Kenneth Elkins took the boy’s photo.
As a courtesy they let him cover his face. He was weak, just twenty-two pounds and seven years old. James Strickland had what his mother described as a “brain injury.” The rest of him was bones, sinew, and terror.
Elkins gave James Strickland a comic book to cover his face. The boy proved so weak that he couldn’t hold it by strength of arm alone. They folded the little book in half and propped his spindly elbows on his hungry knees. Forever curious, James Strickland peered out at the photographer.
The picture shook the city.
‘This was Huntsville!’ Had we not the Army Ballistic Missile Agency? Had we not the Redstone Arsenal? Had not our engineers designed the missiles and rockets that took monkeys and satellites into orbit? Had not our munitions factories helped win the big war? Had not our city grown?
This was Huntsville, children don’t starve here.
Except when they do.
Between 1950 and 1959, Huntsville experienced a 340.3 percent population growth; it went from the second city of north Alabama with a sleepy watercress farming populace of 16,437 to an industrial powerhouse of 72,365. The city expanded in every direction, devouring smaller communities like Monte Sano, Whitesburg, and Viduta, while completely encircling the last gerrymandered bastions of rural suburbia. To anyone living in those heady days Huntsville would have seemed like a behemoth: a city that finally smelled itself and decided to annex the whole damn county.
Yet the housing crisis still came. Rents doubled. Then quadrupled. Suddenly the most wretched citizens became more so. Everyone turned their attention to the local slums. A series of shantytowns with colorful names like Honey Hole and Boogertown dotted Huntsville. City officials realized that their very presence clashed with the image of the manicured and modern ‘Rocket City’ that Huntsville wished to project.
So they started tearing them down. With the help of John Sparkman, an influential Senator from north Alabama who crafted much of the federal housing policy of the 1950’s and 60’s, city officials turned Huntsville into a test bed for new housing policies that were later replicated throughout the state and nation.
There are no slums in Huntsville now, but for a period of time their maintenance and removal became a driving force in local politics and an issue that reverberated across multiple states.
As such, consider this the beginning of a series.