One Little Boy and “Four Little Girls”

A Bible sits on the pulpit from the Bethel Baptist Church in Collegeville. The pulpit was in use when Fred Shuttlesworth pastored the congregation from 1953-61. The Bible is appropriately opened to Psalms 54-58.

A Bible sits on the pulpit from the Bethel Baptist Church in Collegeville. The pulpit was in use when Fred Shuttlesworth pastored the congregation from 1953-61. The Bible is appropriately opened to Psalms 54-58. Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

One of the disturbing things about living in the American South is the painful history that is constantly in our faces–monuments to “confederate” leaders, former slave quarters, plantation homes, street names, buildings and spaces where “significant” events took place.  Although I am convinced that it is important that we keep the past before us to avoid making those same mistakes, sometimes “American history” can be “too much.” It is surely overwhelming navigating that terrain while nurturing the development of a child.

No explanation necessary.

Klan Robe. On Display at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

My hubby and I, along with many other parents, served as chaperones for a field trip to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, Alabama. The Sixteenth Street church is the site of the September 15, 1963 bombing that took the lives of four girls who were preparing to participate in Sunday worship services: Carole Robertson (age 14), Carol Denise McNair (age 11), Cynthia Wesley (age 14), and Addie Mae Colllins (age 14).  Sarah Collins (age 12), the sister of Addie Mae, survived but suffered life-altering injuries as a result of the hate crime, a consequence of mounting racial tensions around desegregation.

My little one knows a lot about American history, but I was worried about this field trip. I didn’t want his being in the physical presence of that place to change him–to make him angry or fearful, or worse, to feel the limitations of his own agency.  I recalled his strong sense of injustice at the pronouncement of a “Not Guilty” verdict for George Zimmerman.  His concern, then, was not black and white, but child and adult.  He wondered aloud how rational adults could allow another adult to “get away with” killing a child. I did not know whether he would be outraged or miserably grieved by hearing the finer details of the deaths of the “little girls”.

Sketch of the Four Little Girls by Cameron Shepperd

“Tragic End for a New Beginning.” Sketch of the Four Little Girls–Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins, and Denise McNair–by Cameron Shepperd. It hangs in the basement of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.

As we toured, I cautiously waited.  Held my breath.

Being in the church where the girls chatted and worshipped was far more intense than reading about it and knowing about it.  There were no words for the mixture of grief, anger, horror, powerlessness, “what ifs,” and “whys” that stormed my brain.  As I was trying to process my own emotions and keep them “in check” at the same time, I was watching my son. Making sure he was [still] okay.

He listened intently. He studied images. He read captions and discussed them with friends. He danced in the exhibit modeled like a 1950s/60’s jazz club for “coloreds only.” At the end of the day, on the way home, he asked questions. He processed. And I whispered a prayer of gratitude.  He knows more, but his sense of self and his place in the world is still intact. I exhaled.

For now.

I continue to wait.  For the dawning. For the intense sadness he now feels about the [continuing] assault on black skin and black bodies to transform into anger.

And I pray that it does not damage or debilitate him.

Original pew. Our tour guide pointed out that the pews are the same ones that have sat in the church since its building in

The pews have been in the church for more than 100 years.

When we were at the church, our tour guide reminded us that the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church is not simply a “tourist attraction” or a stop on the “Black History Tour,” but it is still a vibrant church that serves many of the same roles in the community that it’s served since its beginnings.  So while we mourn the four little girls and America’s defective past and turbulent racial present, we can celebrate the fact that we are still here–worshipping, dreaming, doing, and creating change in our own small areas of the world.

BHM10

The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church “Where Jesus is the Main Attraction,” Birmingham, Alabama

For more information about the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, click the image above.  For a succinct  historical overview of racial tensions in Birmingham, the bombing, and convictions in the murders, click here: The 16th Street Church Bombing.

 

Month of Letters: Postcard Shower!

Obviously, I’ve been neglecting my posting responsibilities re: Month of Letters. But this is a low-stress, just-for-fun blog, right? No pressure. I’m here now and that’s what matters. 🙂 So far, I have kept my commitment to send a letter, note, postcard, and/or greeting card every day during the month of February. I focused my efforts on letters, but I did send a few postcards. I also received lots of great postcards over the last two weeks, so I’ve just got to share.

First, I must correct a minor error in my last post, Tiny Photo Gallery and a Piano-Playing Panda. I thought I sent the panda to my partner, but I found it days later sitting in a stack of postcards next to my desk. This polar bear with his penguin audience is what I sent:

Junzo Terada

Happy Animal Time by Junzo Terada

This is actually the (inside) cover of the collection, but it features the image. Since I scanned the wrong postcard, I don’t have a copy of this one. 😦 The good news is my partner loves the postcard! Now, who will get the “Piano-Playing Panda”?

In honor of Black History Month, I sent out a couple of postcards that feature prominent African Americans:

Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955) by Betsy Graves Reyneau (1888-1964), Oil on Canvas, 1943-1944

Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955) by Betsy Graves Reyneau (1888-1964)
Oil on Canvas, 1943-1944

“Mary McLeod Bethune believed that the route out of poverty for African Americans was education. In 1904, with her funds totaling $1.50, she acted on that conviction to establish a normal-industrial girls’ school in Daytona Beach, Florida. Within a decade, the school was thriving and on its way to becoming Bethune-Cookman College.

In the 1930s, Bethune served as adviser to the New Deal’s National Youth Administration and was a member of the unofficial “black cabinet” that sought to move the government toward curbing racial discrimination. In these capacities, she contributed to implementing some of the first meaningful measures toward requiring equal opportunity for black job-seekers in federal employment and the nation’s defense industries.

Hanging in the background of Bethune’s portrait is a picture of Faith Hall, the first major building erected at Bethune-Cookman. At the time the likeness was done, Bethune had no physical need for the cane that she holds. Instead, she regarded it as stage prop that, as she put it, gave her ‘swank'” (from the National Portrait Gallery website, Smithsonian Institution).

I sent Bethune to a colleague in New Orleans who served in the public school system for many years before transitioning to university teaching. She has always admired Bethune, so I’m sure she appreciates this surprise treat.

Harry T. Burleigh by Laura Wheeler WaringOil on canvas, not dated

Harry T. Burleigh by Laura Wheeler Waring
Oil on canvas, not dated

“Although his name is relatively unknown, Harry Thacker Burleigh (named Henry after his father) played a significant role in the development of American art song, having composed over two hundred works in the genre. He was the first African-American composer acclaimed for his concert songs as well as for his adaptations of African-American spirituals. In addition, Burleigh was an accomplished baritone, a meticulous editor, and a charter member of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP).” (from the Library of Congress website. See H.T. Burleigh for more information).

Burleigh is on his way to a 14-year-old pianist who lives in Russia. I thought she would appreciate learning about another composer.

Here are the other postcards I sent over the last two weeks:

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Now, here’s my own little shower of received postcards (Click on each image for a closer look):

I received several more postcards (vintage churches, Alexander Pushkin Museum in Russia and more);  I’ll highlight those in later posts. For now, enjoy my little bit of postcard heaven!