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Living with history
By: Karyn Zweifel
Although discussions of city spending frequently spin into polarized rhetoric, citizens and scholars are struggling toward compromise about the historic Arlington Antebellum Home and Gardens in southwest Birmingham. Built about 25 years before the city’s founding in 1871, the Greek Revival-style house has been owned by the city since 1952.
“The city has dumped millions of dollars into Arlington,” says radio host Frank Matthews, who has approached the city council seeking support for another historic home, the Parker House. Matthews has also presented evidence to the city council that the first owner of the house, William S. Mudd, owned slaves. “Why should the city spend $600,000 a year on that slavery house? I’ve had a number of callers to my show who are vigorously opposed to spending that money. I’m offended that my tax dollars go to maintain it. I understand that it’s history, but does it merit $600,000 when it’s really not that significant?”
“I think this discussion is a grave misjustice and mistake but everybody’s got their opinion,” comments William Mudd III, a descendant of the original builder. “I don’t think Arlington is the centerpiece of slavery in America. Whoever’s teaching history at Arlington can teach history how they see fit. If slavery is part of the format of that
history and it’s done in an objective, positive manner – I hope they do it well and it benefits all members of our
Daniel Brooks has been the curator and director of Arlington Home since 1984. His specialty is decorative arts.
“At Arlington we use our decorative arts collection, primarily gifts from the people of Birmingham over the years, to tell the early history of the city. We mention African American and Native American contributions to the home,” he says.
But Matthews argues that the people who run Arlington should change the historical perspective presented at
the museum. “Talladega College was built with slave labor, but their work was turned into a place of teaching,”
Matthews says. “If Arlington was to turn into a museum to talk about how wrong slavery was, then it would be
Historian Horace Huntley serves as director of the Oral History Project at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
He is also a resident of the Arlington-West End neighborhood. “I would agree that the programming should be
looked at,” Huntley says. “It should in fact mirror the wishes of the community.”
That community used to be all white, he says. He remembers riding the bus down Cotton Avenue as a boy, but
never went into the neighborhood until he bought a house there. “When I was growing up, of course, there was
a sort of unwritten law that you didn’t go into some areas unless you’re going to work,” Huntley says. “Even the
deed for our house had a stipulation that only whites could live in this house – that sort of gives the flavor of
what we’re referring to, the attitudes of the 1940s and ’50s.”
Now the neighborhood is predominantly black. “The city has changed, but we feel there should be no less effort
to keep the neighborhood up than in previous generations,” Huntley says. “It’s a very historic part of the city.”
The neighborhood is the geographic heart of Birmingham’s founding by the Elyton Land Company. Arlington is
the only antebellum home still standing in Jefferson County and served as the headquarters for Union General
James H. Wilson for a few days in 1865. From Mudd’s property, Wilson’s Raiders went on several missions to
destroy Alabama’s economic ability to support the Confederacy.
Daniel Brooks is responsible for Arlington’s programming and relies on research provided by historians from
Auburn University, Samford University and Birmingham-Southern College. “There is very little research on African-American influences on the house,” he says.
In fact, the textiles on display at Arlington may be the only exhibits that have a direct connection to the slaves
and African American servants who have lived there. The indirect connection, however, is that only a slave labor
economy and its oppressive aftermath made it possible for the white inhabitants of the house to own and enjoy
the decorative arts showcased there.
“I can feel in my bones the groans and travails of my ancestors there,” Matthews says. “I don’t like what it stands
for. Maybe it can be used to teach children about slavery. Other than that, I hope the city finds it in their heart to
raze that place.” He chuckles dryly. “I am bitter, aren’t I?”
“The advantage of a house museum is that it provides the context of how people lived,” says Birmingham
Museum of Art Director, Gail Andrews. “You can learn more deeply about a society through the objects they
made and used.” The BMA has a remarkable decorative arts collection, world-class in many respects, but
Arlington has the potential to showcase decorative arts in a way the BMA cannot, she explains. “The great
mission of Arlington is linking those artifacts with our place, and with all classes, rich, poor, black, white.”
“It is possible to utilize these facilities that way,” Brooks says. “We can tell the story of Southern food, for
example. We’re hoping to develop a program for city schoolteachers to utilize food in the classroom, telling the
story of its African origins. I see that as being a wonderful way of including a very exciting, positive story on
African American experience while dealing in facts specific to Arlington.”
The board of directors for Arlington Home, all volunteers, do not review programming for the museum. Two
members are from the neighborhood. One, Albertha Lyas, has been an Arlington board member for more than
10 years. She says that Arlington and the neighborhood association work closely together to achieve mutual
goals, such as historic lighting for the area. They are also campaigning to have the city restore the Montgomery
cottage adjacent to Arlington. The mother-in-law cottage has boarded-up windows and peeling paint. “It’s an
eyesore,” Lyas says. “We take pride in our property, and the city should take pride in theirs.”
The neighborhood association has no objections to the current programming, but would not be opposed to
updated material, she says.
The board of directors sponsors a Christmas open house at Arlington and meets once a month in the winter.
Fundraising efforts are limited to Thursday luncheons in the summer. “The Birmingham Historical Society has
been very generous,” says Natalie Sperling, president of the board of directors. There are no other significant
private sources of support. Proceeds from gift shop sales, admission charges and fees for weddings and other
events supplement Arlington’s budget.
The Birmingham Botanical Gardens, another attraction funded through the city budget, receives 60 percent of
its budget through the city. The remaining 40 percent is raised from private sources. Vulcan Park also receives
city funding, amounting to 20-25 percent of its annual operating costs.
“We’re always interested in looking at our programming,” Brooks concludes. “Of course that takes money, which
we don’t have. But there are positive seeds here, for a broader perspective. All races can embrace history for
what it is and grow from it. Our city has tremendous potential.”
Arlington Antebellum Home & Gardens is located approximately 1.5 miles west of downtown on First Avenue
North, which becomes Cotton Avenue. The address is 331 Cotton Avenue. Hours are Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.
m.-4 p.m. and Sunday 1-4 p.m. To learn more, call 780-5656 or visit www.informationbirmingham.com/arlington/
vol 12 - issue 17
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