There was a time when o2ideas president and CEO Shelley Stewart wandered the streets barefoot as a homeless child.
As an African American in the segregated world of the 1940s American South, he had every possible disadvantage. Having seen his father murder his own mother with an axe, then abandoned by other relatives, he and his brother Bubba found themselves alone in a hostile world.
Meanwhile, a first grade teacher had seen Shelley and Bubba searching for food in the garbage cans behind a local grocery store.
One day, Shelley found himself in her classroom. She picked him up in her arms and with tears said, “I’ve seen you, and I know who you are. If you learn to read… if you get a good education… you can be anything you want to be.”
Shelley relays this life-changing moment in a recent keynote address at the dedication of the new Parker High School in Birmingham, Alabama.
Grandmother washed these windows all the time. Now the glass is gone.
The aluminum siding that for a railroad family was a big investment, is now ripped off. This is where I grew up. In Woodlawn, a historic Birmingham neighborhood not far from downtown and near the airport.
This is where we rode our bikes all day and most of the night.
In summer, we shelled peas from the Finley Avenue Farmers’ Market and swatted mosquitoes on the front porch. And my strong and agile grandmother washed that front porch every two weeks in the summer, whether it needed it or not. This is the house where folks came in from out of town to stay on weekends and holidays. It’s where we spent cold winter Saturday evenings warmly snuggled inside, watching Bob Newhart, Carol Burnett and the Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Behind our house was Willow Wood Park, where we played endless games of football, softball, and basketball. The Park has seen much better days, but it’s still there.
Around the corner, as we walked home from school at Gibson Elementary, we would stop off at Riashy’s Delicatessen.
Riashy’s really wasn’t a deli in the traditional sense. It was a convenience store. Mr. and Mrs. Riashy were always friendly to us. But many times, we would walk in the store and they seemed to be arguing with each other, in Lebanese where we couldn’t understand them. It was pretty tight quarters and I guess it was tough to hang out with each other like that all day and not get testy.
This was the Woodlawn of the 1970s. A neighborhood in decline but still a decent place to live. The last of us left there by the mid 1980s. It had become unsafe for my grandmother to live there alone. She got mugged one evening walking up to her own front door on that squeaky-clean front porch. So we made a way for her to get out while she could. We all went on to new lives in other places.
Woodlawn continued to decay over the decades. We thought the death knell had come when the beautiful, gothic-style First United Methodist Church on 1st Avenue North went up in flames.
Yet the seeds of redevelopment had been coming up out of the ground even prior to the church fire. And the remarkable rebuilding of First United Methodist is truly symbolic of the cross-cultural rebirth of Woodlawn, led by numerous churches, concerned citizens, and key nonprofits such as the YWCA of Birmingham.
Today, parts of the neighborhood like my childhood home are still in bad shape. But, the main core of Woodlawn along 1st Avenue continues to revive.
What a great start this is, improving the “front porch” of this part of town. It’s happening with the help of efforts such as Woodlawn United, the YWCA, Church of the Highlands, Cornerstone School, First United Methodist, and countless other individuals and organizations who are making a huge difference.
Below are a couple of great links to coverage by the Birmingham News.
You’ve heard of the H.J. Heinz Company. You’ve had their mustard on a hamburger or had any other number of their fine foods and condiments. But did you know there almost WASN’T a Heinz food company?
H. J. Heinz, the company’s founder, had actually lost his burgeoning food business as a result of the economic Panic of 1873. By 1875, he had exhausted all the money he had from his family. He had even been jailed for a time due to debt. He had gone from success to total humiliation. And now it was Christmas of 1875, with no money for any gifts for his family.
Suddenly, a letter appeared, from Heinz’s mother. It was a prophecy of sorts. She had taken the time with all that she had left, to pen these words to her son:
“May the blessings of thy God wait upon thee, and the sun of glory shine round thy head. May the gates of plenty, honor, and happiness always open to thee and thine; may the pillow of peace kiss thy cheek, and the pleasures of imagination attend thy dreams; and when length of years thee tired of earthy joys, and the curtains of death gently close around the scenes of thine existence, may the angels of God attend thy bed and take care that the expiring lamp of life shall not receive one rude blast to hasten its extinction; and finally, may the Saviour’s blood wash thee from all impurities and at last usher thee into the land of everlasting felicity.”
Inspired by these words, Heinz survived that Christmas week and set about on a new path, resolved to pay back all his creditors and make his business a success (1). And it became wildly successful and continues to bear his name to this day.
What kinds of words are we speaking into those around us?
(1) Source: Quentin R. Skrabec, Jr., H. J. Heinz: A Biography (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, 2009), pp. 60-65.
Talk about overcoming obstacles… Here’s an American family coping with what a dramatically increasing number of Americans are coping with — the phenomenon of autism in our society. This story will engage you and open your eyes to this condition. It also is a great example of how people can overcome unplanned difficulties and rise above them.