My childhood showed me the best and the worst of human relations
In 1963, my family and I lived on the North side of Birmingham, on the infamous “Dynamite Hill.” My father was Executive Vice President and Manager of Citizen’s Federal Savings and Loan Association, the city’s sole black owned financial institution. My mother was a teacher and administrator at Miles College, the local Historically Black College (HBCU). My parents shielded my sister and me from the civil rights struggle as long as they could. For example, when a bomb went off in the night, my mother would say, “That was a truck backfiring. Go back to sleep.” And when we would drink from water fountains labeled, “White,” while shopping downtown, she would pretend not to notice, and call us quietly to her side. Ours was a happy childhood, despite the tension, violence and turmoil brewing around us.
Education was extremely important in our household. My father had earned a Bachelor’s Degree and a Law Degree at North Carolina Central University (NCCU) through the GI Bill. He and my mother met at NCCU in the late 1940s and were married after they both graduated. In 1963, my mother had an opportunity to pursue a Master’s Degree at the University of Indiana on scholarship. My parents decided she would go to Bloomington on her own for a year with my sister and me in tow to complete the course work. We left my father in Birmingham and moved to Indiana late summer, 1963.
Both my parents were raised Southern Baptist. My father in his hometown of Tuskegee, Alabama, and my mother between the Carolinas and New York City had each attended church regularly in their early years. In Birmingham, we were members of the 16th Street Baptist Church where my father was a Deacon and my mother active in the Women’s Ministry. I attended Sunday school nearly every Sunday and played clarinet in the youth orchestra alongside my sister who played the flute.
My memories of the church before 1963 are a mixture of enjoyable social interaction and strict adherence to informal social protocol. Best behavior was implored, despite the inevitable boredom with the services typical of young, energetic children. We also went to church well groomed, in our “Sunday best,” so to speak, which was standard in our church community and strongly reinforced in our nuclear family. My sister and I made good friends at church. We shared our activities and ideas each week, alongside the travails of strict parental control that was also standard in the community. Before 1963 we did not fully understand the acute concern our parents showed in regard to our welfare and safety. I, for one, was always looking for ways to loosen the grip of my parents’ vigilance and stretch the limits of the well-defined boundaries they enforced. Looking back, I believe I must have sensed the oppression and tension of the civil rights struggle long before I had any notion of what was at stake.
There was one part of the weekly Sunday routine I enjoyed immensely. Sometimes we were allowed to gather on our own to chat in the renovated women’s bathroom with our friends until the time of the “Call to Worship.” The bathroom was located on a mezzanine level of the church slightly lower than that of the main sanctuary, and higher than the basement level. The Call to Worship was a hymn that preceded the formal Sermon in the standard format of the weekly service. When we heard the calling hymn, we would file into the side door of the main sanctuary and sit through the rest of the program, listening as attentively as we could to the Senior Pastor who delivered the liturgy. We very much enjoyed the social time in the bathroom, sitting before the mirrors in the vanity chairs, and we were careful not to speak or laugh too loudly, lest we be heard in the main sanctuary. This was the place where Cynthia Wesley, Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, and Yolanda (Carole) Robertson perished on Sept. 15, 1963.
Once we moved to Indiana, my life was completely taken over with new sounds, sights, smells and a sea of curiosities I could not have imagined. My sister and I were among the very few students of color in Indiana University’s Laboratory School. I suspect that I went from pulling away from my mother’s hold to clamoring for more of her attention as she struggled to complete her course work and tend to the needs of her daughters. Even if all had remained the same at home, the year in Bloomington would have been on its own merit a watershed experience for a nine-year-old from the South whose only prior experience in school had been in segregated classrooms.
News of the church bombing reached us by TV newscasts. I don’t recall much about how we reacted before we learned of the death of the girls, our friends back home. Our most immediate concern was where was daddy? My mother phoned our house in Birmingham numerous times, but was not able to make contact. Since this was long before cell phones or digital technology, we did not immediately assume that our father was injured. Instead, we waited for more news. My mother might have thought he was assisting the leadership of the church in some way until the end of the day when we still had no word. Finally, in the early evening as we were beginning to become anxious, my father phoned to let us know he was alive and well. Turns out he had driven that Sunday morning from Birmingham to Tuskegee to see his mother, a trip he made routinely about once a month. As a consequence not one member of the O’Neal family attended church services on that fateful Sunday, September 15, 1963.
By the time we moved home in the spring of 1964 the trauma of the church bombing had significantly subsided, or so it seemed. It was a time in which emotional pain and suffering was generally kept quiet. The church was repaired speedily and the routine of Sunday school and other weekly services was completely restored. But many people I knew would never be the same. Claude and Gertrude Wesley, parents of Cynthia Wesley who was killed in the bombing, were our next-door neighbors. They readily adopted another young girl the same age as Cynthia. She fit perfectly into their family and our social milieu. We loved her as if she had always been among us. Our time away from Birmingham appeared to have bandaged somehow the most wrenching emotions we might have experienced following the horrific event. Even so, on some level we could not deny that it was just short of a miracle that not one member of our family was in church that Sunday.
This was just the beginning of a more “woke” phase of my life, as we might say today. The worst part of the civil rights struggle in Birmingham was to follow. My father and our pet dog Champ patrolled the neighborhood at night during the most violent times. It was my father’s job, also, to present bail money for Martin Luther King and others after they were arrested and jailed following street demonstrations. Even today I am not inclined to participate in public demonstrations because of the vivid memories I have of police dogs and fire hoses deployed against civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham. The church bombing was like the point of no return to the resolve for change and determination for a better life in the community. Numerous challenges followed, and opportunities to participate in a changing social milieu emerged.
The same year my sister was Valedictorian of Parker High School’s senior class (Parker was Alabama’s first black high school), my freshman high school group stumbled and bumbled through the legalized integration of Alabama’s public schools. While during the day we shared lab assignments, foreign language classes and band practice with white classmates, once school was out there was little or no interaction between us. We maintained order, civility, and even comradeship during the school day, but rarely, never as I recall, exchanged as much as a greeting away from school. On the outside, we adhered to the comfortable norm of segregation.
My family and I left Birmingham before I finished high school. My father secured another job in New Orleans where my mother joined the faculty of Dillard University, an HBCU located there. The move afforded both of them professional advancement. My sister went away to college and I completed high school studies at a distance from the place of painful memories and the tension of the civil rights struggle. Ostensibly we did not look back, though I suspect the strength and confidence we gleaned from our time in Birmingham continues to impact how we face challenges in our lives to the present day.
I sob when I watch Spike Lee’s documentary about the Birmingham church bombing entitled, “4 Little Girls.” But I could not be more proud of the community, my community, that survived such a tragedy with grace and fortitude, defying bitterness and hate. In today’s reality, the memory of growing up in Birmingham reminds me of how the human condition is equally fragile and resilient. My childhood experience showed me a fair sample of the best and the worst of human relations. It also prepared me to be courageous and hopeful in the face of present day struggles.
Adrienne O’Neal wrote this story for the express purpose of posting it with Kids in Birmingham 1963, where it was published in February 2019.