Ethelda Joyce Finch was only thirteen-years-old that tragic Sunday morning the floor shook without warning beneath her feet. It was September 15, 1963. “I thought Russia had bombed the United States,” she recalled years later. “It never crossed my mind that somebody bombed a church because they didn’t want black kids going to school with white kids for whatever reason they had.”
Four little girls in Joyce’s Sunday School died that day: Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley.
Joyce left class early. The event left emotional scars.
Fifty years passed before my cousin opened up to me about what she witnessed that horrific Youth Day Sunday where all the young girls dressed in white at Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church. I never probed her before then. Never dug deep. Only after I saw a production of the play Fraternity—a fictional account of the tragedy—I begged to know more.
“As Financial Secretary of the Sunday School classes, I was counting and recording the money in a separate room,” Joyce shared about the moments before the bombing.
“We were sitting in the middle of the basement when the building shook. I jumped up. Everything went black for a few minutes. I didn’t know what happened. I heard somebody say, ‘Go out through the men’s bathroom.’ So, I ran. Mom, who had been upstairs in the choir loft for her class found me. There were policemen everywhere. They came from behind the trees in the park, instantaneously – at least it seemed that way to me as a thirteen-year-old kid. We had parked a good distance from the church and were trying to get to the car when a fat, red-faced policeman tried to stop mom.”
Joyce went on to explain the difficulty in leaving the grounds and her emotional race to get home, unaware that her classmates had been killed; others blinded; many injured.
My cousin shared part of her story on Oprah and other news outlets during the anniversary of the event. The rest of her untold story—the personal moments, the grieving, the aftermath—will be featured in my forthcoming, book “AND THEN WHAT HAPPENED?”
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