The History of Ensley
Ensley was founded in 1886 and annexed by the city of Birmingham in 1910. At the height of Birmingham’s iron production, Ensley was famous for its industrial development, community meeting halls and music venues- inspiring the 1939 hit song, “Tuxedo Junction”, written by Ensley native Erskine Hawkins and arranged by Glenn Miller. Local NAACP President and Civil Rights leader John Nixon practiced dentistry and worked toward equal rights from his office in Tuxedo Junction in Ensley from 1951 until his death in 1988. Ensley was known nationwide as an example of what was possible in the industrial age, and later as a catalyst for positive social change. Like many steel towns, Birmingham suffered debilitating effects from the decline of the steel industry. Ensley was one of several Birmingham communities that suffered when Ensley Works closed in 1981. Many merchants and residents relocated. The community was all but forgotten.
“Do always as much as we can, in the way that we can,
in order to leave our community more beautiful & beneficial
than it was when we inherited it.”
Tuxedo Junction: The intersection of Ensley Avenue and 19th Street in the Ensley area of west Birmingham was once home to the famed Tuxedo Junction, the heart of social life for the black populations of Birmingham and the surrounding areas. Where the Pratt City and Wylam streetcars once stopped to turn around, there stood a plethora of bars, clubs, jukeboxes, and stores. It grew from a small commercial district in the 1910s to a booming center for black nightlife in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. Because it was located at the end of two heavily-traveled streetcar lines, Tuxedo Junction became a popular after-work destination for commuters. Its popularity soon spread, and people came from miles around to dance, listen to music, and “jive.” It was “just about the only place negroes could go to dance then,” according to F.A. Simpson, another resident of Birmingham. Many musicians began their careers playing in Tuxedo Junction. Jazz musician and Birmingham native Erskine Hawkins celebrated the area’s night life in his song “Tuxedo Junction.”
When Hawkins first wrote the song in 1939, he intended it primarily as a filler on the flip side of an album for the song “Gin Mill Special.” However, the song far surpassed “Gin Mill Special” in popularity, and Hawkins, living in New York at the time, added the words which immortalized his hometown.