Shards of Stained Glass

Stained glass shards from 16th street baptist church

“Shards of stained glass” from the 16th Street Baptist Church, founded in 1873, as broken in 1963. National Museum of African American History and Culture.

 

These pieces of stained glass are so small, you would think that their story was just as small. But it isn’t.

It started like any other day. September 15, 1963, dawned clear and bright on the town of Birmingham, Alabama. A racially divided town known for violent resistance to segregation, it was a God-fearing southern place. Folks got up and dressed for Sunday service, heading to the churches that were the pillars of their community.

At one Baptist church on 16th Street, young girls gathered for Sunday school. Four of the girls gathered in the ladies’ lounge in the basement. They were Addie Mae Collins, age 14; Denise McNair, age 11; Carole Robertson, age 14; and Cynthia Wesley, also age 14.

Addie, who loved drawing, had skipped Sunday school with her little sister, Sarah. After school ended, they were joined by Denise, Carole, and Cynthia. Denise was known for standing up for others, and it’s hard to imagine whether or not she chastised Addie for skipping school. Carole, who sang rock ‘n roll music, loved to play clarinet and earn badges in her Girl Scout troop. She stood up for others, already a proud member of the church’s committee on racial problems who would represent them at a youth conference. She was probably discussing her dress, a white frock that she was wearing with her first pair of pumps. Cynthia, born Cynthia Morris, was living with the Wesleys, who were helping pay for her education at a better school. She went home to see her family on weekends.

Addie was helping Denise tie the sash on her dress, while Sarah started washing her hands. They were excited, getting ready to lead the 11:00 adult church service while discussing their first days at school and rehearsing songs for the sermon.

Then it happened.

Sarah felt a sudden rip in the air, an explosion of glass into her eyes, face, and chest. She was blinded and screamed for Addie, who never responded.

Only three blocks away, Cynthia’s brother Fate Morris remembers hearing the bombs go off. He ran to site, quickly jumping into the rescue efforts along with thousands. Despite attempts by officials to keep the city calm, violence erupted in mass. Within the day, at least five businesses and properties as well as numerous cars had been firebombed or stoned by rioting youths. Two more black youths, Johnny Robinson and Virgil Ware, were shot dead.

Sarah was later found in the rubble and taken to a hospital, where she remained for two months.

Fate remembers finding a body with no head – and realizing it was his sister, Cynthia.

The reasons were discovered later. Four white supremacists, known members of the Ku Klux Klan, had visited the church earlier that morning. They planted at least fifteen sticks of dynamite, attached to a timing device, beneath the front steps of the church. When the bombs went off, the girls had been thrown through the air like rag dolls. The force was so intense that Cynthia’s body was decapitated and so badly mutilated that they could only identify it by her clothing and a ring.

Addie, Denise, Carole, and Cynthia were dead. 22 were injured.

Addie, Denisa, Carole, and Cynthia in school photos

The four girls killed during the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Clockwise from top left: Addie Mae Collins (aged 14), Cynthia Wesley (aged 14), Carole Robertson (aged 14) and Denise McNair (aged 11). Image courtesy Wikimedia.

White supremacists celebrated the bombing, citing that there were “four less niggers in the world.” Yet as news spread to the nation and the world, the tide began to turn. Many felt that the U.S. and Birmingham were not taking civil rights seriously. Many condemned the bombing and violence, stating that the nation as a whole was responsible for the deaths of these four little girls. It was time to stop talking, and start making things change.

Ultimately, the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing – of which these stained glass shards are from – was a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement. The deaths of Addie, Denise, Carole, and Cynthia helped garner support for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Today, a historic marker at Greenwood Cemetery, their final resting place, proclaims them as martyrs who “died so freedom could live.”

Yet still, they died. Pieces of these same windows became embedded in their bodies, cutting off their short and promising lives. For months after the bombing, Sarah recalled watching pieces of glass emerge from her skin. Constant reminders of Addie, who was gone forever.

 

– Tiffany Rhoades
Program Developer
Girl Museum, Inc.

 

This post is part of our 52 Objects in the History of Girlhood exhibition. Each week during 2017, we explore a historical object and its relation to girls’ history. Stay tuned to discover the incredible history of girls, and be sure to visit the complete exhibition to discover the integral role girls have played since the dawn of time.

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