My family and I moved to Birmingham, Alabama in 1961. My father, Samuel Elliott Harris, M.D., had completed his residency in Obstetrics and Gynecology at Homer G. Phillips Hospital in St. Louis, MO. He and my mother, Dixie Gardner Harris, grew up in Birmingham. My mother was the youngest of fifteen children of Billy and Roberta (Carson) Gardner of Lowndes County, AL. My mother’s older sister was Minnie Gardner Gaston who was married to Birmingham entrepreneur A.G. Gaston. My mother moved in with them at the age of eight years old, and she remained with them until entering college. My father and his family lived across the street from my mother in Birmingham. My paternal grandfather, originally from Huntsville, AL, was a physician, Samuel Francis Harris, M.D., having graduated from Meharry Medical College in 1916 or 1918. He was one of five sons, all of whom were educated and successful. My grandmother, Florita Augusta Elliott, was one of eight children originally from Moundville, AL. She taught school until she married my grandfather, and each of her siblings was educated and successful, as well. Her brother, Eugene Elliott, Sr., had graduated from Meharry Dental College in the early 1900s. My mother graduated from Tuskegee Institute, and she received her Masters Degree from New York University in 1952. My family believed in education, and they had instilled in my siblings and me a strong work ethic.
After my father completed his residency program, my parents decided to move the family to Birmingham intending for my father to join my grandfather’s medical practice and ultimately assume it upon my grandfather’s retirement. I was in the third grade when we moved. While in St. Louis, I had heard of the awful treatment of Blacks in the Deep South, particularly Alabama. I remember being horrified at the thought of moving to Birmingham where they hung Black children. (more…)
For the most part, I was oblivious to the summer of violence that ensued. But one thing I will never forget about those days is one of my rare interactions with white people. I was just about to cross a well-traveled street on my way to the store when a pickup truck whizzed by with two or three white kids in the back who yelled something about “nigger” at me.
Their venom surprised me because it was so unexpected. I remember wondering how they could hate me when they didn’t even know me. Did whoever was driving the truck really intend to hit me? But just how far hatred can take a person toward depravity became more apparent within a matter of days when Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed on Sept. 15, 1963, killing four little girls. (more…)
My background is that of a middle-class child growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s in Birmingham, Alabama at the very time of the Civil Rights Movement.
The Movement, its leaders, and our parents taught us a great deal about values—what’s right and wrong. We learned about the importance of teamwork from the many, many hours we spent in meetings with adults and other young people, talking about the challenges we faced and trying to understand the strategies and legal issues involved. I remember that my childhood friends and I talked with our parents about whether we would be allowed to participate in marches and the likely implications of doing so. I also recall hearing the rumors that teachers and other workers (like my mother and father) would lose their jobs if they marched. We witnessed the courage of fellow students and our families, and we took part in the Alabama Christian Movement’s evening meetings where we learned how spiritual music—from “I Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” to “Woke Up This Morning with My Mind Set on Freedom”—can fortify a people and give them a vehicle for expressing their aspirations and strong belief in lofty goals. (more…)