If We Can Soar:
What Birmingham Roller Pigeons Offer the Men of South Central
Shanna B. Tiayon || June/July 2021 || 6,574 words || a 27-minute read
The art for this story was co-funded by Pipe Wrench subscribers and fellow contributor Paul Gomez.
“Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society
can be understood without understanding both.”
C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination
It was 1970 in South Central, Los Angeles, and 14-year-old Charles Hatcher, who goes by Chuck, was in his backyard flying his pigeons. Chuck had a complexion the color of wildflower honey and an afro that looked as soft as cotton candy. He was slight in stature and withdrawn, but he connected with his birds. It had been a little over a year since he started raising them, and on this day he was particularly enamored by a black and white Birmingham Roller he’d scored from a neighbor for a few bucks. Birmingham Rollers are known for their in-air acrobatics, and this bird was the best Chuck had owned in his nascent pigeon-fancying career. The bird spun so fast, it looked like a machine.
Across the street, someone else was eyeing his prized bird. Thin, tall, and sporting an equally impressive fro, the 21-year-old made his way to Chuck’s back gate and knocked angrily, demanding to see his birds. The man explained that the black and white bird had been sold by mistake — he’d only loaned the bird to Chuck’s neighbor. Now he wanted it back.
Mustering what little courage he had, Chuck replied, “No way! That’s the best Birmingham Roller I’ve ever seen.” The discussion grew heated. Then something changed in the man’s demeanor, as though he recognized for the first time that he was talking to a child. After a calmer round of negotiations showed Chuck he was no match for the impassioned man at his gate, he handed the bird over. A wise move, as Chuck later found out that the man came with backup: a small gun, left in the car, in case he was dealing with a seasoned pigeon thief.
The man was Cornell Norwood, a renowned Birmingham Roller breeder in the South Central community and a serendipitous connection for a young fancier like Chuck. Cornell was introduced to pigeon fancying at age 12 by his older brother and had made quite a name for himself in the Birmingham Roller space in the decade since. He would become Chuck’s mentor, big brother, second father figure, and friend, as he was for many other Black boys and young men in South Central between the 1970s and 1990s, ushering them into the magical world of the Birmingham Roller and offering them knowledge that unlocked their birds’ potential, and their own.
When asked why they became interested in pigeons, many of the South Central men link their interest in the birds to the adrenaline rush of seeing the birds’ acrobatics, a thrill similar to watching a fast car or motorcycle, or to the perceived instinctive gravitation of children to animals. It’s an accessible and seemingly natural connection — boys, fast-moving objects, wildlife. But there’s a deeper story behind what the birds offered them then and still offer today, with men entering their fifth and sixth decade raising Birmingham Rollers. A why shaped by race, place, and gender. A why that traces the plight of Black men in the U.S., landing us squarely in the prevailing systems of inequality that still exist today.
The Norwoods were among the six million Black Southerners who migrated to northern and western cities during the Great Migration between 1916 and 1970. Their move was part of what some historians call the Second Great Migration, the wave of Black internal migrants from 1940 to 1970.
Elliott Norwood, a Creole man from New Orleans, enlisted in the army during World War II, leaving his wife Marie to join the 1.2 million Black men who served in racially segregated units and were largely denied the right to combat. After the war, Elliott would return to find a Jim Crow South that cared little about a Black man’s service to his country. So much so that on February 12, 1946, Isaac Woodard boarded a bus in Georgia on the day of his honorable discharge, still wearing his military uniform, to go home to his family in South Carolina. Woodard would never see their faces; by the time he got there, he was blind, beaten so severely by local South Carolina police after arguing with the bus driver over permission to use the bathroom that he permanently lost his sight. Punishment for the audacity to assert his humanity.
So, in 1948 Elliott, Marie, their 2-year old son Elliott, Jr., and their extended family moved to Los Angeles.
Los Angeles was a popular destination for Black families — the city’s Black population increased by more than 100,000 between 1940 and 1950. Families flocked there with the hope of a better life not knowing that they were leaving the Jim Crow of the south for its not-so-distant cousin in the west, complete with Mississippi-style cross burnings, racist gangs like the Spook Hunters, and a white supremacist police department.
Elliott and his family ended up in Watts, a predominantly working class Black neighborhood and one of few uncovenanted areas in Los Angeles with no restrictions on who could own or rent property. Watts is in the crook of freeways 110 and 105 just west of Alameda Street. Alameda Street was known at the time as the “Berlin Wall” or the “cotton curtain” because it was one of the informal geographic boundaries that restricted Black residential options; Black families stayed west of Alameda, east of Alameda was reserved for Whites. California’s racially restrictive residential covenants date back to the 1890s and were made legal in 1919 to protect the boundaries of white space and limit residential options for Black people. Racial restrictive covenants took the form of language in deeds stating that only White people could own or rent a residence. Some went as far to say that Black people were permitted to live in the residence only in the capacity of servants, language that still exists as a historical reminder in some deeds today, although it’s no longer enforceable. At one point, restrictive covenants banned Black families from close to 95% of housing in Los Angeles. The biggest enforcers of these covenants, through intimidation and violence, were White residents and the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). It was common practice for White mobs to stand outside the homes of newly arrived Black residents in White neighborhoods with guns, place nails in their driveways, tear up shrubbery, and burn crosses in their front yards while the LAPD participated in the harassment and denied Black families’ their protection. Most Black Angelenos, especially working class families, were relegated to some of the city’s worst housing, shut out of coveted skilled jobs in the aerospace and motion picture industries, largely denied political representation (Los Angeles’ first and only Black mayor, Tom Bradley, wasn’t elected until 1973), and forced to manage a contentious relationship with the LAPD.
Shortly after their arrival Elliott and Marie gave birth to their second son, Darrell; Cornell came in 1949. Not long afterward, restrictive covenants eased slightly and the Norwood family purchased a one-story home in the West Adams area of South Central, where Cornell would spend much of his adolescent and adult life. But the lingering effects of the covenants concentrated Black frustrations in one geographic area, which would prove to be explosive on more than one occasion. This was Cornell’s L.A.
Meanwhile, another migration was taking place, on the wings of a pigeon – the Birmingham Roller.
People are familiar with the pigeons that populate city parks the world over – the Rock Dove, feral, or common pigeon – but pigeons have a long, global legacy and incredible diversity. There’s evidence of pigeon husbandry in Egypt more than 5,000 years ago, and today there are pigeon fancying traditions in Thailand, Turkey, Romania, South Africa (famous for its Million Dollar Pigeon Race), Afghanistan, and beyond. As diverse in their abilities as they are in color, pigeons are characterized by what they do. Homing pigeons are able to, well, find their way home from long distances. There are ornamental, racing, and tumbling pigeons.
Rolling pigeons, also called rollers, are known for their ability to do repetitive backwards somersaults. While the tumbler will typically do two or three somersaults at a time, rollers will execute an almost uncountable number of revolutions. There are Parlor Rollers, which can’t fly but somersault on the ground, and Galatz Rollers that pirouette. And then there are Birmingham Rollers.
Among rolling pigeons, the Birmingham Roller is king. They’re the Olympic-class rollers of the sky, flying in kits — groups of birds trained to fly together — and putting on a show like synchronized swimmers of the sky. There’s no unanimously accepted explanation for what causes the birds to flip — it’s an enigma. Some say it’s due to seizures; others say genetics, others instinct. If you’re ever lucky enough to see a Birmingham Roller doing a perfect roll, the bird’s body forms a doughnut shape as it bends over backward, leaving a small hole in the center as it spins. It’s magnificent to see one Birmingham Roller in action, but truly breathtaking when they perform their somersaults as a team, flipping rapidly in unison while barreling towards the ground at high speeds. During a competition or “fly,” kits are judged on how many birds roll at the same time during a 20-minute period.
William H. Pensom was the godfather of the Birmingham Roller. Pensom was born near Birmingham, England, in 1904, an area known as the Black Country region for the heavy concentration of iron factories belching smoke. His father and grandfather were pigeon fanciers, and Pensom spent much of his adolescence learning about and breeding pigeons. By the time he was in his mid-20s, he was gaining notoriety as a Birmingham Roller expert, publishing essays and garnering international attention on the quality of his English-bred birds, which he began to export internationally. Through his exports and essays he developed relationships with several American pigeon fanciers who wanted Pensom and his birds closer. They got their wish. In 1950 Pensom migrated to the U.S., applied for naturalization, and eventually moved his family to Canoga Park in the San Fernando Valley, a predominantly White area approximately 30 miles from South Central. Pensom’s home would become the epicenter for expertise on breeding, raising, and flying Birmingham Rollers, as well as the primary source for buying quality-bred birds.
A trip from South Central to Canoga Park could take more than two hours one way by bus, equivalent to “forever” for a kid from South Central with no other means of transportation.
The Birmingham Roller’s journey to South Central is as much a mystery as its unique flipping behavior; none of the men I spoke to could pinpoint the exact moment the bird first appeared in the community, or by which means. However it arrived, the Birmingham Roller landed on fertile ground for pigeon breeding, because in the 1950’s South Central boys and men were already raising other types of pigeons. Johnny Otis, an avid pigeon fancier and singer known for the 1958 hit “Willie and the Hand Jive,” was of Greek origin but aligned himself with and lived in the Black community, and would give boys pigeons to start their own lofts. Early South Central Birmingham Roller fanciers were most likely able to access their first birds at local pet stores; Pensom was known to sell to shops in the city.
What we do know is that by the time Chuck met Cornell in 1970, pigeon fancying was serious business and South Central was rife with pigeon thievery, trash talking, and the flexing of bird knowledge. The predominantly Black neighborhoods and housing projects were peppered with makeshift pigeon lofts and captivated young men with their heads turned skyward. Pigeon fancying offered a cheap thrill. Pigeons were available for a few dollars from local pet shops like Steiner’s, Red Wing Hatchery, or Brooklyn. You could also get them at the annual Pageant of Pigeons in Pomona or capture a stray bird from somebody else’s flock, a true feat.
The preeminent pigeon club was the all-White, all-male Pensom Roller Club (PRC). Other clubs were racially integrated but often left Black members out of the bird-swapping, information-sharing loop — the National Birmingham Roller Club had an integrated membership in the 60’s, but Black member Leroy McMillan recalls that Black fanciers were frequently kept out of the backyards of some of the white members and had to negotiate with other, more open members of the club to gain access to the birds and knowledge kept in these prohibited spaces. Integrated clubs were a microcosm of the society, demonstrating that integration without the evolution of beliefs leaves you with the aesthetic trimmings of progress but no true equity. Pensom’s knowledge and birds represented something the Black roller men wanted access to but that was largely controlled by White men in White spaces shared within White male networks, a familiar historical pattern fortified by bias and distance.
The South Central roller enthusiasts struggled to match the quality birds and breeding knowledge of the older, White fanciers, but one man got an in: Young Cornell’s intelligence, hunger to learn, and work ethic endeared him to Pensom. They developed a friendship and Norwood would spend time at Pensom’s loft helping him take care of his birds; Cornell became so versed in Birmingham Rollers that he could cite the pedigrees of hundreds of birds, sometimes back to their origins in England. Cornell also developed a close friendship with another senior White Roller man in Pensom’s inner circle, Frank Lavin, who shared his breeding knowledge. Cornell became a knowledge bridge, teaching others in his community how to breed high-caliber birds and giving them a more proximal option for buying quality birds directly from his loft.
South Central roller men call Cornell “charismatic,” the “smartest person I ever knew,” “a champion,” “funny,” “one of the most extraordinary men I’ve ever met.” There’s also: “alpha male,” “brash,” “competitive,” “boastful,” “hustler.” He could give you a tongue lashing if you crossed him or he didn’t like you just as quick as he could offer you legal advice picked up from one of the law books he read for fun. He liked a Bacardi and Coke and a good joke. A master wordsmith and autodidact who read profusely and refused to be out-talked, he was also good with his hands — a skilled carpenter like his father and grandfather and a competent mechanic.
Cornell was never known to work a traditional nine to five job. Breeding and selling birds was one of the ways he made his livelihood, and Cornell’s birds could fetch up to $3000 a pair. They were highly sought after in South Central, eventually among the same White breeders who were unwilling to share their own knowledge and birds. Being a revered Roller man offered him success and status that weren’t often afforded to a Black man in South Central. And it gave him and the other fanciers a sense of community: Cornell’s house — now home to a wife and two children as well — was described as akin to a Black barbershop, full of men eating his famous grits, talking about birds, listening to music, and drinking. To create a more official forum for the South Central Roller men, Cornell founded the Black Country Roller Club (BCRC) in 1971, one of the oldest pigeon clubs founded by an African American. The men joked that the “Black” in the name stood for “Black folk,” or that BCRC was the “Bacardi and Coke Roller Club.”
But make no mistake, Cornell was discerning about who he shared knowledge and birds with. Only the most serious pigeon fanciers made it into his inner circle. Roller man Pete White explains, “[Cornell’s] family of birds and knowledge was astounding, and the respect he commanded from all Roller men left you awestruck. He was a repository of information on just about any topic, not just rollers. If he liked you and thought that you were serious about rollers he would unselfishly share his insights and honest critique.”
Knowledge was one part of the equation for success in Birmingham Roller breeding; access to quality birds was another. Cornell would typically sell his birds for top dollar to those not in his inner circle but give birds to those closest to him, let them borrow his birds to breed with their own stock, or sell the birds for far less than market value. William “Speedy” Boykins, who started his Birmingham Roller journey in the late 70’s, once bought a top bird from Cornell for the symbolic price of fifty dollars and a bag of pigeon feed.
A rare video gives you the full experience of the charismatic teacher and bird genius, who deftly intermixes jokes, veiled insults (about a White pigeon breeder from Minnesota who he felt was spreading false information), bravado, and bird anatomy to explain what makes a good Birmingham Roller pigeon. His audience? A group of roller men and his 18 year old son, Donnie. As it did with Chuck Hatcher, Cornell’s bravado ebbs when he addresses Donnie. It almost feels like a performance, like practiced oratory, but that was Cornell. Even when the camera wasn’t running, he was captivating. And this was why so many wanted to be in his presence — not just to learn from him, but to absorb his energy.
Cornell elevated Birmingham Roller breeding in South Central, laying the foundation for other Black men to be successful breeders. The importance of the opportunity to be successful can’t be underestimated, because it helped establish the men’s long-term commitment to the birds, a commitment that encouraged both individual effort and community with other Roller men. Cornell was a connector between the desire for success and the means to realize it.
Some may believe that Cornell’s light complexion, a Creole trait, helped him enter the White Birmingham Roller space, but this would be a false assumption. Chuck Hatcher, who is as fair as Cornell was, recalls going with Cornell to a prominent White pigeon fancier’s home in the 1970’s and overhearing him tell Cornell, “You know I don’t let niggers in my house,” in reference to teenaged Chuck. Cornell was allowed in; Chuck went back to the car. Skin tone alone is rarely enough for acceptance of Black people in the mainstream, unless it’s paired with something the mainstream wants or values. Such practices form the foundation of the myth of Black exceptionalism, the belief that a Black person who holds a valued trait is an exception to the rules that otherwise devalue them. As young Black Roller enthusiasts learned the science behind the birds, grew in knowledge, and bred better birds on their own, they gained leverage, with White Roller men now vying for access into the Black roller spaces. Cornell’s exceptionalism was his extensive knowledge about the birds and ability to code switch (shifting his language to match the environment), both of which he passed on to others.
But for every White Roller man who recognized Cornell’s gifts, there were a dozen more who would only ever see him as a Black man incapable of knowing more about anything than them. On another Chuck/Cornell trip, the pair went to meet with a White Birmingham Roller group whose leader hoped Cornell would share some of his knowledge. Cornell had just begun weaving a tapestry of pedigrees and biology when a White fancier yelled, “How do you know all that tumbleweed?” making fun of Cornell’s afro. Riding the energy of the crowd’s laughter, another man blurted out, “How do you sleep on all that hair?” In true Cornell fashion, he smiled, looked at the crowd, patted his fro, and responded, “How do I sleep on it? Oooh, on your mama!” (Never underestimate the power of a good mama joke as a line of defense).
A group of the men tailed Cornell and Chuck out of the parking lot, giving them threatening looks, until Cornell flipped them a different kind of bird and turned onto the freeway back towards South Central.
I first learned about the Roller men of South Central in the summer of 2020. We were knee-deep in the pandemic and I was looking for a mindless distraction on TV when I saw the coolest picture of a Black man with a pigeon on his head; it was the graphic for the documentary Pigeon Kings. I had no notion that this was a thing, beyond hearing the odd story about Mike Tyson or seeing cinematic portrayals of pigeon keepers in New York City high-rises. Why pigeons? Why pigeons in the heart of South Central, an area with a very complex history of racism, residential segregation, and thwarted opportunities for Black people?
To find the answers, I interviewed eight men who started their Birmingham Roller journeys between 1958 and 1979. The midpoint of this period was a tumultuous time in Los Angeles; Black people were experiencing even higher levels of racial residential segregation than the 1940’s, when restrictive covenants were legal. In 1965, the unemployment rate for men in Southern Los Angeles, then 81% Black, was 10 percent, nearly double the national average. The flight of viable manufacturing and commercial jobs in the area was precipitated by the 1965 Watts riots — an explosion of Black pain, mounting racial tension, and fatigue about police harassment in Black communities that lasted for six days and left 34 people dead. The late 1960s also marked the FBI and LAPD’s destruction of the Black Panther presence in Los Angeles, a group that had created opportunities for status and community centered on activism for Black Angelenos. Gangs filled the void. The Cribs, better known now as the Crips, most likely formed at Fremont High School in southern Los Angeles in 1969, followed by the Bloods at Centennial High School in Compton shortly after.
The legacy of racially restrictive covenants that legitimized White communities and law enforcement keeping Black people in their place, literally and figuratively, cannot be overstated. Keeping Black people out of White neighborhoods keeps them away from good schools and jobs. The continued belief in Black inferiority paved the way for a 1964 proposition legalizing discriminatory housing practices again, and delayed state-mandated school desegregation in California for more than two decades after Brown vs. Board of Education. And as Black families inevitably began to spread beyond their restrictive bubble, the resources that made once-predominantly-White communities vibrant — jobs, thriving commercial areas, police protection — begin to retract. Without access to basics like adequate housing, education, and jobs, the lives of Black people in South Central were made exponentially harder. Black people in 1960s L.A. were living in resource-stripped neighborhoods, with limited job opportunities and constant police harassment.
When people talk about the impact of these shifts, the focus is usually on the rapid spread of gang violence, conveniently divorcing this outcome from the structural issues that begat it. But to focus solely on gang violence and ignore what gangs offered — resources, status, and economic opportunities that their communities struggled to provide because of systemic racism legitimized by government policy — is reductionist thinking that also ignores examples of community resilience via alternative subcultures that were filling a similar void, like the Black Birmingham Roller community.
While the men say they were drawn to the Birmingham Roller for reasons that mirror the assumed affinity of boys for race cars and puppies, the deeper reality is that it offered them a subculture that reaffirmed them in times of flux and instability, both individual and communal. It allowed them an opportunity to escape, experience success, discover talents, and build community. Being responsible for these magnificent birds who would fly and perform on demand and return on demand offered control, and having a community offered respite.
Most of these boys and men were introduced to the hobby by age 15, often by a relative or close friend. The roller community allowed them to create a status hierarchy that was constructed based on their bird knowledge and performance. The subculture has its own terminology: “birdin’ out,” hanging with other Roller men talking about bird stuff. “Rolldown,” when a bird somersaults so fast it loses control and crashes to the ground, oftentimes dying. Their pigeon competitions, known as “flys,” were patterned on the Black family cookout, bringing together birds, food, and music. A shared love of jazz, an art form authentic to African American culture, often bled into birdin’ out sessions. It was not uncommon for the men to be birdin’ out with music playing in the background, and for a man to stop midsentence to say, “Hey, that’s Coltrane, Kulu Sé Mama,” shifting the focus from bird knowledge to jazz mastery (and spurring some of the men to collect coveted jazz albums in addition to birds).
At first glance these are highly masculine spaces, with trash talk, racy jokes, and the flexing of bird knowledge among peers. But ironically, being a Roller man didn’t necessarily contribute to perceptions of masculinity outside these spaces. Keith London, a current Birmingham Roller phenomenon who was featured in Pigeon Kings, recalls being teased and called a “bird freak,” a story shared by other Roller men. Speedy Boykins explains that raising the birds helped the men develop traits not traditionally associated with men, especially not Black men, “Birds taught a lot of men how to become caring men, because you had to learn how to care for an animal. If you took care of a bird you’re more apt to be more successful in taking care of your children. If birds taught you to love them then you could learn to love those that have done you wrong. These were the avenues that the birds opened up because you had to become sensitive and pay attention and love something so much…The dynamics of the Birmingham Roller…helped us to become gentle giants.”
If membership in the Black Birmingham Roller community didn’t contribute to perceptions of masculinity, it did create a sort of meritocracy: If you had access to the right knowledge and good quality birds, you had just as much of a chance at success as anybody else. If you were a good student, willing to study (both reference texts and your birds) and could stave off common hiccups like bird illness, theft, and birds of prey, you could become an admired Roller man. Success wasn’t easy, but each man was measured on his own efforts and outcomes.
It also helped young fanciers discover skills and talents that would impact the rest of their lives.
The first time Paul Gomez saw a performing pigeon was in 1958 at age of 14, at the home of a friend from his Boy Scout troop who had his own pigeons. A pigeon perched on the roof of the house took off to fly back to its loft, doing a backflip on the way. Paul couldn’t believe his eyes; the excitement in his voice is evident as he recounts the story more than 60 years later. The bird was a West of England Tumbler. The friend took him to see Johnny Otis, and Otis gave Paul his first birds, a pair of Mookee and Fantail pigeons.
Paul didn’t have a loft at the time, so he kept them in his friend’s. He bought his first roller pigeon from another neighborhood kid. As a final farewell to its former owner, the bird gave the best performance of its life — 11 consecutive somersaults. The following day, the kid stole the bird from Paul, deciding it was too valuable to let go; Paul promptly stole his bird back and went on to add to his collection with Birmingham Roller pigeons purchased from a pet shop, and later directly from Pensom. By the time Paul graduated from Los Angeles High School in 1962, he was a committed Birmingham Roller man with a loft of his own.
He majored in biology at California State University – Los Angeles, learning genetics that would serve his pigeon breeding. Inevitably, he crossed paths with Cornell in the late 60s. In case there was any doubt about who had the best Birmingham Rollers, Cornell announced, “Hey Paul, if you want to see some real rollers, come by my house,” an offer Paul accepted. Cornell introduced Paul to the pigeon clubs, loaned him birds, and the two exchanged bird knowledge.
When asked what attracted the South Central men to the Birmingham Roller, Paul, now a respected Birmingham Roller man in his own right, offers, “You can have success; a lot of [Black] people feel that things are stacked against them in society so when we find that we can have success it kind of levels the playing field.” Paul’s decades-long relationship with the Birmingham Roller has been largely driven by the pursuit to crack the code to breed the best birds possible. But as someone who took a non-traditional path in his early adult life – opening up his own pottery studio and later a nursery for palm trees – the birds offered him successes amidst the challenge of trying to survive as a young entrepreneur. Even when he had to abandon his entrepreneurial pursuits for the more stable career path of teaching, the birds offered him a space for creativity.
Jason Fant got involved with pigeons in the early 80s. In the sixth grade, he shared a desk with a friend who had his own pigeons, some of which were Birmingham Rollers. Jason was fascinated by the rolling motion and the fact that they would fly, perform, and come back to their loft. He got hooked on pigeon fancying, developing his skills as a Roller man. He attributes his interest in pigeons with keeping him out of the gangs that were rampant in his neighborhood at the time.
After more than a decade raising pigeons he thought he was a pretty competent fancier, until he met Cornell in the early 90s when one of Cornell’s pigeons, being chased by a hawk, strayed into Jason’s loft. The bird was unique, with a black body and wings the color of a shiny copper penny. His friend Pete White eventually took him over to Cornell’s house to return it. Cornell took the bird, spread its wings, and pointed out where the hawk hurt it. Noticing some additional distortions after its time in Jason’s loft, he told Jason he needed to worm his birds; Jason had never heard about worming birds before. Cornell told Jason he could come back by any time, no invitation necessary. Jason showed up the next day and pretty much every day after. “I thought I was the man,” he recalls, “[But] I was just keeping pigeons — when I met Cornell I started raising pigeons. It was a big difference, learning the terminology and…learning the science behind it.” When asked about the impact Cornell had on his life, Jason comments that the knowledge Cornell passed on to him will be with him forever, knowledge that Jason imparts on the next generation of pigeon fanciers
Chuck Hatcher was introduced to Birmingham Rollers in 1968. After his first meeting with Cornell, Cornell went on to mentor him, serving as a second father figure as well as a teacher, helping him fashion an anchor for his identity that was more reliable and accessible than his other options.
The birds gave Chuck another gift. Through the necessity of building a loft to house his pigeons, he learned that he was handy with tools and had an innate talent for carpentry. After realizing his abilities, he took industrial arts courses at school and went on to place in a regional Vocational Industrial Clubs of America competition. His birds and early preparation in carpentry, combined with additional training at Los Angeles Trade Technical College, launched his career as a master carpenter for Universal Studios. He helped to build the Oval Office set for the 1976 movie All the President’s Men and became the first African American Construction Coordinator in the motion picture industry.
In 1994 he fractured his spinal cord on the job, landing him in the hospital for eight months with the expectation that he would never walk again. Through it all, Chuck maintained his birds; they served as an anchor, that which he could control amidst so much that was uncontrollable. Chuck regained his ability to walk and today at the age of 65 has more than 400 Birmingham Rollers in a hand-built craftsman-style loft.
In Chuck’s words, “There was something about controlling and being in control of a group of animals that you could liberate and watch them perform for you and have them come back to you…it was a feeling of control attached to a feeling of liberation.” When probed if he felt that what was going on racially in Los Angeles contributed to his attraction to the birds, he quickly responds, “no.” But later when asked about the mental health benefits of the birds he muses that, “the birds produce solace, meditative, almost a spiritual aspect to inner peace, because the Black man has so much to deal with…” The birds were his escape from the weight of being a Black man in America.
At 4:00 a.m. on Thursday, October 6, 1994, Jason Fant was awakened by a call. He picked up the phone to hear Cornell’s daughter, Arlene, screaming between sobs, “he’s dead, he’s dead.” Speedy Boykins got a similar call from Cornell’s son Donnie: “They got Cornell, he’s dead. They shot him, he’s up under the car, he’s dead.” Each of the men, when asked about Cornell’s death, takes a deep breath and a long pause before recounting what they remember; reconnecting with a profound sadness.
In the early morning hours, a gunman approached an unsuspecting Cornell in his driveway. The gunman opened fire, riddling Cornell’s body with bullets. Some say he was shot a total of nine times, others remember twelve. In an effort to save himself, Cornell slid his wounded body underneath the car in his driveway, where his children found him lying in a pool of blood.
He was an imperfect hero, living during an imperfect time in an imperfect neighborhood, but he shined. No more.
Cornell’s murder remains unsolved; as with so much related to Birmingham Rollers, all that exists is speculation. Some theorize that he was killed for revenge because he dated a prominent gang member’s girl after separating from his wife. Others hypothesize that Cornell was erroneously believed to be collaborating with the LAPD (an idea his family roundly denies: “He despised the LAPD,” says Arlene). Or maybe it was a business deal gone bad. What we do know is that Cornell would build no more knowledge bridges; mentor no more boys and men. His home would no longer be a space for community building. The spaces he created provided sanctuary and community. Within them, he was respected, revered, a role model. Outside those spaces, structural inequality ground on, begetting pain and violence. Refuge, as ever, is temporary.
His legacy? The indelible impact he had on so many of the South Central Roller men; a book, The Aerial Performance of the Birmingham Roller, consolidating some of his vast knowledge and published posthumously by Donnie; and the pigeon bloodlines that live in countless Roller men’s lofts today.
Imagine a scene: Black boys and men sitting around a backyard. Pigeon cages line the perimeter. The weather is perfect as it usually is in Southern California, warm and crisp, so some of the men have their shirts off. Jazz plays in the background and the men pass around bottles and glasses of ice, mixing drinks while bragging about their latest pigeon feats – a promising kit they’re training, a recent competition win, a bird scored from a prized bloodline – as the boys listen intently. They crack jokes, slapping each other on the back in laughter. Some of the men are handling the birds in the cages, checking out their anatomy; others cock their heads towards the music, listening intently. Two men are off to the side, away from the group, as one gives advice to the other about a personal question. A familiar song comes on and one man calls out, “That’s Herbie Hancock, Cantaloupe Island, 1964.” Looking in the direction of one of the boys, he says “You don’t know nothin’ bout this, young blood,” as he gets up and starts to snap his fingers and tap his foot to the rhythm of the song. Some men might be gang members, others are not, but they are all Birmingham Roller men.
This scene is the counter to Black boys whose youthfulness is stolen and Black men who are denied the right to carefree exuberance. It is the unscripted version of community building, a more organic form of the Big Brother program, and a culturally sensitive outlet for mental health. An opportunity to soar above the conditions that otherwise weigh their life chances down. It’s not uncommon for warring gang members to bird out together, leaving aside any beef that dictates their interactions on the streets, giving credence to the truth that gang violence is a symptom of social and political ills rather than individual failure or inherent tendencies.
And as Chuck eloquently pointed out, Black boys and men are still in need of spaces of solace. Solace from the systems that are built on their denigration, solace from the social hierarchy anchored in their subjugation, and solace from a law enforcement system that makes it clear it was not designed for their protection.
But this solace is temporary: Black men still have the highest rates of unemployment at 9.8%, almost double that of White men at 5.1%. Black men face the highest risk of any group of being killed by the police. Black men are over-represented in the U.S. prison population, incarcerated at more than five times the rate of White men. And Black people still live largely in racially segregated neighborhoods, with cities like Pine Bluff, Detroit, and Chicago, Illinois, having some of the highest rates of segregation. A lot has changed since the 1960s. A lot has not.
The Cornells of the world are rarely recognized for their contributions outside of the communities that they serve, soldiers in the fight against a structure they did not create; he was too loud, too street, too un-status quo. The detriment of racism is that it not only binds people’s opportunities, but blinds us from seeing the inherent humanity and value of those with Black and Brown skin, ensuring that Black boys and men will continue to need spaces of refuge.
I’d like to thank all of the Birmingham Roller men who so willingly shared their time and experiences with me through countless hours of phone and Zoom interviews — Keith London, Arnold Jackson, Hilly Flowers, Chuck Hatcher, Paul Gomez, Leroy McMillan, Jason Fant, and William “Speedy” Boykins. Thank you for trusting me with your story. Also, Jacques LaCour, Cornell’s cousin, who was invaluable and most gracious with his time in helping me to piece together the Norwood family genealogy and migration story. And last but not least, my husband François, who listened to more than his fair share of pigeon stories and facts over this past year while I was working on this story; a constant support in my endeavors, je t’aime.
Written by Shanna B. Tiayon. Shanna is a writer, speaker, trainer, and owner of Wellbeing Works, LLC. Her work centers on topics of wellbeing and increasing awareness about the ways we may infringe upon the wellbeing of others. She’s a former Peace Corps volunteer and a sociologist, with a specialization in social psychology. Shanna is a TEDx speaker and her writing has appeared in Greater Good magazine, Yes magazine, The Guardian, Narratively, Food and Wine, Longreads, and Sojourners. When she’s not working in the area of wellbeing she’s tending to her own wellbeing in her gardens with her family.
Her last piece for Pipe Wrench was “A Dinner Party for Modern Times.”
Animation by Jardley Jean-Louis. Jardley is an artist, animator and filmmaker from Queens, New York. They are a 2015 Brooklyn College graduate with a B.A in Film Production. Before that, they had a very very brief stint (sneeze and you’ll miss it) at the School of Visual Arts and SUNY Purchase. When not creating, they’re bingeing on true crime and The Read podcasts, playing The Sims 4, and learning French.
Editing and layout by Michelle Weber.
Fact checking by Matt Giles.