16th Street Baptist Church: Still Standing

It's not all about black and white at the sanctuary where four little girls were killed 50 years ago.

Memorial site for the four victims of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing (Sherrel Denise Stewart)
Memorial site for the four victims of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing (Sherrel Denise Stewart)

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 Price usually preaches to a congregation of about 500 people, with visitors often mingled among the worshippers.

“Visitors usually come because of history, but the regular worshippers come because they want to hear a word from the Lord,” Price said.

The church will be packed full of visitors Sunday, Sept. 15, and among the anticipated visitors are U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, members of Congress and leaders from throughout the city and around the country.

At 10:22 a.m., a memorial wreath will be laid near the point where a bomb ripped through the women’s restroom, killing Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Denise McNair and Carole Robertson. The families of the girls will receive the Congressional Gold Medal on Tuesday.

The four girls were not the only youths to lose their lives to violence in the Birmingham area on Sept. 15, 1963. Two Eagle Scouts shot and killed 13-year-old Virgil Ware as he rode on the handlebars of his brother’s bicycle, just west of the city.

Also on that day, Johnny Robinson, a 16-year-old, was gunned down by a white police officer as he and other youths ran in an alley near downtown.

“We remember the four girls, and the two boys,” Price said.

A Rich History

Sixteenth Street Baptist had a rich history and a place of prominence in the community even before the bombing, said Horace Huntley, an African-American historian and author of Black Workers’ Struggle for Equality in Birmingham.

The Rev. William Reuben Pettiford, pastor of the church in 1890, founded the Penny Savings Bank, which was the first black-owned bank in Alabama, said Huntley. “Sixteeth Street Baptist was significant in the city’s economic life and in its spiritual life. It was one of the churches where you could find Birmingham’s black middle class,” he said.

The church’s parking lot still reflects the middle class and a cross-section of America. Cadillacs, imported cars and SUVs bear allegiance to Alabama A&M, Miles College, the University of Alabama, Auburn University, Tennessee State University and Stillman College.

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