Saturday, November 5, 2011

Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Choir, c. 1917

This week's Sepia Saturday theme stumped me. Did I have any pictures in my archive of a group of musicians? None I could think of in my family album or anywhere else. I know I didn't have to stick with the theme, but I'm so new to the group that I wanted to stay close. And I suddenly recalled this photo, a copy of which I bought when I traveled to Birmingham, Alabama on an writing assignment at least 10 years ago. I visited the historic Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and this photo was for sale in a nearby gift shop. Could this group of church going women be musicians? I did a quick Google search, and found this is indeed the choir.

It has been awhile since my visit, so the Encyclopedia of Alabama was helpful in refreshing my memory:
Sixteenth Street church was originally established in 1873 as the first Colored Baptist Church. The first worship services were held in a modest building at Twelfth Street and Fourth Avenue. In 1880, the church moved to its present location at Sixteenth and Sixth Avenue. From 1884 until 1908, the church operated from a brick building; however, the city condemned the building and ordered it torn down. In 1911, the church's present building was constructed at a cost of $26,000; the new structure housed the sanctuary, a basement auditorium, and several rooms for church activities such as Sunday school classes.

The church was a mainstay in Birmingham's African American community. During the early twentieth century, Sixteenth Street Baptist Church hosted many notable African American intellectuals, including W. E. B. Du Bois, sociologist, scholar, and Harvard University's first African American graduate; Mary McLeod Bethune, scholar and founder of the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls (now Bethune-Cookman College); Paul Robeson, athlete, actor, singer, cultural scholar, author, and political activist; and later Ralph Bunche, Howard University professor, political scientist, Under-Secretary General of United Nations, and Nobel Peace Prize Winner. 
One part of the church's history I never forgot, and few Americans can ever forget: It is where a horrific bombing occurred that killed four girls, one of the searing moments of the Civil Rights struggle in the U.S.:
Throughout the 1960s, the church was the staging ground for African American activism and the civil rights movement in Birmingham. The church hosted mass rallies and became the headquarters for several desegregation and voting rights protests. Many marchers would assemble at the church and then hold protests at Kelly Ingram Park across the street. Serving as the de facto headquarters for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the church became the focal point for racial tension and white hostility toward the civil rights movement in the city. This tension climaxed at 10:22 a.m. on Sunday, September 15, 1963, when the church was bombed. The devastating blast killed Denise McNair (age 11), Addie Mae Collins (14), Carole Robertson (14), and Cynthia Wesley (14), who had just attended Sunday school and were in the basement dressing room, discussing their first days at school and preparing for the 11:00 a.m. service. In addition, 23 other individuals were also injured. The bombing outraged the nation and inspired people to condemn segregation in the South. The bombing tragedy, along with other shameful events, such as the beatings of demonstrators in the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965, contributed to progressive landmark legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights of 1965.
 You can read more, and see more pictures at the Encyclopedia of Alabama. Be sure to visit the web site of the church, as well, by clicking here.

I've no doubt this 1917 choir sang "Lift Every Voice and Sing," written in 1900 by James Weldon Johnson, and considered the "Black National Anthem."

Thank you Sepia Saturday for a chance to rediscover and discuss this photo. I look forward to checking out what everyone else has posted over the next several days.


  1. Look at the determination on their faces! This group was ready for the challenge ahead.

    I have browsed through your pages. Such memories here. I had the Shirley Temple set for certain and others look so familiar to me. Fun.

  2. It’s wonderful that one photo can prompt so much history. That group certainly looked as though they meant business.

  3. Thank you for including the information from the Encyclopedia of Alabama. It provided me with background that I would never have found. I take it that the choir members are all black - I wasn't sure from the photo itself.

  4. Thanks for the interesting historical information. I hadn't heard of "Lift Every Voice and Sing" before--there are a lot of versions on YouTube.

  5. It's a special photograph and a story that should be remembered. thanks for sharing it.

  6. Great picture. They seem to embody "Fight the Good Fight"