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I honestly have to catch my breath when I think about all the historical events I lived through as a 90s kid. Y2K, 9/11, Barack Obama. If you’re a 90s kid, you can check out which Black historical event happened during your birth year. Learned that the first Black woman soared into space just a couple of months after I was born in ’92.
Speaking of history, last Monday was the 59th anniversary of the Children’s Crusade, when thousands of school children skipped class to protest segregation in downtown Birmingham, Ala. Many of the kids who helped break the city’s color barrier are still alive today and very much remember the mark they made in history on May 2, 1963.
Back in March, I told y’all about my chats with Kids in Birmingham 1963, an organization of Birmingham citizens who were children during vital moments of the city’s civil rights history. Talking to members about what Black joy looked like back in the day reminded me of how it felt to talk to my own aunts and uncles during family cookouts. Many of the members can tell you about the horrors of living in a city where white supremacists dropped dynamite in their homes and churches. But I collected stories about how jazz made people dance in the streets of Birmingham’s Ensley neighborhood. A pair of sisters talked about the humor and musicianship of their father, whose legacy is immortalized in the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame.
We are continuing that project this week as a salute to the foot soldiers of the Children’s Crusade. Share this newsletter so you don’t leave your friends and fam behind as we blast to the past with Black joy.
Skating on dynamite hill
Unless you’re Patrick Star and living under a rock, you’ve probably heard the news about a leaked draft opinion detailing the U.S. Supreme Court’s vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. While the decision is not final and abortions are still legal, reproductive rights advocates stressed the importance of supporting and donating to local organizations that are doing the groundwork.
The overturning of Roe v. Wade, along with the backpedaling of voting rights, is a concern for Janice Kelsey. The retired educator was 16 when she took to the streets during the Children’s Crusade. Even though she was jailed for four days, Janice and her classmates were giddy about going to jail to fight for human rights. She doesn’t want the nation to revert to the way things used to be.
Janice said the movement gave her the tools to fight for her rights. She’s encouraging others to continue that fight, especially during times like these.
“You don’t have to be a leader in a movement in order to make a difference,” Kelsey said. “I was not in charge of anything. I was just one of many. As long as it’s something that you believe in and you’re doing your part, then change can happen and it doesn’t have to come at your direction.”
You can read more about Janice’s role in the children’s march and her advice to the current generation of freedom fighters. For now though, we’ll give space for Janice to reminisce about her favorite moments of joy while growing up in Birmingham’s Titusville neighborhood, which she described as “a great place to feel safe.”
During our interview about the Children’s Crusade, Janice reminisced her moments of Black joy:
- Cruising down Dynamite Hill: One of Janice’s spots of joy seems like an unlikely place: Center Street, which was Birmingham’s color line back in the day. White people would live on the west side of the street. But as Black families started buying homes on the west side of the street, the Ku Klux Klan – with the support of law enforcement and government officials – retaliated by bombing Black families’ homes. This is the reason Center Street was nicknamed Dynamite Hill.
But it was also the spot of a Christmas tradition. When children got skates for the holidays, they would turn what became known as a bombing ground for white supremacist into a skating rink of joy. Center Street was paved and on a hill – the perfect conditions for skating. The kids would dress up in their pretty sweaters and hit the pavement. Janice said it was a fun activity to do during their winter break from school.
“You got yourself a piece of fruit, run out the house with your skates and head up that way,” Janice said. “We used to form what we called ‘trains.’ You would hold on to the back of somebody’s belt, and skate down the hill really, really fast. Some people fell and we would laugh. It didn’t take a lot for us to have fun.”
- Prom of 1965: In 1963, Janice said all the proms at the Black high schools were canceled in response to the Children’s march. But she was able to make up the big day during her senior year of high school in 1964. And her uncle, who lived in St. Paul, Minn., made sure she dressed to impress. He sent her a beautiful, evening gown. The cream and gold embroidered bodice fit Janice like a glove. Her prom date borrowed his mom’s brand new car so they could roll out in style.
Prom back in the day wasn’t as outlandish as it is now. No limos. No fancy dinners. The dance wasn’t held at a stylish hotel or venue. Janice and her classmates actually decorated the gym for their own prom. Janice said they really didn’t care for all the extra stuff she sees during prom season now.
“It was a time to laugh and dress up and to be with people who I loved and who loved me,” she said. “We had so much pride in the little stuff that we had.”
How Black liberation outlived hate
Cecil Guyton wasn’t allowed to participate in the Children’s Crusade, but he didn’t have to trek to downtown Birmingham to experience the power of Black activism.
Although he was only eight at the time of the march, Cecil was aware that he was growing up as a child of the movement. Also from the Titusville neighborhood, he had family members who stood arm-in-arm with civil rights legends. His mother, Rosebud, and grandmother were close to Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a minister and architect of many of the Birmingham protests. While attending Morehouse College in Atlanta, his uncle, Bernard Williams, became good friends with a classmate who would later be known as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Cecil saw King several times while visiting his uncle’s home.
Cecil’s family regularly attended movement meetings held at different churches, including 16th Street Baptist and Cecil’s home church, Sixth Avenue Baptist Church. Rosebud, an educator in the area, always had an activist spirit and grew to be very politically involved in Birmingham.
“She became a part of the movement because none of us wanted to live under the thumb of Jim Crow,” Cecil said. “My mother and my aunt were educated Black women and most of their friends were also educated. So they didn’t have the fear that some other black people in the community may have had.”
One way Cecil’s community resisted discrimination was through joy. Sure, segregation restricted a lot of their lives, but that just encouraged the adults in his community to create safe spaces to commune with each other. Black social clubs were popular during the 1950s and 60s. Cecil’s family was part of Club Egelloc, which was the word college spelled backward. Club Egelloc’s parties were reserved for grown folks, but there were plenty of activities for the kids, such as picnics, barbecues and birthday parties. Through their club membership, Cecil’s family became close to the family of Denise McNair, one of the girls killed during the church bombing along with Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson.
These fun times added some distance between the children and the trauma that occurred around them. They rode bicycles and played baseball in the streets. They passed the time by making mud pies.
“I actually think parents pulled off one of the greatest tricks ever by allowing us to grow up and not realize that we were growing up in such a dangerous environment,” Cecil said. “They made our lives as normal as they could be under those circumstances, and I think it was incredible that they did it in unison.”
Black children were able to live their best lives thanks to the constant watch of the Black parents of their communities. Black men congregated on streets corners at night to keep a vigilant eye out for any KKK members planting bombs in the neighborhood. The danger of challenging white supremacy didn’t scare the adults in their neighborhood. The danger of losing their freedom – their human rights – emboldened them to take a stand in nonviolent ways.
“I believe that Neighborhood Watch actually started with Birmingham,” Cecil said. “It was a concerted effort and one of the most beautiful things that you could ever see because we did it in defense rather than offense. And it wasn’t just one or a few households. Just about every Black household was involved in this.”
Civil rights leaders were treated like family in Cecil’s neighborhood. Due to his uncle’s closeness with King, Cecil had closer access to a man who led a national movement. He remembers playing with King’s children at church and describes King as a compassionate man who gave the best hugs.
“He was always very welcoming to the children. I can remember standing up under him with his arm around me while he was talking to adults. I just adored him,” Cecile said. “After Martin delivered his sermon ‘Letter From Birmingham Jail,’ I remember running down to the front of the church to hug him. It wasn’t like I was some strange kid. He knew exactly who I was. He called me by name. That’s how close our families were.”
As for Shuttlesworth, he was always welcome to Sunday dinner with Cecil’s family. Even when Shuttlesworth left Birmingham and founded Greater New Light Baptist Church in Ohio, Cecil’s family would visit Shuttlesworth’s church while traveling to Ohio to visit Cecil’s great uncle. Shuttlesworth returned to Birmingham after retiring from the ministry in 2006.
Cecil was able to thank Shuttlesworth for all he did for the movement before his death in 2011. He said Shuttlesworth was proud about standing up to those who bombed both his home and his church.
“He said. ‘I outlived them all. George Wallace. Bull Connor. They’re rolling over in their graves. We beat ‘em,’” Cecil said. “And they did beat them. They beat them with love and with peace.”
I hope your week is filled with love, peace and Black joy. See ya’ this Friday!