A hot month
In May 1963, I was 14 years old and preparing to graduate from the 8th grade at St. Paul’s School in downtown Birmingham. Most of our class would go on to attend John Carroll Catholic High School in the fall of 1963.
The first memory that comes back to me is that May 1963, was one of the warmest months for attending school in Birmingham that I can remember. The temperature reached 90 degrees for most of that month. St. Paul’s had an old school building dating from the 1920s and it was not air conditioned. So the warmth and discomfort in our classroom reflected the heated emotion of the demonstrations downtown.
The next thing I recall is that we were physically close to the demonstration activities but did not actually see them. St. Paul’s was located at 4th Avenue and 22nd Street North. That was only 5 or 6 blocks from Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and Kelly Ingram Park, the site of many marches and demonstrations. The teachers at our school, mostly Catholic nuns, told us to avoid the center of downtown after school. One afternoon, though, I decided to walk to my uncle’s record shop, Rumore’s Record Rack, at 18th Street and 2nd Avenue North, passing Newberry’s department store at 19th Street and 2nd Avenue North. I saw a young woman clapping and singing as she was arrested for trying to obtain service at the store’s lunch counter. She was put into a police “paddy wagon” that had bars on the side. I did not see police dogs or water hoses, but I did see this arrest as I walked past to reach the Record Rack.
The third thing I remember is a writing assignment that our teacher gave us the year before, when we were in the 7th grade. The Birmingham City Commission had closed all of the city parks instead of integrating them. Our assignment was to write a letter to the Mayor on what we thought about closing the parks. The letters were not mailed but the assignment was to make us think about and reflect on what was going on in our city. It would be fascinating to see what we wrote back then.
The next memory I have of 1963 is of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing on Sunday, September 15. I remember attending early Mass at St. Paul’s that morning. I do not remember hearing the explosion. Three of the young girls killed that day were my age – 14 – so they, like me, had probably just started their freshman year of high school. Time stopped for them that day and they will always be 14. They were deprived of the experiences of life over the next 50 years.
Finally, I remember our Bishop, Thomas J. Toolen of Mobile, who announced that the Catholic schools of his diocese would be integrated in 1964. Black students were enrolled over the years. One classmate came to John Carroll in 1966 and graduated with us in 1967. His name was William Bell. William is a friend. He is also the present Mayor of Birmingham.
Sam Rumore wrote this piece for Kids in Birmingham 1963 and gave permission for its posting, 2013.