Our House: The Ballard House Project


A center of African-American community life for decades is being reborn.

Written by Sherrel Wheeler Stewart

 Photos by Beau Gustafson

 

When he was a little boy in the 1950s, Washington Booker remembers peddling his bicycle down Seventh Avenue North when his foot got trapped in the spokes of a wheel, injuring his ankle.

If you were injured or hurting back in those days, and you were black, Booker says, “You knew where to go.” That place was a two-story brick and wooden home/office at 1420 Seventh Avenue North.

Back then, most folks just knew that location as Dr. Herschell Hamilton’s medical office. Today, it is known formally as the Ballard House.

The home was built in the 1940s by an African-American contractor, Leroy S. Gillard. Over the years, it has maintained a stately presence in the western section of downtown, nestled at the rear of the St. John African American Episcopal Church. While it was known most recently as the doctor’s office, it also held prominence as a place for social gatherings and as a motel.

Dr. E. H. Ballard and his family made it their live/work space, says Majella Chube Hamilton. She and her husband, Herschell Hamilton Jr., have established a foundation with the goal of restoring the prominent residence so that it can be used as a museum and gathering place for civic groups and cultural arts.

“We envision this as a modern day cultural center for the community, connecting historical threads that served to weave a tapestry of good works and a rich legacy in Birmingham,” Majella said. “This building and sustainable garden will come alive and will again be the gathering spot for workshops, exhibits, and events on art, history, culture, service, philanthropy, and present-day community issues.”

It will include a museum with documents and photos that give a snapshot of an important part of the city’s history, she says.

“The Ballard House tells the story of significant moments in African-American history in Birmingham and Alabama,” says Herschell. In its early years, it was an example of how Dr. Ballard and other young black physicians and professionals built impressive businesses that supported and served the needs of their community, he explains.

Then, in the 1950s and 1960s, it grew in popularity as female entrepreneur Jesse Perkins used the house to host civic, service, social and savings club and organizational meetings, and special events in the backdrop of a deeply segregated city. In the 1960s, Dr. Hamilton and others provided health care in the offices there, as well as support for leaders and foot soldiers of the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement. The Ballard House was more than a doctor’s office, Majella says.

After Ballard moved his medical practice to California, Perkins bought the home and leased part of the first floor to Dr. Hamilton and Dr. Dodson Curry.

Hamilton, a native of Pensacola, Fla., educated at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn., was the first board-certified surgeon to practice medicine at University Hospital. He died in 2003.

For many of the people who were injured by vicious dog attacks and fire hose blasts during civil rights marches downtown, their stitching and bandaging was done right there in the doctor’s office at the Ballard House. A brass plate on an office door on the first floor of the home still reads, “Herschell Hamilton, General Surgeon.” During the civil rights movement, he was often referred to by other names like “the battle surgeon” or “the dog bite doctor.”

Many of the marches during the pivotal years of the movement often began and ended at Kelly Ingram Park, at the corner of Sixth Avenue North and 16th Street.  The Ballard House was less than three blocks away.

The area surrounding the home was densely populated in the late 50s and 60s, says Yvonne Hamilton, wife of Dr. Hamilton for almost 50 years. “There were apartments across the street and a drugstore just down the street, operated by an African-American pharmacist,” she said.

The First Congregational Church was also located on Seventh Avenue North at the time, and Bradford Funeral Home was up the road, near the rear of 16th Street Baptist Church. The area was filled with people and businesses that served the community, Yvonne says.

“Our goal is to renovate the house and restore it to circa 1940,” Majella says. “We want to create cultural and educational space and gardens while also creating a retail operation that honors the history of Birmingham’s African-American community.”

Much of the area around the Ballard House already has seen new development.  A new senior living complex opened in area as did the Birmingham Early Learning Center, a state of the art kindergarten. Two years ago,  Independent Living Resources of Greater Birmingham opened a new center around the corner in the 1400 block of Sixth Avenue North.

In the fall of 2013, the Hamiltons launched an ongoing fundraising initiative. They are also approaching a variety of local, state, and federal agencies, as well as foundations and historic preservation entities to gain support for the Ballard House Project, Majella says.

“We are engaged in dialogue with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, since they launched an initiative in 2012 to preserve historic African-American places throughout the country,” Majella says.

“Much of the original housing and commercial building stock in the Civil Rights District has been demolished over the past several decades,” Herschell explains. “We believe that this restoration will serve as a catalyst to spur additional new projects and developments that could be enjoyed by our local metropolitan area residents and hundreds of thousands of visitors and tourists who come to the civil rights district every year.”

Margaret Jones, a member of the board of directors for the Ballard House Project, says she looks forward to the restoration of the home and other areas in western section of downtown. “The Masonic Temple on Fourth Avenue is another place in this area that has a rich history,” she says. The offices of many African-American professionals were housed there, and some of the biggest names in entertainment played there in the ballroom, long before blacks could have concerts at venues such as the Boutwell Auditorium.

Some work has already been compelted on the restoration. Inside, the parlor/living area and the dining room have been restored. Work has also been executed on the physician’s office, as well as on the exterior siding and painting.

The building has a storied history that highlights what life was like in the African-American community of Birmingham in the decades leading up to the movement’s transformational changes. The plan is to highlight the people, organizations, places, and events that contributed to this dynamic time. It’s a story that has inspiration and value for current and future generations.

Ruth Barefield-Pendleton, an educator and wife of Dr. Tyree J. Barefield-Pendleton, remembers the many social gatherings at the Ballard House in the 50s and 60s. “We held our meetings and special events for the Holiday Club here,” she says. “Many people would use the Ballard House for entertaining if their homes could not accommodate larger groups. This was a prominent place in the community.”

Now Barefield-Pendleton, worked closely with the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, says she looks forward to the restoration of the home and the museum that will provide education and insight on the history of the area. “I am a believer that all people should know who they are, where they came from, how they got there, and who brought them,” she says.

One Response to “Our House: The Ballard House Project”

  1. Majella Chube Hamilton says:

    Thank you Joe O’Donnell (B-Metro) and Sherrell Stewart for helping us tell a very special Birmingham story! Much appreciation for your interest in this historic place that, once again, will play a significant role in our community.

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