In 1963 I was 13 years old and my family owned a grocery store (Ted’s Big Apple) and home approximately 3 blocks from the 16th Street Baptist Church (6th Ave). The morning the church was bombed I was outside playing in front of my family’s store on 15th Street and 8th Avenue. The blast shook the entire community of Fountain Heights and beyond. The blast and the ensuing emergency vehicles caused me to run the 2-3 blocks towards the sound of the blast. Along the way I stopped by my friend’s house (Fate Morris) and he and I ran to the 16th Street Baptist Church. (more…)
A large Confederate flag filled most of one wall of my grandfather’s study in his Birmingham home during the 1950s and 1960s. It was always the first thing I noticed when I walked into the dimly lit room—a startling shout of hot red and star-studded blue against a dark stone wall.
On the opposite wall was a painting of the Princess Pocahontas, who, according to genealogical research by my great-grandmother, was said to be our direct ancestor. I heard once that my grandfather, proud of being related to royalty but uncomfortable with the darkness of the princess’s complexion, had Pocahontas’s skin lightened a bit before he hung the painting.
My grandmother used to take me with her to the grocery store in her old Dodge. When I was about six years old, I remember getting into her car one day and asking her the name of a Black lady we had seen earlier that day. She quickly reprimanded me, “Pam, you never call a colored woman a ‘lady.’” Actually, she probably didn’t say “colored woman,” but something else. I remember feeling smacked down by the reprimand. And I was careful not to repeat that grave breach of etiquette in the following years. (more…)
1963 changed my life. The tensions were growing, and everyone was on edge. Then, Easter morning between Sunday School and church, a couple of us dashed over to the local drug store in Homewood—a block from our very big Southern Baptist Church—to read comics and buy gum. As we walked back to our church, a car filled with African Americans pulled into our front parking lot. They stopped briefly, and I looked up to see what they were seeing. The church deacons were standing at the top of the stairs, their arms locked together as if they were playing Red Rover. Then they slowly walked down the stairs with their arms locked together. Their message was clear—they were not going to allow the African Americans to enter our church to worship with us.
Later my mother said, “Those people didn’t come to worship.” I told her I didn’t think Mr. P and Mr. H came to worship either. They were officers of the large insurance company headquartered in Birmingham, and used their church connections for business. I’ll never forget the look of determination on their hard faces.
In May, the protests began in downtown Birmingham. (more…)
Our family attended Birmingham’s First Methodist Church in 1963. The Children’s building was under construction, and all the school age children were attending Sunday School in the Alabama Power building just a block away from the 16th Street Baptist church.
I remember hearing the bomb explode on September 15, 1963. All of our parents were a block away in the main sanctuary building and I remember them running into our Sunday School room in panic because they didn’t know where the bomb was.
Author’s note: I’ve used the old-fashioned, at-the-time-polite terms “Negro” and “colored” to describe the African Americans who appear in these stories. I hope you will understand I have no intention to offend anyone by my choice of those terms. For integrity’s sake, I’m merely using the vernacular of the time. (From The Newspaper Boy by Chervis Isom, 2013, page xiii)
He pointed to large, raised letters near the end of the dusty eight inch steel pipe. With one swipe, I brushed them clean. “Made in Belgium,” I muttered, as if he needed my translation. Then he stalked away. I studied the dozens of identical pipe stacked in the yard. The electric grinder he had given me, now hanging from my hand, seemed wholly inadequate for the job I had been told to do.
As I dithered, trying to figure out the best way to begin, I noticed the colored guy—they called him Arizona—watching me. His neutral face showed no emotion, but I knew he must have been amused to watch a college boy flounder in ignorance and incompetence.
How do I begin? I wondered. Is there a place to sit? If I sit on the pipe, will it roll? There must be a trick to this somehow. Arizona watched quietly. After a few moments, I looked at him. “You done this before?” (more…)