In honor of the four girls killed in the Sept. 15, 1963 bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, I look back at how a Birmingham memorial in their honor became a reality in 2013. Located at the edge of Kelly Ingram Park in downtown Birmingham are statues in honor of Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins and Cynthia Wesley, all Birmingham City Schools students at the time of their deaths.
This story looks at how Mountain Brook native Elizabeth MacQueen, the Four Spirits Inc. and the City of Birmingham worked to see the memorial completed. All photos by Chanda Temple
By Chanda Temple
In 2012, a Birmingham organization known as Four Spirits Inc. launched a national competition in search of entries for a memorial to honor the four girls killed in the 1963 bombing of Sixteenth Baptist Church.
There were five entries from men. Elizabeth MacQueen was the only female.
When MacQueen’s design was selected in April 2013, she halted a project she was working on in Thailand so she could dedicate all of her time to the Four Spirits memorial.
The committee wanted to have the memorial installed in time for the Sept. 15, 2013 50th church anniversary bombing. Many, including expert sculptors, questioned whether such a project could be completed in a matter of months.
MacQueen knew better. She kept telling herself, “I can do this.’’
In order to finish by the deadline, she needed a place that had the resources she needed for a job that came with many laborious techniques. MacQueen wanted to make bronze sculptures reinforced with stainless steel. She selected Artworks Foundry in Berkeley, Calif. They are among the nation’s leading foundries for the production of bronze sculptures.
What would have taken 9 to 15 months to complete, took MacQueen four months and five days. She had the help of 20 people.
Though she had help, the task wast easy. The had challenges, a lot of them.
She lived in a small room at the foundry, surrounded by the constant noises of cranes and forklifts at work. She worked 12-hour days, only sleeping three hours a night. She ate once a day.
“I went through fever and doubts…’’ she said, wondering if she could do the project or even finish in time. “People called daily, even from India, saying, ‘You can do it.’ ‘’
Such words motivated her. What also kept her going was the music of Nina Simone and Geoffery Oryema, who escaped a hit squad in Uganda and fled to Johannesburg. Their deep, deep poetic messages were inspirational.
The music pushed her to do more. But as much as she moved forward, she still encountered barriers to climb.The Four Spirits Committee needed to raise $250,000 for the memorial. By summer 2013, donations were low. Mayor William A. Bell, Sr. heard about the committee’s plight and offered assistance, donating $25,000. The move later prompted others to give. Eventually, the committee met their goal.“There were a lot of roadblocks and barriers, but as always, God found a way to make this work,’’ Bell said.Funding problem solved. But there were others: how do you create detailed sculptures with just a few detailed photos of faces?MacQueen only had a black and white photo of each girl to create their faces. There were no profile or full body photos. Just a head-on shot. Challenging, yes. But MacQueen made it work. She used six Birmingham girls to model for her so that she could get young girls’ proportions just right.The whole process was cathartic for this Mountain Brook, Ala. native, who was 14 in 1963 and living just miles over the mountain from where the bombing happened. On that day, MacQueen never heard a word of the blast. When she got to school the next week, there were whispers. She knew something was wrong.“We grew up in a bubble,’’ she says.Elizabeth MacQueen, holding red folder, with crew ready to install statues in Kelly Ingram Park in 2013.Today, she thinks about the four little girls, lovingly calling them “my babies.’’The memorial, which is 10-feet tall and 5-feet long, stands at Sixteenth Street North and Sixth Avenue North in Kelly Ingram Park. The location is behind a statue of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and is diagonally across from the church.It features a bench, where Cynthia Morris Wesley, 14, is sitting and reading, “The Stolen Child,’’ by William Butler Yeats. Standing on the bench is Denise McNair, 11, whose sash on her dress is being tied by Addie Mae Collins, 14. Motioning for the girls to follow her to church is Carole Robertson, 14. Beside the bench are Addie Mae’s shoes.The girls’ photos appear on the side of the bench along with the photos of Virgil Ware and Johnny Robinson, two African-American boys killed in separate incidents hours after the bombing.Denise is reaching up toward six doves, which represent the six children killed that day.A photo of Addie Mae’s sister, Sarah Collins Rudolph, is also on the bench. She was with the girlswhen the bomb exploded. The last thing she saw was Addie Mae reaching to tie Denise’s sash.MacQueen left enough space on the bench for visitors to interact with the sculpture. “You can sit on the bench and have a chat with the girls or pray or dream or whatever you want,’’ said MacQueen. “Take some flowers to my babies.’’She was so connected to the piece that she was in the park the day it was installed on Sept. 12, 2013. Out in the blistering sun, she stood wearing a wide-brimmed hat, shades and a big smile.When asked what was behind her smile that day, MacQueen paused and thought for a minute. That day was the first time she was going to see the four girls together in the memorial.During all those months of creating and designing, she had worked on the girls individually. She created an arm here and a face there. The girls were never side by side.That was different on Sept. 12, 2013. Now, they are coming together the way MacQueen had envisioned.Her smile was one of relief, that the four girls are finally home.The statue was revealed to a packed Kelly Ingram Park on Sept. 14, 2013 during a special ceremony to honor the four girls and their families.