On the day that I was born on May 18, 1954 in Birmingham, Alabama, the newspaper headlines around the country announced that the Supreme Court of the United States had outlawed public school segregation in the case entitled Brown versus Board of Education. Relatives used to tease me and say that when my mother, Quintella Dobbins Horne, a high school teacher, heard that the schools were going to be desegregated, she went into labor. However in 1963, nine years after that decision, after having skipped the second grade, I was in the fourth grade at all-Black Center Street Elementary School.
Until I was approximately eight years old, our family attended Westminster Presbyterian Church. It was pastored by Rev. John W. Rice who was the father of Condoleezza Rice. Condoleezza and I, only a few months apart in age, were in the same Sunday School class. Mrs. Rice was a music teacher and Condoleezza began playing the piano at a very early age. Soon the mothers of other young girls in the neighborhood decided that we should take piano lessons as well, whether we wanted to or not. My Mom also made sure that my younger sister Janet and I took ballet and tap dance lessons. (more…)
In 1963, black people’s hopes and aspirations collided with the heart and mindset of a segregated Birmingham. That confluence led to the civil rights demonstrations and strife that defined the city and Alabama for decades afterward.
That year I was 10.
I lived on Center Way in the (mostly) placid community of South Titusville, in southwest Birmingham. (more…)
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…)