Early one freezing morning in December 1960, two weeks before Christmas, a bomb flew through the sky toward the red-brick walls of the English Avenue School. The explosive bounced off the building back toward Pelham Street. A bright flash followed. A deafening boom came next. Chunks of pavement hurtled airborne, landing on the roofs of nearby homes. English Avenue residents, roused from their sleep, peered outside their windows. Few stepped outside into the darkness before dawn.1
Greg Walker woke up the next morning unaware of what had happened. He got ready for school like any other Monday, eager to sit at his desk near the front of his first-grade classroom. When he headed for the door, his mother said he wasn’t going to school. He asked why, but she wouldn’t say. He pressed again. No answer. His father eventually broke the news: Someone had bombed his school. They wouldn’t let him go see it at first. But Walker pestered his mother for hours until she finally relented.2
After he and his older sister walked a few blocks from their home on Ashby Street, Walker could see the damage done. Doors had flown off their hinges. Windows had shattered. Blinds had tattered. The holiday cards colored by his classmates no longer hung on the wall. “I was very angry about it,” Greg later recalled. “I cried.”3
Walker considered his classroom a sanctuary, in large part because of his teacher, Ms. Anna Ruth Jones. She was not only Walker’s teacher, but an advocate who called for equality in learning opportunities, textbooks, and funding for schools attended by Black students. She even helped organize the B.S. Burch Honor Society, named after a principal of the English Avenue School. When students like Walker made the honor roll, they wore suits to school on Fridays, and donned red beanie caps with the letters B.S.B. on it.4
“People would be sitting on their porch, watching kids go to school, would call kids with the beanies—Come here, baby! come here!— and give them a dime or a quarter,” he recalled. “There was a sense of pride.”5
Standing behind crime scene tape, Walker felt pain more than pride that fateful Monday afternoon. Detectives stepped around a wide crater in the ground, looking for clues that could lead to the people responsible for a bombing that would soon make national headlines. But in ways spoken and unspoken, the response that followed reflected the broader division America faced during the middle of the Civil Rights Movement.
The English Avenue School bombing marked the convergence of two dark legacies. The bombing drew attention to the massive resistance faced by southern school systems leading up to desegregation in the years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board ruling in 1954. And it exemplified a now-little remembered era of racial terror that came in the form of small-scale attacks that sought to strike fear in Black communities.