Honoring a sacred place, caring for gravesites of 4 little girls killed in 16th Street Baptist Church bombing

Published: Sep. 15, 2023 at 11:41 AM CDT
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) – Their murders shook the conscience of our nation and changed the course of history.

Friday marks 60 years since Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley were killed in that bombing at 16th Street Baptist Church.

Many go to the church to honor their lives and remember their legacy, but there is another place for reflection, and for years, a group has been working to restore the sacred grounds.

Cynthia Wesley's gravesite
Cynthia Wesley's gravesite(WBRC)

Restoring their final resting places

In a corner of Greenwood Cemetery, not far from Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport, Christan Gaiser quietly arranges fresh mulch with thoughtful care.

“It’s just an honor,” said Gaiser.

Gaiser is a Birmingham native and grew up knowing the names Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson, and the tragedy of that September morning 60 years ago.

“It was a horrible thing … what happened. You think about it, and it’s so far along in the past, but it’s one of the key moments in history in Alabama that started to make changes.”

And so, when the opportunity came up through work at Home Depot to help care for their graves, he quickly volunteered.

“It’s the right thing to do.”

“This historical narrative that is a part of Birmingham’s shared history. We all have a role in making sure that we remember and reflect and reconcile with it, and so for that reason, and for the generations that are coming in the future, we want to make sure that we maintain as much as possible, this cemetery here,” explained Majella Chube Hamilton, Executive Director of The Ballard House Project, Inc.

Hamilton helped lead the way for the restoration project of Cynthia, Addie Mae, and Carole’s graves at Greenwood Cemetery, and Denise’s final resting place at Elmwood Cemetery.

“It’s a collaborative project. The grant, the proposal was written by The Ballard House Project, Incorporated to Jack and Jill of America Foundation, and we are so grateful that they provided generously the funds, so that we can put the planning and implementation in place and make this plot a beautiful spot, and peaceful spot.”

The Robertson plot now has a freshly painted border, new pavers, and a variety of perennials, including limelight hydrangeas. A path leads to a wrought-iron bench engraved with an ‘R’, a perfect spot to sit and reflect while looking at the stone obelisk erected by Jack and Jill of America, which Carole was a member and her mother a leader.

Carole Robertson's gravesite
Carole Robertson's gravesite(WBRC)

A new flower bed has been added to Cynthia Wesley’s family plot, and just feet away where Addie Mae Collins is laid to rest, an arrangement of Calla lilies freshly planted. Denise McNair is buried at Elmwood Cemetery and through this project, flowers were also added to her grave.

“I would be remiss if I did not mention all of the many community members in Birmingham, because there have been several community members who have helped with advice, as well as to volunteer on this project. There have been local companies that have been involved in planting and repainting and replenishing, shoring up the perimeters, doing whatever we could to make this a success and we also have had the additional assistance of Home Depot, our Birmingham Home Depot store came in at our request for this assistance, when we told them about this project, they also came in in order to enhance what we had been doing over the last couple of years.”

Hamilton added, “We’ve been working very hard, but it’s been a labor of love, and it’s such an important project. It’s one of many ways in which we can remember this story and really put those memories and that information into action. There are so many different ways in which each of us in our communities can act, and this is just one.”

The gravesite of Denise McNair
The gravesite of Denise McNair(WBRC)

A family member’s reflection

Walking up to her family plot, Dianne Robertson Braddock says she’s struck by the beauty and a gift from her mother.

“My mother planted that (oak) tree 60 years ago, the tree that’s over there, she wanted the shade over the family plot,” said Braddock. “She wanted to have that serenity and the peacefulness, so it’s a time for reflection, we stop and we think about what happened, of course, we are always reminded of the tragedy that happened on Sept. 15. I always come here as soon as I get off the plane, I say a little prayer, and talk to my mother, my father, my sister, and it’s just always been very reflective and peaceful.”

Braddock has not seen the graves since before the pandemic, and calls the transformation of the site “beautiful.”

“I am very, very pleased and very grateful.”

She added, “I would like to think that other people, when they come in to visit, would have that feeling, that it was a tragedy, it was horrible, but they are at peace, they are resting well.”

Recognizing a historic place

Greenwood Cemetery was seriously neglected for years after the former owners went into bankruptcy. Ken Mullinax was working in Birmingham at the time and read about the cemetery and the gravesites of three of the four little girls.

“I had read that of the four little girls, Addie Mae ... only had a wooden marker for her grave, just a little warn wooden marker that had Addie written vertically on it, and I came up here and I saw it,” said Mullinax, who is now the Communications Director at Alabama State University.

Mullinax said at the time, the cemetery was a “mess” and said “it wasn’t right.”

He decided to start the process to place a historic marker at the cemetery in honor of Addie Mae, Cynthia, and Carole, and purchase a tombstone for Addie Mae.

He had a dove of peace engraved in the stone, and “Civil Rights Martyr” above her name with the words “She died so freedom might live” below her date of death, Sept. 15, 1963.

Addie Mae Collins' website
Addie Mae Collins' website(WBRC)

“I just did what needed to be done,” said Mullinax, calling his efforts “nothing extraordinary.”

“This is more than just a grave, this is a historical site. These three little girls here are no different … than the soldiers who died on Omaha Beach. These people died for Freedom and they were martyrs.”

A place to remember

Hamilton said the intention of the restoration project was to create a more peaceful and beautiful place for those who come to honor the lives of the four little girls.

“I hope that they will take this opportunity to remember.”

She added, “This is our shared history, this is the history of our community, and we must come together in order to create unity, in order to make sure we thrive, and in order to actually make life better for our children and grandchildren.”

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