Mo'ne Davis and barnstorming team visit historic Birmingham church

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Mo'ne Davis stands in quiet solitude inside the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., where four black girls were killed in 1963. CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - They'd been learning about this place and the terrible history it holds for months. So when the Anderson Monarchs entered 16th Street Baptist Church at 10:15 a.m. Wednesday, nearly the exact time a deadly bomb exploded there on Sept. 15, 1963, they did so as solemnly as mourners.

Almost immediately in this place they were told was "hallowed ground," their wide eyes were drawn upward to a spot high on a sanctuary wall. There the projected faces of the four black girls killed in that horrific act 52 years ago smiled down upon them like welcoming angels.

"We learned all about this," said Mo'ne Davis, who on Wednesday turned 14, the same age as three of the victims. "But seeing it all is really different."

For Davis and her teammates - she and six other Monarchs played for the Taney Dragons team that reached last summer's Little League World Series - this day in Birmingham, or "Bombingham" as they learned many of its African American residents once called it, was the emotional and historical highlight of a 23-day, 21-city bus trip to civil-rights landmarks throughout the South.

To prepare them, coach Steve Bandura showed films like Roots and Glory and documentaries like Eyes on the Prize. They were most intrigued by this bombing, where the victims were their own age and, as with the shootings last week in Charleston, S.C., the crime scene was a church.

"They all wanted to know about Birmingham," said Bandura, the Philadelphia Recreation Department worker who has arranged several of these summer baseball-and-education tours. "I think they related to those little girls."

A few of the rapt Monarchs wanted to see the steps, beneath which local Klansmen had planted the deadly dynamite that killed Addie Mae Collins, 14; Carol Denise McNair, 11; Carole Robertson, 14; and Cynthia Wesley, 14. Others wondered about the bathroom where, when the bomb exploded, the victims had been readying themselves for Sunday school.

Afterward the barnstorming Philadelphia baseball players gathered around a memorial near where, on that terrible morning, the bodies were found in the ruins, stacked on top of one another, a concrete chunk protruding from one of the skulls.

"They left us a great legacy," Lisa McNair, whose older sister, Denise, was killed that day, told the youngsters. "What are you going to do in your lives?"

The hope that these mostly inner-city, mostly African American Monarchs will carry the lessons of the past into the future was Bandura's motivation for this latest history-and-homers tour.

"You only have to look at events this summer to realize how important that is," Bandura said.

Their visit here - sandwiched around a day in Atlanta and Thursday's trip to Montgomery - included a tour of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, where they heard from Doug Jones, the onetime U.S. attorney who decades later convicted two of the bombers.

"It was a long time later," Jones told them, "but I felt like this city deserved that."

They walked through adjacent Kelly Ingram Park, where notorious police chief Bull Connor once turned fire hoses and dogs on young black protesters.

"Those protesters, the Children's Crusade as it was called then, were just like you," said the church's pastor, the Rev. Arthur Price Jr., who is a South Philadelphia native. "There would be thousands of them packed in here. And when those doors in the rear opened, 50 of them at a time would march out bravely. When they got to that park, fire hoses and German shepherds awaited."

The Monarchs' day concluded with a 6 p.m. baseball game at Rickwood Field, the historic home of the Negro Leagues' Birmingham Black Barons.

"These are great kids and they're absorbing so much," Bandura said. "I've been trying to tell them, 'This is history and it needs to be remembered because there's an awful lot that hasn't changed.' All you have to do is look at what's happened recently in Ferguson or Baltimore or Charleston."

If the Charleston shootings weren't reminder enough, the Monarchs got another example upon exiting the Civil Rights Institute. There they encountered a protest, fronted by Tracy Martin, the father of slain Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, timed for a visit there later Wednesday by U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

Before they left the church, they were paraded past a wall of photos from the gruesome aftermath of the bombing. They heard of the church's famous visitors, everyone from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Jackie Robinson to Marian Anderson, the namesake of the South Philadelphia playground where many of them were introduced to baseball.

"I can't believe I'm standing right where all this happened," player Zion Spearman said. "It's neat but it's kind of scary, too."

The Monarchs also heard from Barnett Wright, another native South Philadelphian, who wrote a book on the landmark tragedy; and from a local judge whose family home on what came to be known as Dynamite Hill was bombed twice in the 1960s.

"Every Sunday after dinner, we used to go for a ride," said Judge Helen Shores Lee, whose father at one time was Alabama's only practicing black attorney. "We'd ride past this amusement park on the west side, Kiddieland Park, and I'd plead with my father. 'Stop, Daddy, stop!' But he never did because he knew black children weren't allowed.

"Things are much different now," she said. "But we've still got to be careful because in a lot of ways the clock is going backward."

Not the clock on display inside the historic church. Bent and broken, it was stopped forever, at 10:22 a.m., by the force of the bomb.

"They should always keep that there," said player Jared Sprague-Lott, "so people will always know what happened here."


ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz