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…)
In the fall of 1963, we were shocked by the vicious and cowardly bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, one of Birmingham’s most prominent African American churches. We soon learned that four innocent young African American girls had been killed; I was devastated to hear that one of them was a good friend and classmate, Cynthia. I’ll never forget that Sunday morning in church at Sixth Avenue Baptist, when our minister, Reverend Porter, announced that our sister church had been bombed. Congregation members immediately left their seats, in a state of shock, because our relatives and friends belonged to that church. (more…)
Birmingham, Alabama was once known as “the most segregated city in America.” It can be argued that the 1963 demonstrations in Birmingham and the fierce resistance they provoked changed white attitudes towards civil rights and ultimately led to the most comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation in American history.
The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, which opened in 1992, was built to serve as a monument to–and a resource about–the thousands of people who were dedicated to the philosophy of non-violence and risked their lives in struggles and confrontations all over the South.
It was with a mixture of emotions that I first visited the Institute on Dr. King’s birthday, January 15, 1993. I was born in Birmingham and grew up there during the civil rights era, a white child in Mountain Brook, a nearby all-white suburb. I left many years ago and moved north. But back in 1963, I was a nine-year-old elementary school student, and even though I did not participate in the demonstrations, they have indelibly marked my life.
My first conscious awareness of segregation came when I was about six. (more…)