“Am I partly responsible for the death of those girls?”
Sunday, September 15, 1963…a time in history that is etched in my memory.
On Sunday, September 15, 1963, the beautiful fall morning began as any other Sunday morning in the Wesley household. Mama would get up early, fill the house with the aroma of bacon frying, biscuits baking and even dinner cooking.
It was not hard to get her brood of eight (plus three others) stirring when the house was filled with the smell of good food. The only one of the eight missing was my brother who had volunteered for the army. Two teenage girls who had experienced unfortunate family circumstances had joined our family and a five month old infant was also in the mix.
The routine on Sunday was the same: get up, make your bed, take a bath, come to the table. Daddy would offer the blessing and each sibling would quote a bible verse before eating. Once the table cleared, everyone who did not work the previous night, would get dressed for Sunday School. My dad and two older brothers worked at a Supper Club in the evenings and would not leave with the rest of us.
First out of the house with me would be my three younger brothers and my “play sister” who had moved in with us. We walked three blocks to our church, South Elyton Baptist Church. My older sister had a car and she would drive mama, the baby and the baby’s mom to church.
Sunday School began at 9:30. Classes were divided by ages, so we each went to our individual classes. Everyone would assemble in the sanctuary at 10:20 to listen a summary of the lesson and a report of classes by the secretary.
This Sunday was a special day at our church. I think it may have been Women’s Day because we had special guest teachers in all of the classes and a guest who gave the lesson summary. The woman who gave the summary was well known in the community, she was well dressed and well versed in the scriptures. On this day her summary seemed quite lengthy. Our Pastor, Reverend Moreland Lanier sat on the opposite side of the church from where she spoke. It was noticed that he shifted anxiously in his seat waiting for her to end. Eventually, he stepped forward and interrupted her. He politely apologized and said that he had been informed that the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church had been bombed and that there were some injuries reported.
There was this huge gasp across the room. People were crying and expressing shock. I don’t know if Pastor Lanier asked us to leave or if people just started leaving. My family went home.
It wasn’t long after we got home that our telephone started ringing. People were calling to express their condolences. There were only a few “Wesleys” listed in the telephone book and the word was out that one of the “Wesley girls” had been killed in the blast. My parents and older siblings were answering the calls and saying that it was not our family.
Later in the afternoon, it was clarified that the Wesley girl killed was named Cynthia Wesley. We were not biologically related, but I knew her. In fact, we were friends.
I met Cynthia while we were in elementary school when she was adopted by Claude and Gertrude Wesley. They were both educators in Birmingham schools. I was invited to her birthday parties, we went to the symphony orchestra together. I treated her like she was my kid sister. She was in the ninth grade and I was in the eleventh grade; we attended Ullman High School.
When I heard that Cynthia was the Wesley girl who had died, I was shocked! There were so many thoughts and emotions going through my mind. Sixteenth Street Church was the place where I attended some of the mass meetings. It was the place where we met and marched from earlier in May. And Cynthia was my friend.
There was not a lot of talk in our house about why this happened and who was responsible. There was just a sad quietness. In my heart, there was sadness, confusion, anger and guilt. Did someone do this because we met and marched from that location? Am I partly responsible for the death of those girls? They did not march; they were completely innocent. I didn’t share my thoughts or feelings with anyone.
The adults in the house would talk among themselves, but we weren’t allowed to be a part of their conversation. So I said very little, but every time that phone rang, my heart sank. For years following, I did not talk to anyone about what I felt. In fact thirty years passed before anyone asked me to share what I remembered about 1963. After thinking about it, I cried. Now fifty years after the fact, I still cry sometimes, but I also want to write about it.
In September 2013, Janice Wesley Kelsey wrote her story about the day Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed, writing expressly for Kids in Birmingham 1963. She plans to write more about her life.