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.
Minter’s depiction of the Freedom Rides in Birmingham.
A closeup of Minter’s memorial to September 11, 2001, part of his corner of disasters. Though he considers his monument mostly complete, Minter continues to add on for disasters.
One of Minter’s trademarks are his metal-worked faces, which he makes out of whatever he can find. In one part of the yard, Minter showed off a man made from a shower caddy.
Minter’s fervent religious messages are sprinkled throughout the installation, including large passages of scripture written on car doors and bits of metal. One Bible verse appears on the salvaged back doors of an ambulance.
A section of the yard that represents the terrors of the slave ship. “This is the sacred burial ground,” Minter said. “This is the holy place of Birmingham.”
A closeup of the sign at the beginning of the garden.
One of Minter’s metal-work men, made out of a propane tank.