Southern Discomfort: The Fight Against Birmingham Belles
For one day each spring in Birmingham, Alabama, the Birmingham Belles host a debutante-style event that looks like something out of the Old South. Teenage girls from local high schools are invited to apply and selected to join a self-described service organization called the Birmingham Belles.
Their initiation involves dressing up in Civil War-era pastel-colored hoop skirts, big hats and gloves for an annual debutante ball-style celebration at the Arlington Antebellum House, a former plantation. Neighboring cities have similar traditions, like the Hoover Belles.
Some Birmingham natives, including former Belles, have launched a petition calling for the event to end, saying it glorifies an inherently racist past. The petition has nearly 2,000 signatures. This comes as the country is still grappling with a racial reckoning following the May death of George Floyd.
Autumn Robinson, one of the #NoMoreBelles organizers, said as a teenager, it was offensive to see her classmates participating in events “glorifying the history of their ancestors who enslaved mine.”
“I never felt comfortable saying anything as a teen, but I’m so grateful that this is being brought to light and hopefully changed,” she said.
Attempts to reach the Birmingham Belles were unsuccessful. But in a statement to local station WVTM, the organization cited that participants volunteered over 1,200 hours of last year towards literacy programs, educational events and military care packages.
“We know that there is more that can be done to support those impacted by social justice,” the statement said. “Therefore, we are committed to re-evaluating the way in which our honorees are presented. Our goal is to honor these young women and their commitment to serving their beloved city.”
I spoke to Robinson about the petition and how she hopes it leads to the end of events that glamorize the plantation’s racist past.
The interview was edited for clarity and length.
Meghan Coyle: So how did the petition come about?
Autumn Robinson: So my friend Emily Owen Mendelsohn was a Birmingham Belle. When George Floyd was murdered, she reached out to me, and we started talking about activism. When I saw the Confederate statues coming down, I started to think more about other antebellum references that exist, and the Birmingham Belles popped into my brain. If we’re taking down statues, we also need to get rid of that, too, because that is a living statue.
So we started the petition, and then she posted it on a neighborhood Facebook page.
MC: The petition received a lot of comments on social media, some with people defending the Belles, saying it’s not a racist tradition. How did you deal with the backlash?
Robinson: I tried to be honest and kind about the fact that Southern people have a culture that is valuable. There are beautiful aspects of Southern culture that I would never want to deny or take away. They are things that I even enjoy myself, like food, football, the faith. But there’s this incessant need to celebrate antebellum times as Southern heritage and say this is something that we should hold on to. But we don’t need to. This is something that negatively affects people. If we can begin to have a conversation about why this thing is not okay, then that opens the door for so many other things to be talked about.
It’s encouraging because I know that there are people who live in Alabama and who live in Birmingham …. who have actually taken the time to think deeply about how the small things they participate in negatively affect people of color, especially Black people.
MC: The petition has a goal of 2,500 signatures. What do you think it’ll really take for it to end?
Robinson: I think at this point, it would take national pressure because there are just so many people who genuinely think that it’s fine or are adamant about not getting rid of it.
But I think there needs to be an immense amount of pressure and consequences because they don’t think that they’re hurting anyone. At the end of the day, I was not in my room crying because of the Birmingham Belles, but I have been in my room crying because of people who participate in the Birmingham Belles and all the other things they believe.
There are aspects of the Birmingham Belles that are reflected in so many other organizations in the country, not just in the South. There are plenty of things, like sororities, debutante events, a lot of philanthropy events that just naturally leave out Black people. And no one wants to have that conversation. But it’s an important one to acknowledge the way that Black people have been forced to live is a product of traditions and systems that have been in place since before Black people were free.