WESTFIELD, NJ – Sarah Collins Rudolph remembers clearly the morning of Sept. 15, 1963. As a 12 year-old girl growing up in segregated Birmingham, Ala., Rudolph walked with her family 17 blocks to the 16th Street Baptist Church that Sunday. She and her sisters were playing together as they made the journey.
“We was having such a good time, walking to church,” Rudolph recalled at Roosevelt Intermediate School’s eighth annual Black History Month assembly Friday morning. She said that the sisters “never knew what we were walking into.”
Once they arrived at church, Rudolph’s sister Addie Mae went to her Sunday school classroom, but Rudolph, not wanting to attend class that day, dawdled with friends in the girls’ bathroom.
She was about to tie the sash on a friend’s dress when a bomb, the work of white supremacists, ripped through the church, sending glass and mortar flying and killing Addie Mae and three other young girls. Rudolph was severely injured in the blast and eventually lost her right eye.
Rudolph told the Westfield students and faculty about that day and the dark times that followed.
The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church came just days after a federal court order mandating the integration of Alabama’s school system was handed down.
At a time when counseling was often unavailable for children who survive traumas, Rudolph developed what she described as a “nervous condition.” She questioned why her innocent sister was killed. She struggled with the physical aftermath of the bombing.
“My face was so disfigured. I didn’t want to be around people,” she said.
Rudolph said she eventually found solace and healing in religion.
“When you try everything, and everything failed, try Jesus,” she told the audience in closing.
Organizers of the assembly were grateful to host Rudolph, who traveled from her home in Birmingham with her husband, George C. Rudolph. She currently runs a cleaning service in her hometown and travels the country giving speeches.
Principal Stewart Carey called Rudolph’s story “tragic but inspiring.”
“We are fortunate that we were able to get her and have her grace us with her presence,” said Carey.
As in years past, the Newark Boys Chorus came to perform at the assembly. Under the direction of Donald Morris, the chorus performed several works arranged by African-American composer Rollo Dilworth, plus a South African folk song called “Tsho-thso-loza.” They were joined by Roosevelt’s choral group, the Sharps and Flats, for two songs.
“We are so blessed that the Newark Boys Chorus sings at our Black History assembly every year,” said Pam Friedman, a computer teacher at Roosevelt who helped organize the event.
In her opening remarks, Friedman highlighted the contributions of African-American inventors, such as Sarah Boone who created the ironing board, John Burr who developed the modern rotary lawn mower and Garrett Morgan who created an improved automated traffic signal.
At the end of the assembly, Carey shared some of his personal experiences of racism with Roosevelt students when he was their age.
“I wondered why I had to go to an all-black school in Charlottesville, Virginia,” he said. “I wondered why, as a child, I had to sit upstairs at the theater, and not downstairs.”
Carey urged students to be empathetic, to see the potential in all people and to work to end racism.
“Don’t take what you heard here this morning and say, ‘That’s the end of the road,’” he said.
Black History Month is celebrated each February.