In 1989, retired construction worker and artist Joe Minter, Sr. had a vision: He wanted to commemorate 400 years of Africans in America by creating an installation using found materials, and erect it in his backyard. Concerned that the then newly opened Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham would exclude the masses of ordinary people involved in the movement, he prayed, and received his mission from God, to document the struggle in his own way.
Whether you believe in divine inspiration or not, it’s easy to imagine that something was speaking to Minter when you drive up to his home, tucked into the west side of Birmingham, Alabama. His house, backyard, and car are all encrusted in an elaborate folk-art installation — which from far away, you might mistake for a junkyard. But venture into the backyard, and the details are dazzling: dioramas of recent disasters exist side by side with Minter’s representation of the Birmingham Jail; monuments for the four little girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing are set next to a make-shift slave ship.
This is history as told through detritus: Cyclone wire, Chevrolet parts, and broken baby dolls with pleas to Jesus scrawled on them express the Civil Rights Movement with more emotion than the dozens of brass sculptures and plaques scattered around downtown. As Minter put it in an interview with The Black and White, “I used discarded things for a discarded people.” His backyard is open to visitors, and if you’re lucky and Minter’s home, he’ll give you the tour.
Click through below to see Minter’s extraordinary folk-art village.
The sign that greets visitors into Minter’s African Village in America.