The Emotions Of Birmingham Move A Newtown Woman 50 Years Later

Photo: Nancy K. Crevier

Newtown resident Nan Morrow found recalling the day of the September 15, 1963 Birmingham bombing of a Baptist church a traumatic experience, 50 years later.

When her old friend from medical school in Birmingham, Ala., Dr Tom Gaskin, called Newtown resident Nan Morrow this summer, his request seemed simple. He was putting together a video program for people at a fundraiser he was hosting.

The money raised would go to support the cost of a bronze statue memorializing the four young girls killed in the 16th Avenue Baptist Church bombing 50 years ago, September 15, 1963. Dr Gaskin was hoping that Ms Morrow would provide a video tape of her memories of that day, when as a 21-year-old graduate nursing student, she had been on duty in the emergency room at the University of Alabama Medical Center (then known as University Hospital).

“I grew up in Birmingham, and I’ve practiced here in a largely black area of town, but I live in a more affluent area,” Dr Gaskin said, in a phone interview with The Newtown Bee. “I was a natural bridge between the two communities, with a lot of friends I thought ought to want to be a part of this memorial,” Dr Gaskin said. “The events in September 1963 really moved me, and a lot of other people. It took us off the sidelines, realizing there is something to this [desegregation] thing,” he said.

He invited business and community leaders, other physicians, and people still living in the city, who had been active during the turmoil of the 1960s, to his fundraiser in August, and thought that Ms Morrow’s first person video recounting of the day would be influential in raising money for the statue.

He had met with the internationally recognized sculptor, Elizabeth MacQueen, a Birmingham native, when she began work on it, Dr Gaskin said, and even drove her out to California with the clay models, so that the work could be completed. “She couldn’t drive herself, and there was no way those models could be shipped or put on a plane,” Dr Gaskin said. It was an eye-opening experience, seeing how artists work and live, and what it took to bring the sculpture to completion.

“The memorial is beautiful,” said Dr Gaskin, who was at the September 15 unveiling in Birmingham. “I just love the number of people that are taking pictures of it and standing around in groups, just talking about it. That’s something you don’t usually see,” he said.

In doing her part to support Dr Gaskin’s efforts, Ms Morrow started typing up her summary to read for the video one day this past August. But rather than being the matter-of-fact recollection that she had expected, Ms Morrow found herself sobbing. It was the first time in 50 years, she said, that she had allowed herself to feel the horror of that day.

“It was shocking to me [when the bombing happened],” she said, “but I didn’t feel the trauma then. That was the first time I broke down, 50 years later.” She was overcome with tears again, when her daughter-in-law started recording the video. It took more than one attempt before Ms Morrow was able to record her recollections without stopping to cry.

It was not that she was without feeling, she explained, but as a nurse in the emergency room, she had already seen many trauma cases. In order to do her job, she had to put up a wall between her emotions and any event in order to do what had to be done.

Ms Morrow grew up in Sylacauga, Ala., not far from Birmingham. She attended the University Hospital School of Nursing.

“I grew up in the segregated South. There were separate schools for whites and blacks, and separation in all areas,” she said. The hospital was segregated, with different floors for black or white patients. However, she said, care was never different. “Segregation had no impact on us as medical staff,” she said. “Everyone, black or white, received the same good care. I really never gave segregation a lot of thought. It was how we had grown up, and I didn’t know differently. I didn’t realize it was not the way to live until desegregation began. Then, desegregation seemed to me to be the proper thing to do,” said Ms Morrow.

By the time September 15, 1963 dawned, desegregation was a hot topic in the nation. Strong feelings on both sides were in the headlines. At University Hospital, it was a quiet and beautiful morning. Most Sundays, said Ms Morrow, were relatively calm in the emergency room.

Just a few blocks away from the hospital, though, one of the country’s pivotal moments in the history of the civil rights struggle was about to unfold.

Placed beneath the steps of the 16th Avenue Baptist Church, just above the bathroom where four young girls — Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Denise McNair — were taking a moment to primp, was a bundle of dynamite. As they prepared for the youth-led service that morning, the bomb went off, blowing a hole in the back of the church, killing the four girls, and injuring 22 other people.

It would be decades before Ku Klux Klan members Bobby Frank Cherry, Thomas Blanton, Herman Frank Cash, and Robert Chambliss would be found guilty of the crime.

“I did not hear the bomb go off,” Ms Morrow said, but shortly after the explosion, Birmingham police rushed into the hospital, ordering the staff to “clear it out. There had been a church bombing, and we had to get ready for it.”

The doctors quickly triaged the current patients, sending those with non-life-threatening issues to an upper floor, and sending those with life-threatening issues to other hospitals.

“Very shortly, ambulances arrived with the bodies. My job was to go into another area to create a makeshift morgue. I brought with me documents the next of kin would need to sign to release the bodies to the funeral homes.

“Those four little girls were brought down on a rolling stretcher, covered up with white sheets, side by side. I could tell from the size, they were children,” Ms Morrow remembered. “I knew I could not look under those sheets, or I couldn’t do my job. As the only nurse there, I couldn’t be emotional. I had to be in control,” she said.

Before another nurse relieved her, one family came to claim a body. “Fifty years later, I can still hear that mother’s scream, as clear as day… ‘My baby! My baby!’ But I had to separate myself mentally from the catastrophe,” said Ms Morrow.


Rising Anger

Her shift that day lasted 16 hours as staff tended to patients injured not only in the blast, but also in the tumult that followed.

“The black families in the neighborhood were becoming angry. Who could blame them? It was becoming very violent in the streets, so there was a lot going on in the ER,” she said. As the violence escalated, the National Guard was called in. “Our concern was taking care of those coming in to the ER. I’d never seen that kind of anger before, but I wasn’t afraid, not ever,” Ms Morrow said.

It was not until she returned to work the next day that Ms Morrow (then Nan Wooten) found out the ages and gender of the children who had died.

Reflecting on the day, Ms Morrow noted that in 1963, the ambulances were just for transporting, and many were sent from funeral homes. The ambulances did not provide treatment, nor did trained personnel accompany the ambulances. Even if the ambulances had been like today’s modern support systems, “Those little girls’ injuries were so severe, I do not believe anyone could have saved them,” she said.

She became head nurse in the ER of University Hospital later in 1963, and worked there until 1966. “The hospital desegregated after 1964, and we moved the beds, placing people according to their needs, not their color. That was the right thing to do, I believe,” she said.

She moved on to Pensacola, Fla., where she met her Navy husband. From there, the Morrows moved to Detroit and then New Orleans with his General Foods job, and finally to Newtown, where they have lived for nearly 40 years.


A Buried Memory

Her memory of September 15, 1963, was buried, she said. “I may have mentioned to my husband that I had been in Birmingham that day, but I hadn’t talked to anyone about it in all those years. My children didn’t even know I was there,” Ms Morrow said. If news reports swirled around at the time, she did not dwell on them. It was not until this summer that she studied the history of the event, she said.

Like the rest of the world, she was surprised to find how long it took to bring the Ku Klux Klan members to justice. Mr Cash died before he could be charged. Mr Chambliss was found guilty in 1977 and died in prison. It was not until the beginning of this century that the other two men were tried and convicted.

Ms Morrow was in Birmingham most recently, this past March, to visit a friend. “Things have changed, definitely. No one even thinks anything about desegregation now. I do have friends who say there is still an element of black society there that wants to keep their culture separate from white culture, in pockets of the city. I think that’s common in many large cities, though,” she mused.

She is pleased to have been a part of supporting the memorial sculpture. Commissioned by Four Spirits, Inc, a foundation set up to facilitate a proper memorial, Ms MacQueen’s bronze and iron sculpture in honor of the children who were killed on September 15, 1963, depicts three children sitting on a bench, one stretching up to touch ascending doves. A fourth child stands nearby.

“Four Spirits” was placed in Kelly Ingram Park on the corner of Sixteenth Street North and Sixth Avenue North, kitty-corner from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, on Sunday, September 15. Just as it had been 50 years earlier, it was a quiet, beautiful day in Birmingham.

“I did not go to the ceremony,” Ms Morrow said, “but Dr Gaskin was there. We need to commemorate those children. It was a part of history, as bad as it was. You can’t deny that segregation was wrong, even though most people I knew didn’t realize it, growing up then. And as a nurse, there was never discrimination in our care.

“It’s been hard dealing with this. It’s the most difficult thing I’ve done, to bring it all up,” Ms Morrow said. “I wonder now, how did I manage to get through those 16 hours?”

In recalling that day 50 years ago, she said, “I didn’t expect this much emotion.”

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