The view from eighty-plus years of age is fascinating.
Written by Cary Estes, Photographed by Liesa Cole
Throughout his nine decades in Birmingham, Sam Ferlisi often has had a hard time getting home. Even at birth. Ferlisi was born in 1922 in the back of a grocery story owned by his aunt when his mother unexpectedly went into labor and they didn’t have time to get her to the family’s house in Norwood.
That set the tone for Ferlisi, who enjoyed numerous adventures as a child in the 1930s. He had relatives who delivered beer and whiskey to clubs during Prohibition. Young Sam rode along with a cousin during one trip when he suddenly found himself being chased by the police and had to jump a fence to get away. On another occasion, when he realized he was not going to make it back home before curfew after riding his bike to a swimming hole, Ferlisi grabbed on to the back of a pickup truck and had the truck pull him and his bike back to town.
“If my daddy had known some of the things I did, he would have killed me,” Ferlisi says with a smile.
Ferlisi’s father came to Birmingham from Italy. At the time, Birmingham was a popular destination for Italian immigrants. There were plenty of available jobs stemming from all the iron and coal industries in the area, and the city also had similarities to Italy, with its hilly terrain and warmer climate.
Ferlisi said the Italian community in Birmingham was tight-knit, partly out of necessity because there was prejudice against immigrants. Ferlisi’s father was a mechanic, and Felisi says some people refused to take their cars to his shop because they didn’t want an Italian working on it.
Italians also were not allowed to join any of the Birmingham-area country clubs. So after World War II, Ferlisi helped start a club for Italians called the Roma Country Club, which was located near what is now West Homewood Park.
“It was a fabulous club,” Ferlisi says. “We had the largest ballroom in the state.”
Ferlisi operated a service station in downtown Birmingham for 42 years before retiring. Now he lives out his adventures in his memories.
“Me and my brother were always getting in trouble,” Ferlisi says. “But we had a lot of fun.”
There is a sparkle in Oliver Ferguson’s 92-year-old eyes as he sits in the stands at Birmingham’s historic Rickwood Field and stares out at his personal field of dreams. “This looks just like it looked when I was a young man,” Ferguson says. “This is an outstanding place.”
For one glorious year, in 1938, Ferguson was able to do more than just watch the baseball games that took place at Rickwood. He played in them, as a shortstop for the Birmingham Black Barons of the old Negro League. Ferguson joined the team immediately after graduating from Brighton High School, an enthusiastic 18-year-old who chopped away at nearly every pitch he saw.
“They threw it and I didn’t have any better sense, so I just swung at it,” Ferguson says. “I wasn’t afraid of anybody throwing the ball by me. I struck out a lot of times, but I hit it a lot of times, too. You ain’t never played no baseball if you’ve never struck out.”
Ferguson traveled throughout the Southeast that summer, taking bus rides to cities he had only heard about: New Orleans, Tampa, Memphis, Charlotte, Knoxville. Unfortunately, the racism of the day often reared its ugly head and the team was unable to find a motel room in many cities, so the players often were forced to sleep on the bus. They had to get by on 65 cents per day for meals, though it also was a challenge to find restaurants that would accommodate them.
“It was hard, but I was young and going to places I had never seen before and will probably never see again,” Ferguson said. “I really enjoyed it.”
Ferguson eventually went to work for the Woodward Iron Company and stayed there for 35 years. He played for the company’s baseball team in the Industrial League, where he caught the eye of a young woman named Clara. They have been married for 72 years and still live in Birmingham.
“She came to every game to watch me,” Ferguson says. “She said she liked the way I played. I played for the love of the game. I just loved baseball.”
Ruth Scheuer Siegler is a woman who does not mind revealing her age. When the 85-year-old is asked if it is okay for her age to be published, she replies, “My gosh, yes. I’m proud now to say I’m here. I survived.”
Siegler is a survivor in the starkest sense. She and her older sister, Ilse Nathan, endured three years in German concentration camps during World War II, including the notorious Auschwitz facility. The girls’ parents and brother perished during the ordeal. (The sisters’ story can be read in greater detail at www.bhamholocausteducation.org/bio-nathan-siegler.htm).
Siegler was 6 years old when Adolph Hitler came to power and 18 when the war ended, meaning she spent nearly her entire childhood surrounded by fear and death. So she was eager to begin a normal life in the post-war years. The sisters arrived in America through Mobile in 1946, and both married German-born Jews in 1949 and started families.
Siegler joined her sister in Birmingham in 1960 and quickly found herself living through another important landmark in history: the Civil Rights movement. Siegler says she did not understand what was taking place in the city at that time until she boarded a bus with her children to go to the old Loveman’s department store.
“I get on the bus and I went to the back,” Siegler recalls. “Everybody is looking at me like, ‘What’s wrong with her?’ That’s when I realized. It was all new to me. You’re very tolerant after you go through what we went through. It doesn’t make any difference what color you are. It’s just what is inside.”
Siegler has lived in a house near Montevallo Road in Mountain Brook for the past 50 years. She worked in the shoe department at Guy Mayer in the Summit until last August. Now she fills her days baking and spending time with family members. Ilse still lives in Birmingham, and the sisters have a total of five children and 12 grandchildren.
“To keep busy is the most important thing,” Siegler says. “You have to make plans. And you have to have a positive attitude. I never wanted pity from anybody.”
Miriam Hartley has lived on the same street in Crestwood for more than 60 of her 81 years. But her connection to the city of Birmingham runs much deeper than that. Hartley’s grandfather was Herman Schoel, a survey engineer who worked with the Elyton Land Company to create the first official layouts of the core of the city. Hartley has a copy of the map her grandfather produced in 1888—sort of a birth certificate of the place Hartley has called home for most her life.
Hartley recalls growing up in a Depression-era Crestwood that was oddly diverse in the sense that both wealthy professionals and poor day laborers lived in the same neighborhood. The young children would walk to Minnie Holman Elementary School (now the site of Girls Inc.) and then play for hours afterward in the woods that still covered much of the Crestwood area.
“Nobody was ever worried about anything bad happening to us,” Hartley says. “It was just an innocent life. It was really wonderful.”
Hartley left Birmingham in 1953 but returned in 1970 and bought the house next door to the one where she was born. Hartley paid $20,000 for the house (where she still lives today), and then watched in amazement as Crestwood had a resurgence beginning in the 1990s and home prices soared.
“When I moved back, there were a lot of elderly people living around here who didn’t do a thing to their house,” Hartley says. “Then some younger people started moving in and fixing things up, and the price of these houses went sky high. It was just crazy. Now we have doctors and lawyers and all that living here. I’m just so fortunate to be here.”