Seeing the Sights

During the late Fifties and early Sixties, there were many Saturday and Sunday afternoons when Robert would chauffeur family drives in the country. I enjoyed these excursions into Tennessee, to remote parts of Alabama, and once to the docks in Mobile to watch banana boats unload cargo at midnight. Between April and September 1959, my son and I went along with Tee and Robert, Mama Katie, and Roger on several trips. While Roger was alive, he organized our outings, providing gasoline on the condition that someone else drive. After Roger died, the outings continued, with trips to Mineral Springs, Cullman, Nauvoo, Warrior, and other cities and towns. But two of those jaunts particularly stand out in my memory.

First was a ride to a plot of former farmland north of Birmingham toward Gardendale; this was probably the same property that Robert would later show to FBI agents in 1963 when he explained that he had purchased dynamite to remove stumps in preparation for construction. At the time he took us there, he and his buddies had just acquired the land, which had a small shed-type building on it. He told us about their plans to build on it, although as it turned out, it would remain not much more than a depository for dynamite, caps, equipment, etc.

Robert’s purpose in taking us there was to show off the land and brag about their having a secret place to gather and store equipment away from anybody’s home, to have a place that was “their own.” He seemed quite explicit that the land would be the property of the Cahaba Boys rather than the Klan at large, and that only those who did things their way would be allowed access.

Robert seemed to envision a meeting hall, something of a paramilitary installation. Since at least part of the Cahaba Boys’ explosives were allegedly secured by way of theft from military installations, it made sense of a sort. He spoke of building an underground space that would be concealed and impossible to access by outsiders.

“We can put stuff away, and they’ll never know it’s here,” he said. I would recall those words a few years later when Robert warned that he had “enough stuff put away to flatten half of Birmingham,” and that the police and FBI wouldn’t find it unless he should decide to “point it out to them.”

The second Sunday drive I particularly remember was to another rural area. We drove circuitously for several hours, so I’m not sure of the exact location. Robert slowed the car and pulled off the two-lane paved road onto a dirt track. In about 75 to 100 yards we came to the remains of a rather large antebellum house. We all got out of the car and walked around.

It was a two story structure atop an above-ground basement with a stone and concrete foundation. The house was in extremely poor condition and could not be easily entered because both the exterior steps up to the front veranda and the interior stairway were badly deteriorated. The roof was partially open, but we could look up through the doors and windows of what remained and imagine days of gentility and prosperity.

On the left side of the house, the foundation walls had openings that appeared to have once been windows and a doorway. Inside this basement was an inner wall that was recessed several feet as if it enclosed an inner room. Along the visible wall inside were rings set into the concrete. They appeared to be for shackles, and, in fact, two or three had links of chain attached to them. Near these, lower on the wall, were several dark stains that appeared to be blood. There were possibly a dozen such stained places, and within several there were a number of holes in the concrete, a few of which had what appeared to be bullet slugs embedded in them.

Robert explained that this had been a plantation and that the wall was a place of punishment for “niggers.” He elaborated that “niggers” had been shackled to the wall and “disciplined.” He told us that the beatings and executions had left the bloodstains on the wall.

He took us farther back on the property, off the left rear of the house, to a long, narrow, single-story building that looked like a stable or a bunkhouse. Robert told us it had been slave quarters before the war. We didn’t go in to explore; it was dark, overgrown, and altogether inhospitable, portions of it having collapsed long before.

A short distance from this building was a rather tall, old-looking though squat tree, and a large area around it was not as overgrown as the rest of the property. The ground was soft here, and Robert pointed out some sunken places that he said were graves. He more or less outlined the perimeters of several, pointing with his finger.

Quite frankly, I chose to behave as though he were speaking of relics of slavery days some hundred years prior, even though I sensed that he was “sharing,” as he often did, and there was an air of braggadocio about him as he led the tour. He did, in an aside to my son that was repeated to me, say that putting lime or lye on a corpse would make it impossible to identify, even by dental work, within six weeks, and that the stains on the wall were not 100 years old. (This took place either in late 1961 or early 1962. My son, Robin, and I had not discussed this place until I started writing this book, but when he asked if I remembered this incident and I told him that I did, we compared notes. At five years of age, he was so affected by the scene that his recall of the details was perhaps sharper than my own.)

Robert would, at times, deliberately discuss his activities with a show of pride, as though he expected praise. It seemed that, in his mind, this also served to involve us to the extent we could hardly betray him. Yet his accounts were also sketchy, carefully omitting names and specifics that might give enough detail to make betrayal easy.

I was led to believe that this land was owned by someone in their group or a group member’s family, so that Klan activities that might take place would not be disturbed. He did say that he and his buddies came out there when they had “business to take care of” where “nobody’ll bother us.”

After we were back in the car and driving on the two-lane highway leaving the area, Robert pointed out several small houses of obvious great age and poor condition. He explained that they were tenant farmers’ houses, and he sounded angry and agitated that “niggers own these plots of land that their damned granddaddy had worked as a slave.” He pointed out the poor condition of the houses and remarked that their occupants were “shiftless and lazy and had been better off as slaves.”

Robert only took us to that place once, and I haven’t been able to locate the property to find out whether any of the structures still stand more than 30 years after that day. There is even a possibility that there has been construction on the property in the interim. The graves would hold only sparse remains by now, if any, and the secrets of that plantation may be buried forever.

Another incident I clearly remember was during the summer of 1963 when my Aunt Tee asked me to take her to look at an empty house in Fountain Heights. Tee had always had a fascination with empty houses, loving to look through them and collect dolls and other odd things people left behind. So this, seemingly, was just an innocent adventure as far as I could see. Unlike today, back then going into vacant houses wasn’t considered trespassing, and realtors would purposely leave them unlocked for potential tenant or buyer access and inspection.

This particular house was a two-story frame with the lot sloping down from front to back and on the sides of the house. It was on the north side of the street, two or three lots from, a corner. Although it was obviously vacant. there was not a sign posted indicating it was either for sale or rent.

We went through it from room to room on the first floor and then went upstairs where we found one of the doors wouldn’t open. We struggled with the door a bit until we could see there was a mattress pushed against the door from the inside of the room. When we had gotten the door open a few inches. we could see that there were other things in the room. It appeared that someone was using the nearly bare room, for there were signs of recent food and drink consumption and a telephone visible on the floor. There was a noise that frightened us, so we retreated at a near run down the stairs and into the basement.

The mattress against the door seemed to indicate that someone was actually in the room at the time, and I thought we should just leave, but Tee insisted on looking around the basement first. There was a workbench against one wall, loaded with paraphernalia: single-strand electric wire by the roll, boxes with what Tee told me was dynamite, gallon and half-gallon glass jugs of what appeared to be gasoline and kerosene, and an assortment of other things like small parts and hand tools.

I was still very frightened but curious nonetheless. Tee reached into a small cardboard box about four inches square and held up several small metal objects. Eyes wide, she told me that they were blasting caps. Finally Tee took me by the arm and pulled me toward the door. We left through the side door in the basement, which opened into the yard, and hurried away to my car, parked in front of the vacant lot next door.

Tee seemed to be as frightened and agitated as I was, but she insisted we keep secret that we had been in the house or even in the neighborhood. “If anybody knew we’d been here, it could get us killed. You can’t tell anybody, not even Robert,” she told me. I kept expecting to be chased and grabbed before we could get away. Although Tee was excited and apparently frightened, she explained to me once I had the car in motion that the basement was “a bomb factory” and that she had “wanted to see for sure.” I believe Tee got me to take her “to see for sure” so that this information could be passed on to the authorities; yet if the makeshift laboratory had been discovered, the implication could have been made that blacks were, indeed, using the house, considering its location. The “theory” that blacks were doing the bombing was put forth repeatedly during those violent years. While J. Edgar Hoover blamed the Communists for exploiting the race issues, local voices were calling it a conspiracy by blacks and the Kennedys to justify sending in federal troops to enforce desegregation.

Robert had been a city employee, enjoying the benefits of being a crony of Birmingham’s Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor. Robert had been fired from work as a garbage collector for the city of Bessemer some years earlier, and he had been subsequently hired to work in the Birmingham city garage. Part of his job was to clean out police cars, and he had bureau drawers at home full of interesting things that he had brought from work, including brass knuckles, handcuffs, bullets, and blackjacks. A collection of found police hardware was a standard in the Chambliss home for a number of years, from my childhood through my young adult years, when my brother, my young cousins, and my son were entertained by being allowed to play with these things. They were probably the only kids in Birmingham given real .38s to play cowboys with when they were growing up.

I shudder when I think about how much “evidence” was “cleaned” out of the police cars in those days. Robert told tales of having to quickly clean out a patrol car and remove blood before the car could go back out. More than once, he told of patrolmen letting a “nigger bleed to death in the back seat before they dropped him off at Hillman [hospital].”

On many occasions, Robert told us about visiting Bull Connor’s office to demand that particular issues be handled in particular ways. But finally, on one occasion, Robert apparently went too far by banging his fist on Connor’s desk and threatening him in front of other city hall employees. This happened after an altercation at a Klan rally that drew a complaint from a newsman Robert had attacked. During the same period, Robert had harassed a black couple, identifying himself as a city employee; he later explained that he felt it would carry more weight with them than saying he was a Klansman when he tried to force them to move from a previously all-white area. Normally Connor would have covered for Robert when Mayor Cooper Green tried to terminate him, but Robert’s open threat had pushed Connor into an untenable position. So he did not throw his weight at the termination hearing, and Robert was fired.

After that, Robert worked at several jobs, including clerking at Bob Gafford’s auto parts store. Then he started driving a truck for another parts company, making road trips to Florida, Mississippi, and south Alabama. I know there were several occasions when Robert would leave his house to go on one of those road trips, and within an hour a bomb blast would detonate somewhere in the city.

 

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