Family Donates Glass Shard from Firebombed Church

Margaret Summers | 9/18/2013, 3 p.m.
A white Birmingham, Ala., family kept a shard of glass from the shattered windows of an African-American church that was ...
The twisted fragment of an approximately 8-inch shard of stained glass from the historic 16th Street Baptist Church window reminded Ann Jimerson's mother of the "twisted minds” of those who attacked the Birmingham, Ala., church 50 years ago. (Courtesy of Ann Jimerson)

Sept. 15 marked the 50th anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church firebombing. The attack on the Birmingham, Ala., African-American church, the site of mass meetings and civil rights rallies, killed four girls inside. The incident was considered an “answer” from racists to the Aug. 28, 1963 March on Washington.

Distraught over the firebombing, the Jimersons, a white Birmingham family, kept a shard of glass from the church’s shattered windows as a symbol of the era’s virulent racism. On Sept. 9, they donated it to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

“Dad [The Rev. Norman C. ‘Jim’ Jimerson] moved us from Petersburg, Va., where he was a chaplain in the federal reformatory, to Birmingham, in 1961,” said Ann Jimerson, 62, of Tenleytown in Northwest Washington, D.C. Jimerson was hired as the executive director of the Alabama Council on Human Relations.

Birmingham was nicknamed “Bombingham” due to frequent firebomb attacks on civil rights activists’ homes, and was called “the Johannesburg [South Africa] of the South” and “the most segregated city in America” by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but Ann Jimerson said, “Dad felt called to go, to become part of the solution.”

“He worked to establish communications between Alabama’s African Americans and its white moderates and liberals,” said Ann’s brother Rand Jimerson, 64, a history professor and director of the Archives and Records Management Masters Program at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash. “He spoke to people about improving race relations, and communicated with local councils around the state, including the Montgomery council where Dr. King was active.”

“We joined Shades Valley Presbyterian church in Homewood, Ala., where we lived,” said Ann Jimerson. “Before that, several churches asked us to leave because of Dad’s position.”

After church on Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963, The Rev. Jimerson was getting the barbecue ready to prepare lunch. “He turned on the radio and heard the announcement about the firebombing,” said Ann Jimerson. “Our mother, a member of our church’s choir, was in church when the minister apparently announced the bombing, but didn’t stop the service.”

“Dad waited until after lunchtime, then he telephoned many of the white Birmingham pastors he knew, urging them to go to the black community with him to show support. No one would go,” Ann Jimerson recounted. Leaving their oldest son to babysit his four younger siblings, the Jimersons met with and comforted shocked and saddened African Americans in Birmingham.

“At some point, Dad drove by himself to the 16th Street Baptist Church,” Ann Jimerson said. “He just needed to be in the presence of what happened. He bent down and picked up shards of glass that had been blasted out of a window.”

The family donated some of the shards to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, but kept one treasured piece. “My mother said the twisted glass and lead was like the twisted minds of the people who firebombed the church,” Ann Jimerson said.

In February 2012, Rand Jimerson watched President Obama on television at the groundbreaking ceremony for the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. “President Obama said he hoped the museum would exhibit some shards of glass from the 16th Street Baptist Church windows, which he wanted his daughters to see,” said Ann Jimerson. “My brother got us siblings together on a conference phone call. I was to find out if the museum already had some glass. I contacted Bill Pretzer, a curator. I showed him a photo of the glass we had, and he said he wanted it for the museum.”

Ann Jimerson said it took her family a year to decide to donate. “I know how powerful it is to be in the presence of the glass. But a friend told me, ‘That glass doesn’t belong to the Jimerson family, it belongs to the world.’ We feel really honored to have held the glass for that long and very pleased to share it with visitors who will now have access to it.”

The Rev. Jimerson died in 1995. His widow Melva is ill and lives in Washington, D.C.

For more information on what childhood was like in 1963 Birmingham, Ala., visit Ann Jimerson’s website, kidsinbirmingham1963.org. Rand Jimerson’s book, “Shattered Glass in Birmingham: One Family’s Fight for Civil Rights, 1961-1964” will be published by LSU Press in early 2014.