‘Fifth Little Girl’ of 1963 Klan bombing reunites with nurse

‘Fifth Little Girl’ of 1963 Klan bombing reunites with nurse

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — When an initially blinded, and nearly lifeless, 12-year-old girl found in the rubble of a church bombing was wheeled onto the 10th floor of University Hospital in Birmingham nearly 60 years ago, one of the first people to tend to the child was Rosetta “Rose” Hughes, a nurse.

It was Hughes who stayed with Sarah Collins, the “fifth little girl” in the bombing, until a doctor arrived on that momentous Sunday, as an unforgettable chapter was being etched into the city’s history.

Hughes was on duty on Sept. 15, 1963, when a bomb demolished the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing Addie Mae Collins, 14; Denise McNair, 11; Carole Rosamond Robertson, 14; and Cynthia Wesley, 14 and injuring dozens of parishioners.

One of the surviving girls was Sarah Collins, sister of Addie Mae. On that Sunday, staff at the emergency clinic at University Hospital received the bodies of the four children killed and tended to scores of others who were injured. Sarah Collins was among the wounded, and one of the first to see her was Hughes.

“When I saw her that Sunday, … she was just covered with soot and ashes (and blood),” Hughes recalled in an exclusive interview with The Birmingham Times. “(It) looked like she was gone. … I thought she wasn’t going to wake up. … She was not moving.”

That was 59 years ago.

On Thursday, Birmingham commemorated the explosion that proved to be a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement, became a catalyst for change in the United States, and ultimately prompted global efforts for equality and human rights.

Hughes, who turns 101 in October and still lives in Birmingham, is believed to be one of the last remaining workers on duty at the hospital the day of the bombing.

Last month, for the first time since the bombing, Hughes and Rudolph, now 71, reunited for their first one-on-one, lengthy discussion of the events on that pivotal day in world history.

“It’s more than a blessing to meet her because she took care of me,” Rudolph said during the interview. “When I was younger, I didn’t know how she looked or anything because I was practically blind then. So, just to see her now and know her is a blessing. She’s looking real good.

Hughes recalled working on the 10th floor of University Hospital, which was known as the “Eye” floor, when young Sarah was wheeled in.

“I remember they brought her to the emergency room, and I was working on the Eye floor. We had the surgery up there, and they sent her to eye surgery. … She was on a stretcher, and I took care of her until they called the doctor to come in,” said Hughes, who recalls the doctor’s name only as “Pearson” and that he arrived with a toddler.

Medical staff from across the city were being called in to help with the influx of patients. Many of the doctors were scheduled to be off that weekend, and that likely included Dr. Pearson, who came to the hospital with his son. While Hughes could not remember the doctor’s first name, University of Alabama at Birmingham records show a “Dr. Robert S. Pearson” as a resident in ophthalmology at the facility in the early 1960s.

“It was a Sunday morning, and the doctor’s wife had gone to church, so he was watching the baby and had to bring him (to the hospital). … I babysat while (Dr. Pearson) checked on Sarah,” Hughes recalled.

“(Dr. Pearson) came back out and sent her back downstairs to the where she was examined at first. … They took her back on a stretcher. She was still asleep … and I didn’t have to do anything. I just had to watch her. She was also covered with ashes and smoke.”

Even though she was 12 at the time of the bombing, Collins-Rudolph, still has vivid memories of what happened.

“That’s one day I will never forget,” she said. “I remember, you know, when they operated on my eyes. … I remember when they took the glass out of my eyes, glass from my face. … The doctor had told me there were about 20 to 26 pieces of glass in my face altogether.

“I know when the doctor operated on my eyes, they put this bandage on it. … Maybe about a week later, they took the bandage off. At first, the doctor asked me, ‘What do you see out of your left eye?’ I told him, ‘I just see a little light.’ He asked me the same question (about my right eye). I said, ‘I can’t see anything.’ So, he said I was blinded instantly in my right eye.

“When (the doctor) was talking to my mother, I remember hearing him tell her that eventually I would start seeing out of my left eye because I was real young and the sight would start coming back. When I was getting ready to leave the hospital, I remember (the doctor) telling (my mother) to bring me back in February because they were going to have to remove my right eye, and that’s what they did. I went back in February, and that’s when they removed my right eye and fit me with a prosthetic.”

Sarah has had problems with her eyesight for the past 59 years. She developed glaucoma in her left eye and was initially given drops for the eye.

“That didn’t work too good, and they tried another drop. It didn’t work too good either, so they tried a third drop,” she recalled. “When the drops stopped doing any good, (the doctor) said he would have to operate and give me an incision in that (left) eye. They put an incision in there to drain the fluid. … If he had not done that, I would have gone blind.”

Even today, Rudolph still must visit an eye doctor every six months.

“I had to pay for that out of my own pocket,” she said. “I would always wonder to myself, … ‘I was in that bombing, and I got hurt. How come I had to foot these bills by myself when it wasn’t my fault?’”

While the state apologized to Rudolph two years ago, it hasn’t yet honored her request for restitution.

At the reunion with Hughes, husband George Rudolph, who has been at Sarah Rudolph’s side for the past two decades and knows about survival after his first tour of duty as a 19-year-old during the Vietnam War, said his wife has strength he has not seen.

“For my wife to survive what she went through and not hold any animosity toward the KKK because she forgave them, that’s a strong person,” he said. “She didn’t want to hold her hatred in her heart for those Klansmen. When she said, ‘I forgive you,’ that was such a powerful statement. Very powerful. … She is just a strong Black lady and amazing. I love my wife. I thank God for Sarah.”

16th St. Baptist church to recall bombing with messages of love, action

16th St. Baptist church to recall bombing with messages of love, action

Video Courtesy of Biography

Months before the annual observance of the bombing that rocked a congregation, a community and the nation, 16th Street Baptist Church has been getting ready.

Renovations were taking place in June: fresh paint and new technology for the classroom spaces in the basement. Just as at worship services, Sunday school attendance ebbs and flows each week, depending on the number of longtime members and curious tourists. This Sunday (Sept. 15), which marks the 56th anniversary of the attack that killed four young girls, the church hopes to unveil the refurbished space where visitors can watch videos about kindness, caring for all humans no matter their race, and the civil rights history of the church and its community.

“After you leave this place, we don’t just want you to experience history,” the Rev. Arthur Price Jr. said in a June interview at his church. “We call the four girls ‘angels of change’ and our hope is that people will leave inspired, become agents of change as a result of what happened here.”

The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church sanctuary, which features images of the four girls who were killed in 1963, in June 2019. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

“We’re adding more content about not just what happened in 1963 but how the church was organized and the tension that was going on in the city during that time,” Price said in a subsequent interview about the church that was at the forefront of the civil rights movement before and after the bombing.

The pastor was busy this week preparing for his church’s “memorial observance” that is expected to feature special guests including a prominent U.S. chaplain, the pastor of another church that was attacked and a presidential candidate.

Lt. Col. Ruth Segres, an Air Force chaplain at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph in Texas, will be leading the Sunday school lesson.

“That Sunday school lesson that was taught that Sunday (of the bombing) was ‘The love that forgives’ and she will teach a lesson surrounding that theme,” Price said of Segres, who is in charge of recruiting Air Force chaplains.

Just before the church bells are set to toll at 10:22 a.m. — the moment on Sept. 15, 1963, that the dynamite set by members of the Ku Klux Klan went off — former Vice President Joe Biden “will give a reflection about the day,” the pastor said.

After a wreath laying, the Sunday service will start, with the Rev. Eric S.C. Manning, pastor of Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church of Charleston, South Carolina, serving as the guest preacher.

“I think we have a symbiotic relationship, considering the two churches experienced acts of violence within their place of worship,” said Price of the AME church where nine worshippers were killed by a white supremacist during a 2015 weekday Bible study.

“This is a way that we can come together in solidarity and preach the message of Jesus Christ and how he teaches us to stand tall and not to fear in the face of adversity.”

Flowers are placed on a marker remembering the four girls who were killed in a bombing on Sept. 15, 1963, at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in June 2019. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

The observance recalls the deaths of Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Morris, who is also known as Cynthia Wesley. They were preparing for the church’s Youth Day when they died. As a poem by Camille T. Dungy in a recent special edition of The New York Times Magazine noted, had they lived, one of the girls would have been 67 and the other three 70 this year.

“We’ll toll the bells for the four girls and two more times for the two boys who lost their lives that day,” Price said, referring to two black male teenagers who were shot to death in Birmingham in the hours after the bombing.

The church, which dates to 1873, reopened in June 1964. Price said the basement was renovated the following year and has since featured fellowship gatherings, men’s breakfasts and Bible studies.

Convictions in the killings did not occur for decades.

A memorial at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where four girls were killed in a bombing on Sept. 15, 1963. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

A “Justice Delayed” exhibit at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute across the street from the church noted that Robert Chambliss, Thomas “Tommy” Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry were identified as potential suspects as the FBI initially investigated the blast. But it wasn’t until much later, after subsequent probes, that they were tried and received sentences of life imprisonment. Cherry was the last to be convicted, in 2002. 

Beyond the annual Sept. 15 observance, at other times there are reminders of the tragedy, some marked with grief, others with hope.

In May, Price officiated at the funeral of Chris McNair, father of one of the four girls killed in 1963, and a former Alabama state legislator. And just last week, Price welcomed to the church a government delegation from Wales, including its minister for education, Kirsty Williams.

“She was proud to see the Wales window that was given by the people of Wales in 1965 to the church because the people of Wales wanted to make a statement of solidarity with the movement,” he said of the Sept. 5 visit.

Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, right, is across the street from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, left. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

An adaptation of the window, which features the image of a black crucified Christ, is now part of the church’s logo.

Price said the visitors from Wales were heeding the message he hopes his church inspires even before the church launches the new videos about kindness across racial lines.

“That’s one of the things that the Welsh government did,” he said. “They presented us with a plate with a black hand and a white hand extended to each other, dealing with even though we’re different, we’re not deficient, and that we ought to be working together so that we make sure that what happened here 56 years ago never happens again.”