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Majella Hamilton: Preserving City’s African American History




Majella Hamilton (Photo by:

By Erica Wright

As an avid student of race and culture with a passion for telling stories, Majella Chube Hamilton wakes up and goes to sleep with a love for history. That’s why her work as executive director of the Ballard House Project Inc. is so important.

“We research, document, preserve, and share the information we uncover regarding the African American experience in Birmingham,” said Hamilton. “We host oral-history sessions, community conversations, and temporary exhibits, and we’re [also] working on permanent exhibits.”

The Ballard House Project Inc., part of the downtown Birmingham Civil Rights District, is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization dedicated to disseminating the history of the African American experience among children and adults within the community, across the state, and beyond.

The building, named after renowned Birmingham physician Edward H. Ballard, MD, was constructed in the first half of the 20th century as a medical office and residence for the doctor’s family; it is one of the few surviving live-work structures in the Magic City.

The Ballard home served as a meeting place for African American organizations barred from gathering in other areas of the city and hosted noted physicians, including Dodson Curry, MD, Herschell Hamilton, MD, and Ross Gardner, MD.

Hamilton and her team focus on and feature not only specifics about what happened in the Ballard House but also the innovative contributions, educators, business owners, and women who lived together and created amazing networks throughout Birmingham.

“We have some resources we’ve gathered that are part of our exhibits, some of which are from the early 1900s,” Hamilton said. “We have information we’ve been sharing about the African American experience in Birmingham, … what was going on here and what we think is important for the community to know.”

Shared Experiences

The Ballard House Project, which received its nonprofit status in 2010, began with community conversations, collective-memory sessions, and oral history.

“We have been working for more than 10 years to gather the shared experiences of [Birmingham’s] African American community. We started having community conversations and gatherings of individuals to learn about their shared experiences and also individual oral histories,” said Hamilton, who has long been interested in learning the back story of a particular initiative or why things are the way they are.

“I recognized early on that there were aspects of this community that had been marginalized, had been ignored, and we weren’t talking about it,” she said. “People talk about their culture and their families and their extended families and their neighborhoods, usually within their own circles. I felt through all of my community activism that some aspects were not being discussed and engaged.

“It’s important to uncover and discover rich, historical information not to dwell on the past but to connect what happened yesterday with what is currently happening in our community today,” Hamilton said.

“In order to move forward, we feel that we’ve got to reach back and find out about what happened in the past so we can empower each other,” she continued. “I’d like to see children, adults, all of us be empowered by this information. … I’d also like to make sure that this is the history of not just Birmingham’s African American communities but all of Birmingham’s communities, which are part of the history of this nation. It is universally important.”

Click to view slideshow.

“Culturally Rich”

Hamilton, who is in her early 50s, spent most of her childhood in Franklin, La., a small town outside of New Orleans. When she was 12 years old, her family moved to Gary, Ind.

“My childhood was culturally rich,” she said. “My parents were dedicated to the community in which they lived, and they worked all of their lives to uplift the small community we lived in. I have one brother and two sisters, and we all learned the importance of hard work, giving back to our communities, and using the opportunities we received in ways that would be beneficial for others.”

Both of Hamilton’s parents, O’Neal and Merion, were educators and community activists.

“They were Civil Rights activists in the sense that they broke down barriers in their community, as well as worked to unify their community,” she said. “[In Franklin], there is a street named after my dad and … a library named after my mom. In that community, my mother was the first African American librarian … and my dad was one of the first African American principals.”

When the family moved to Indiana, Hamilton’s parents were retired. They moved so her father could help his brother, who was a family physician, with his medical practice.

Hamilton finished high school in Gary and went on to Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she majored in public relations.

“I did several internships in that career and decided I wanted to stop after three years in school for a period of time to work in D.C.,” she said. “I started an internship and really liked it, so I was like, ‘Hey, this is cool. I want to do this.’ I decided to really get my feet wet and see if I really liked what I was doing. I worked for close to year and then I decided to finish my studies at DePaul University in Chicago, [Ill.]”

Hamilton earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in communications with an emphasis on public relations and journalism. While living in Chicago, she worked in several different fields and was engaged to be married to her college sweetheart, Herschell, who she met at Howard. The Hamiltons, who have been married since the early 1990s, have two children, Jillian and Herschell O’Neal, called Neal. Jillian is a Howard University graduate currently pursuing a PhD in psychology at the University of Oregon, and Neal is a student at Howard.

The Magic City

Hamilton accepted a position with Macy’s and took part in the company’s executive training program, which is how she ultimately landed in Birmingham. After living in Atlanta, Ga., she and her husband relocated to the Magic City, where Hamilton moved into a corporate position with the locally based Parisian department store chain (now known as Belk).

“Eventually, I became the public information director for the city of Birmingham and worked for Mayor Richard Arrington and his administration for a little more than five years,” she said. “In that role, I created and opened the Office of Public Information to inform, engage, and be responsive to the questions and needs residents had about their city.”

From there, Hamilton started her own strategic communications business.

“I did project management and worked on a number of different special projects, including editing magazines and conducting special-event initiatives,” she said. “[I also videotaped] projects, managing and coordinating … many that dealt with community, culture, and history.”

Hamilton put her business to the side for a time to work for Southern Living magazine, covering areas such as interior design and architecture. What she enjoyed most, however, was doing features that enabled her to chronicle the stories of prominent African Americans in society.

“I did stories on people like Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman and the quilters of Gee’s Bend,” she said. “I also did a story on Haley Farms, the farm outside Knoxville, Tenn., that [“Roots” author] Alex Haley purchased prior to his death.”

During her magazine stint, Hamilton was also able to cover the African American experience: “I saw a gap was there,” she said. “[There were so many] individuals and aspects of our community that had contributed so much but not very many people knew about them, so that was an opportunity I loved.”

After leaving Southern Living, Hamilton returned to being a businessowner, establishing Enclave Communication Strategies, where she created strategic plans for projects in the community. She spent her free time on efforts designed to raise awareness about history, art, and culture, and along with her husband and others started working on the Ballard House Project.

“Quietly and methodically, we started to pull back the layers on the Ballard House and began stripping things away and restoring what was here,” said Hamilton, who is currently enrolled in a PhD program in history with an emphasis on race and culture at Howard University.

“We realized how important this aspect of history in the community is to the entire history of the area, so we started making plans to do what we’re doing now—telling those stories and highlighting the voices and experiences of the African American community in Birmingham.”

Talking Circles

This summer, the Ballard House Project started hosting a new series, entitled “Talking Circles: The Impact of Jim Crow Then and Now.”

“We cover every facet of the impact of Jim Crow, [including] culture, health, education, business, housing, voting, traumatic violence, and everything as it relates to race and the laws, customs, and ordinances [under] Jim Crow in Birmingham,” said Hamilton.

“We didn’t know exactly how we were going to focus on it, but it was a wonderful opportunity because we focus on dialogic engagement. Through dialogue [among those attending the Talking Circle], we were able to determine the specific topics or facets of community impact we wanted to focus on. We’re inviting different individuals and community leaders who have some expertise on the different topics … to lead this initiative.”

So far, there have been three Talking Circles at the Ballard House and other locations. They are held on the second and fourth Saturday of each month; starting in October, they will be held on the second and third Saturday of each month. Among the myriad topics discussed are genealogy, migration, and the African diaspora. At the next event, scheduled for October 12, Greg Townsend of the Jefferson County Department of Health will discuss the impact of Jim Crow on health and health care in the African American community.

Ongoing Restoration

Currently, the Ballard House Project is conducting a $1 million capital campaign to raise funds to restore the building.

“We want to fully restore the building,” Hamilton said. “[We’ve been making improvements] little by little throughout the years as needed, but we know full restoration of this building is critical. We also have already started on the development of a master community garden, which … will be in the lot next door. This plan also includes infrastructure for permanent exhibits, … [both] interior and exterior.”

In addition to the special events and Talking Circles series, the organization hosts community conversations and collaborates with other groups.

“We’ve hosted community conversations, … most of which are in different parts of the city, as well as sometimes here at the Ballard House and at several [local] libraries,” Hamilton said. “We’ve also hosted temporary exhibits, whether here or somewhere else, including one at the Taste of 4th Avenue Jazz Festival, where we’ve hosted exhibits [that enable] people to come learn more about their history.”

The Ballard House also does presentations at schools for students and adults.

“We want this to be a community initiative. That’s our focus,” Hamilton said. “We’re doing more than just unveiling what happened. This is a collaborative process with members of the community.”

This article originally appeared in The Birmingham Times.

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Black Woman to Lead United States Park Police

 Chief Smith’s experience serving in leadership roles in every U.S. Park Police field office has provided her with an unmatched foundation to lead the diverse agency,” said Flynn, who oversees law enforcement programs at USPP.



Pamela A. Smith

Pamela A. Smith, a 23-year veteran of the United States Park Police, will lead the nation’s oldest federal law enforcement agency.

Smith, who became the first African American woman to lead the 230-year-old agency, immediately remarked that she would establish a body-worn camera program for USPP within 90 days.

The program will initially begin in San Francisco and be implemented across the country by the end of the year, Smith said.

“Body-worn cameras are good for the public and good for our officers, which is why I am prioritizing implementing a body-worn camera program within my first 90 days,” Smith offered in a statement.

 “This is one of the many steps we must take to continue to build trust and credibility with the public we have been entrusted to serve.”

Smith earned a bachelor’s degree in Education from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and graduated from the FBI National Academy. She is a member of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

During her law enforcement career, the proud Zeta Phi Beta Sorority sister has served as a patrol officer, field training officer, canine handler, and academy instructor at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center.

 According to a news release, Smith also served as executive lieutenant to the chief of police, assistant commander of the San Francisco Field Office, commander of the New York Field Office, acting deputy chief of the Homeland Security Division, and deputy chief for the Field Operations Division.

Smith was the first woman to lead the New York Field Office as its Major.

At the USPP, she will lead a 560-member workforce that protects the public, parks, and the nation’s most iconic landmarks in Wash., D.C., New York City, and San Francisco metropolitan areas.

“Chief Smith’s commitment to policing as public service and her willingness to listen and collaborate make her the right person to lead the U.S. Park Police at this pivotal moment in our country,” Shawn Benge, deputy director exercising the delegated authority of the NPS director, noted in a statement.

 “Over the coming months, the leadership of the National Park Service will explore opportunities with Chief Smith designed to strengthen our organization’s commitment to transparency. Her personal and professional experience make her acutely aware of and ready to meet the challenges and responsibilities that face U.S. Park Police and law enforcement agencies across the nation.”

 Jennifer Flynn, the associate director for Visitor Resource Protection at the National Park Service added that she’s looking forward to Smith’s leadership.

“Chief Smith’s experience serving in leadership roles in every U.S. Park Police field office has provided her with an unmatched foundation to lead the diverse agency,” said Flynn, who oversees law enforcement programs at USPP.

 “As federal law enforcement officers, the U.S. Park Police officers have a new opportunity each day to give their best to the American people. Chief Smith exemplifies that approach as a colleague and mentor, and she will be instrumental in refining and shaping the future of the organization,” Flynn said.

Smith declared that she would lead by example and expects all officers to display integrity.

 “I have dedicated my career to the professionalism of law enforcement, and it is my highest honor and privilege to serve as chief of police,” Chief Smith declared. “Today’s officers face many challenges, and I firmly believe challenges present opportunities. I look forward to leading this exemplary team as we carry out our mission with honesty and integrity.”  

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Children’s Defense Fund: State of America’s Children Reveals that 71 Percent of Children of Color Live in Poverty

“While we reported on the 73 million children in the U.S. in 2019, which is 22 percent of the nation’s population, we also note that 2020 was the first year in American history that a majority of children are projected to be children of color,” said the Rev. Dr. Starsky Wilson, the president and CEO of the Children’s Defense Fund.



Dr. Wilson did note that the Children’s Defense Fund is pleased about President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which, among other things, makes it easier for parents to keep their jobs and provides a lifeline for disadvantaged children. (Photo: iStockphoto / NNPA)
Dr. Wilson did note that the Children’s Defense Fund is pleased about President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which, among other things, makes it easier for parents to keep their jobs and provides a lifeline for disadvantaged children. (Photo: iStockphoto / NNPA)

Part One of an ongoing series on this impactful and informative report.

By Stacy M. Brown, NNPA Newswire Senior National Correspondent

The child population in America is the most diverse in history, but children remain the poorest age group in the country with youth of color suffering the highest poverty rates.

“While we reported on the 73 million children in the U.S. in 2019, which is 22 percent of the nation’s population, we also note that 2020 was the first year in American history that a majority of children are projected to be children of color,” said the Rev. Dr. Starsky Wilson, the president and CEO of the Children’s Defense Fund.

Dr. Wilson’s remarks come as the Marian Wright Edelman founded nonprofit released “The State of America’s Children 2021.”

The comprehensive report is eye-opening.

It highlights how children remain the poorest age group in America, with children of color and young children suffering the highest poverty rates. For instance, of the more than 10.5 million poverty-stricken children in America in 2019, approximately 71 percent were those of color.

The stunning exposé revealed that income and wealth inequality are growing and harming children in low-income, Black and Brown families.

While the share of all wealth held by the top one percent of Americans grew from 30 percent to 37 percent, the share held by the bottom 90 percent fell from 33 percent to 23 percent between 1989 and 2019.

Today, a member of the top 10 percent of income earners makes about 39 times as much as the average earner in the bottom 90 percent.

The median family income of White households with children ($95,700) was more than double that of Black ($43,900), and Hispanic households with children ($52,300).

Further, the report noted that the lack of affordable housing and federal rental assistance leaves millions of children homeless or at risk of homelessness.

More than 1.5 million children enrolled in public schools experienced homelessness during the 2017-2018 school year, and 74 percent of unhoused students during the 2017-2018 school year were living temporarily with family or friends.

Millions of children live in food-insecure households, lacking reliable access to safe, sufficient, and nutritious food, and more than 1 in 7 children – 10.7 million – were food insecure, meaning they lived in households where not everyone had enough to eat.

Black and Hispanic children were twice as likely to live in food-insecure households as White children.

The report further found that America’s schools have continued to slip backwards into patterns of deep racial and socioeconomic segregation, perpetuating achievement gaps.

For instance, during the 2017-2018 public school year, 19 percent of Black, 21 percent of Hispanic, and more than 26 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native school students did not graduate on time compared with only 11 percent of White students.

More than 77 percent of Hispanic and more than 79 percent of Black fourth and eighth grade public school students were not proficient in reading or math in 2019, compared with less than 60 percent of White students.

“We find that in the course of the last year, we’ve come to the point where our conversations about child well-being and our dialogue and reckoning around racial justice has really met a point of intersection, and so we must consider child well-being in every conversation about racial justice and quite frankly you can only sustainably speak of racial justice if we’re talking about the state of our children,” Dr. Wilson observed.

Some more of the startling statistics found in the report include:

  • A White public school student is suspended every six seconds, while students of color and non-White students are suspended every two seconds.
  • Conditions leading to a person dropping out of high school occur with white students every 19 seconds, while it occurs every nine seconds for non-White and students of color.
  • A White child is arrested every 1 minute and 12 seconds, while students of color and non-whites are arrested every 45 seconds.
  • A White student in public school is corporally punished every two minutes, while students of color and non-Whites face such action every 49 seconds.

Dr. Wilson asserted that federal spending “reflects the nation’s skewed priorities.”

In the report, he notes that children are not receiving the investment they need to thrive, and despite making up such a large portion of the population, less than 7.5 percent of federal spending went towards children in fiscal year 2020.

Despite Congress raising statutory caps on discretionary spending in fiscal years 2018 to 2020, children did not receive their fair share of those increases and children’s share of total federal spending has continued to decline.

“Children continue to be the poorest segment of the population,” Dr. Wilson demanded. “We are headed into a dark place as it relates to poverty and inequity on the American landscape because our children become the canary in the coal mine.”

Dr. Wilson did note that the Children’s Defense Fund is pleased about President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which, among other things, makes it easier for parents to keep their jobs and provides a lifeline for disadvantaged children.

The $1.9 trillion plan not only contained $1,400 checks for individuals, it includes monthly allowances and other elements to help reduce child poverty.

The President’s plan expands home visitation programs that help at-risk parents from pregnancy through early childhood and is presents universal access to top-notch pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds.

“The American Rescue Plan carried significant and powerful anti-poverty messages that will have remarkable benefits on the lives of children in America over the course of the next two years,” Dr. Wilson declared.

“The Children’s Defense Fund was quick to applaud the efforts of the President. We have worked with partners, including leading a child poverty coalition, to advance the ideas of that investment,” he continued.

“Most notably, the expansion of the child tax credit which has the impact of reducing poverty, lifting more than 50 percent of African American children out of poverty, 81 percent of Indigenous children, 45 percent of Hispanic children. It’s not only good policy, but it’s specifically good policy for Black and Brown children.”

Click here to view the full report.

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She Bought Freedom for Herself and Other Slaves Today a Park is Named in Her Honor

Alethia Browning Tanner saved enough money to purchase her freedom in 1810. “The total amount, thought to have been paid in installments, was $1,400. In 1810, $1,400 was a significant amount; about the equivalent of three years’ earnings for an average skilled tradesperson,” researchers surmised. 



Alethia Browning Tanner worked to purchase the freedom of more than 20 of her relatives and neighbors, mostly the family of her older sister Laurana including Laurana herself, her children, and her grandchildren.

In her early years, Alethia Browning Tanner sold vegetables in a produce stall near President’s Square – now known as Lafayette Square – in what is now Northwest Washington, D.C.

According to the D.C. Genealogy Research, Resources, and Records, Tanner bought her freedom in 1810 and later purchased several relatives’ release.

She was the first woman on the Roll of Members of the Union Bethel AME Church (now Metropolitan AME Church on M Street), and Turner owned land and a store at 14th and H Streets, which she left to her nephews – one of whom later sold the property for $100,000.

Named in her honor, the Alethia Tanner Park is located at 227 Harry Thomas Way in Northeast DC.

The park sits near the corner of Harry Thomas Way and Q Street and is accessible by foot or bike via the Metropolitan Branch Trail, just north of the Florida Ave entrances.

“The first Council legislative meeting of Black History Month, the Council took a second and final vote on naming the new park for Alethia Tanner, an amazing woman who is more than worthy of this long-delayed recognition,” Ward 5 Councilman Kenyan McDuffie said in 2020 ahead of the park’s naming ceremony.

“[Her upbringing] itself would be a remarkable legacy, but Ms. Tanner was also active in founding and supporting many educational, religious, and civic institutions,” McDuffie remarked.

“She contributed funds to start the first school for free Black children in Washington, the Bell School. Feeling unwelcome at her predominately segregated church, she & other church members founded the Israel Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. When the church fell on hard times and was sold at auction by creditors, she and her family stepped in and repurchased the church.”

Born in 1781 on a plantation owned by Tobias and Mary Belt in Prince George’s County, Maryland, historians noted that Tanner had two sisters, Sophia Bell and Laurena Cook.

“Upon the death of Mary Pratt (Tobias had predeceased his wife) in 1795, the plantation, known as Chelsea Plantation, was inherited by their daughter Rachel Belt Pratt,” historians wrote.

“Mary Belt’s will stipulated that Laurena be sent to live with a sibling of Rachel Pratt’s while Sophia and Alethia were to stay at the Chelsea Plantation.”

Tanner sold vegetables at the well-known market just north of the White House in Presidents Park. It is possible – and probable – she met Thomas Jefferson there as he was known to frequent the vegetable markets there along with other prominent early Washingtonians, according to historians at 

“There are also White House records suggesting she worked for Thomas Jefferson in some capacity, likely doing various housework tasks,” the researchers determined.

Tanner saved enough money to purchase her freedom in 1810. “The total amount, thought to have been paid in installments, was $1,400. In 1810, $1,400 was a significant amount; about the equivalent of three years’ earnings for an average skilled tradesperson,” researchers surmised.

“Self-emancipation was not an option for all enslaved peoples, but both Alethia and her sister Sophia were able to accomplish this, almost entirely through selling vegetables at the market,” the researchers continued.

“Alethia Tanner moved to D.C. and became one of a significant and growing number of free Black people in the District. In 1800, 793 free Black people were living in D.C.

By 1810, there were 2,549, and by 1860, 11,131 free Black people lived in D.C., more than the number of enslaved peoples.”

Historians wrote that beginning at about 15 years after securing her manumission, Alethia Tanner worked to purchase the freedom of more than 20 of her relatives and neighbors, mostly the family of her older sister Laurana including Laurana herself, her children, and her grandchildren.

All in all, Tanner would have paid the Pratt family well over $5,000. All accomplished with proceeds from her own vegetable market business, they concluded.

“Alethia Tanner, it’s an amazing story of resilience, hard work, and perseverance,” D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation Director Delano Hunter said at the park’s dedication.

“I just learned about this history through this, so it shows how when you name a park, you really educate people on the historical significance.”

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