KENTWOOD, LA (WVUE) - A Kentwood principal lost love and hope on a dark day during the civil rights movement.
North Shore resident Hugh Wallace was raised In Birmingham, AL. His high school sweetheart was one of four girls killed when klansmen bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963. He's now principal at O.W. Dillon Elementary in Kentwood.
"It's taken me about 40 years to verbalize some things," he said.
More than 50 years ago, Wallace was a 15-year-old kid. He was dealing racial tensions of the time. A battle raged in Birmingham in 1963 over school integration. It was one of the most segregated cities in the south.
"The dogs, the water hoses, the beatings," he remembered.
Bombings were an accepted way of life. African Americans struggled for normalcy in a racially charged atmosphere. Wallace cherished time with family and friends, and with his girlfriend 14-year-old Cynthia Wesley.
"She was such a beautiful young lady. Everybody loved her," he said. "We'd see each other everyday at school and spend as much time as we could."
On Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963, they had planned to meet at Cynthia's church, The 16th Street Baptist Church, for 11 a.m. services.
"I had my three piece suit on, looking good," he said. "I turned the corner and the bomb goes off. I'm going down the street and bricks were falling."
It was 10:22 a.m. when sticks of dynamite exploded from a package planted at the church.
"I was literally the first one on the scene. I turned the corner and there was a gaping hole on the side. I called for her not knowing they were buried underneath the rubble," he said.
Cynthia died in the bombing. So did Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Addie Mae Collins.
"I knew all four of them," he said. Cynthia was his heart.
He got a call from her mother asking him to be a pallbearer.
"I can't tell you how we got to the funeral home or the church. I just remember sitting in the audience. Dr. King came back to deliver the eulogy. We go outside the church and there are thousands of people now. I can remember putting the casket in the hearse. I can remember unloading it. I can't remember anything else after that," Wallace said.
Wallace has a picture of himself serving as lead pallbearer in his office. He stumbled upon it in an exhibit on a visit to the African American Museum of History and Culture.
"I was thunderstruck and tears started coming," he said.
A group of students recognized that it was me and I gave an impromptu history lesson.
He draws upon his pain to bring knowledge of civil rights to the little ones in his school. He will never forget the girl who stole his heart and ultimately broke it.
"Every September 15th the memories come back," he said.