In spite of segregation

Tamara Harris Johnson

Tamara Harris Johnson

Age 10 in 1963

Moving to Birmingham in the early 1960s, Tamara discovered a close-knit, well-educated community – and the indignities and evils of racism. In September 2013, Tamara Harris Johnson wrote a letter calling for recognition of the children who survived the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.

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.

In Birmingham, we lived in a segregated neighborhood, unlike the neighborhood in which we lived in St. Louis. Initially, we rented a house from my father’s sister and her husband, Dr. Earl and Lucy (Harris) Jamison, on 4th Street, near Brunetta C. Hill Elementary School where I enrolled. Hill School was a wonderful community school, also attended by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Within the next year or so, my family and I moved to what has been referred to as “Dynamite Hill.” Also living on “Dynamite Hill” were Reverend Joseph and Mrs. Evelyn Lowery and their family, Bishop Jasper Roby and his family, Atty. Arthur and Mrs. Theodora Shores and their family, Mr. Frank and Mrs. Sallie Davis, parents of Angela Davis, and their family, Atty. Oscar and Mrs. Willa Adams and their family (Oscar Adams later became the first African American to serve as an Alabama Supreme Court Justice); Atty. Demetrius Newton and his family, Dr. Jesse and Mrs. Helen Lewis and their family (founder of The Birmingham Times, referred to as the largest Black weekly newspaper in the Southeast), Drs. Tyree Barefield-Pendleton, “Buddy” Bradford, Ferd Bradford and Earl Jamison and their families, Mr. & Mrs. John and Addine Drew of Alexander Insurance Company, and Mr. Preston and Mrs. Susie Evans, my father’s cousins and owners of Temple Pharmacy located on 4th Avenue, North – now designated as part of the Civil Rights District. My point in listing some of the residents of “Dynamite Hill” is to illustrate that in Birmingham, during the height of segregation, there was a very educated, middle-class population who worked hard and lived well economically, in spite of segregation. All over Birmingham, there were communities just like those of “Dynamite Hill.”

There was a State Fairground located on 3rd Avenue, West that was segregated. It did not matter the educational, economic or social standing of those who could attend. The only criterion for admittance to this State Fairground was that one had to be Caucasian.

Because of segregation, many clubs/organizations were founded to give African Americans social outlets that were denied to them because of segregation. Some of them were national organizations such as Jack & Jill of America, Incorporated, The Links, Incorporated and many of the fraternities and sororities, and there were chapters in Birmingham. Local organizations were also organized such as Les Elites, The Vagabonds, and Les Jeunes Dames. There was a distinct middle and upper-middle class of African Americans living in Birmingham during the height of segregation in 1963, and many of these people were very active in the Civil Rights Movement. They wanted a better life for their children and for others who were less fortunate. Some advocated, some marched, some were arrested, some paid the bonds for those arrested, some preached, some provided free medical services – each one did that which he or she was trained or able to do in a context in which they felt would be most meaningful. This was a part of Birmingham in 1963.

When the four little girls were bombed, I had already experienced some of the evils of racism and segregation. I remember one evening, my parents and my aunt and uncle, George and Helen Washington, were outside talking by their cars. I was in the yard. My Aunt Helen was a beautiful woman, as was my mother and her sisters, and some would sometimes wonder if my aunt or some of her siblings were African American. While the four of them were laughing and talking, a car with some white males drove by and threw a liquid on my aunt. It was later determined to be urine. My father and uncle wanted to chase the car, but my mother and aunt would not let them. I could not understand why someone would be so cruel, and the cruelty was so unprovoked. These were also men, doing this to a woman. It defied all forms of decency that had been taught to me.

My parents were friends of three of the families of four of the little girls who lost their lives to the senseless bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church. Some of the survivors and I were and remain personal friends. My parents became fearful of my sisters and me going to church, because we attended First Congregational Church on “Dynamite Hill” directly across the street from the home of Civil Rights activist icon Attorney Arthur Shores. We did continue to go to church, and I recall that our prayers took on a more serious and desperate tone. At this time, I had no idea that I would be among the first African Americans to integrate Ensley High School in Birmingham. I had no idea of the prominent role that many of my family members and friends of family would play in the Civil Rights Movement.

Tamara Harris Johnson gave her permission for Kids in Birmingham 1963 to publish her story just days before the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.