church school, so that’s how I got to know him first hand. In fact I would ride with him sometimes to school, to Kindergarten (laughs).

Changes Beyond the Mines

Since her father left the mines by the time they closed in the 1960s, Mrs. Osborne didn’t feel the effect of the closures on her own family. But she knows that others in her community did, and has observed the ways in which the neighborhood she lives in has changed with time. Most people that are knowledgeable of Wenonah’s history are aware of the neighborhood’s relationship with mining camps. TCI was not only involved in the worker’s  lives through mining, they created their own hamlets in the surrounding communities. Mining camps and the neighborhoods around them were populated areas where families lived and reaped the benefits of TCI programs.  During Osborne’s interview, we discussed some of the effects mining may have on today’s community. Osborne expressed that she feels it is no longer a “neighborhood” due to a vast amount of vacant buildings and houses throughout the community.

Margaret Osborne, 4.29.19: 00:07:35- 00:08:44  It has decreased because all the houses are basically gone, you got a lotta vacant houses or, umm…Houses that are in disrepair and need to be torn down. The city is tearing them down pretty rapidly but after a while there’ll be just a house here, house there after a while. My house has been here since 1975, I think I built it in ‘75, the year I became full time here, so it’s in good shape.And umm… about five or six other houses are in good shape, but the rest are disrepaired or torn down already. MW: Why are so many vacant? MO: Because people don’t come back and live. They have, old people die out and their children don’t come back and they don’t take care of their property, let it go for taxes, or whatever rather than come back and try to keep the neighborhood going.

During Osborne’s interview, we discussed in many ways the differences between the neighborhood she grew up in and the one she lives in now—in other words, one neighborhood in two different eras. How can places like Red Mountain Park add to the efforts of long-standing community members such as Mrs. Osborne, who has her own ideas about community revitalization? This is an interesting question for any community initiative with such a strong connection to history.

Additional Resources

“Lawson State Community College: A Celebrated History.”