Willie Waller

Willie died a few years ago but he wouldn’t mind me telling you his story, at least the part of it that has stuck with me. Willie and I met in February 1995 when I became the Director of Operations of South Highland Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama. South Highland Presbyterian is a beautiful building – built in phases in 1892, 1926, 1955, and 1996. The sanctuary and chapel are stunningly gorgeous (sometime I’ll post about the Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket that a donor family and I approved to be placed in stained glass window in that church!).

In 1995 South Highland built a 25,000 square foot, $4 million dollar children’s building and renovated the existing facilities. It was a much-needed overhaul of the current buildings with a badly-needed structure designed for kids. South Highland had a glorious past but had struggled to retain its members so the children’s building was the church’s effort to tell those who moved to the suburbs that the church was very much alive with a vibrant program for kids. It worked – South Highland to this day is a wonderful church.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Birmingham, Alabama was racked by racial strife. City and county leadership didn’t want Blacks to have equal rights, equal education, equal opportunities, etc. In the midst of that tension, there were good relationships (but not equal) between individual Blacks and Whites – they were cordial and friendly to each other but there was a caste system between the two races. They lived on different sides of the railroad tracks and different sides of Red Mountain. In the 1960s, White Flight created the booming cities OTM (Over The Mountain, Red Mountain) which today form the business engine of north central Alabama. Willie grew up in a segregated and sometimes violent city.

Willie had already been the custodian at the church for 16 years when I got there. He was an institution: he knew all the members, he knew their cars and would get members out of worship if they left their car lights on; he knew how to run the building; he was THE caretaker of God’s house. Before coming to South Highland, Willie worked in one of the steel mills near Birmingham. That’s where breathed asbestos particles and developed a horrible illness which clogged his lungs. He got a monthly $300 check from the asbestosis lawsuit settlement but the illness shortened his life. He didn’t die from that though, his kidneys began to shut down and he had dialysis three times a week. The docs put a tube in his arm – that really grossed me out to see that tube, yuk! His death was greatly mourned by the mostly white congregants of South Highland – they still miss him today.

On to the story, my most painful story about Willie. During the renovation work in 1996, all the bathrooms got a makeover. There was one bathroom, literally under some stairs, that was impossible to re-do. When I man used it, he would hit his head on the angled ceiling (which was the downward angle of the stairs); women never used it because it was so bad. So I had that made into a mop-sink, janitor’s closet. It was perfect. There was floor sink and a faucet – I thought it was a great solution.

Shortly after that bathroom was completed, Willie came to my office. “Steve,” he said, “where should I use the bathroom now?” I didn’t understand the question. I told Willie that the church had sixteen bathrooms and he should use whichever one he wanted to, except the pastor’s private bathroom. Willie replied, “I can’t do that. See, I can only use the bathroom that you took away.” I still didn’t understand, “What do you mean you can only use that bathroom?” “Steve, when I started working here, I was told that the bathroom under the stairs is the only bathroom I could use and now you’ve done taken it away.”

I was stunned. The history of Birmingham’s Civil Rights struggles was not squarely in my face. This Black man, a very proud and dignified man, was told he could only use the “Colored Restroom” in the church and all the other bathrooms were for “Whites Only.” I sat there not knowing what to do, how to say what, and somewhere between anger and astonishment.

After 15 seconds of silence (which felt like minutes), I said, “Willie, you can use any bathroom in the entire church. Every bathroom here is available to you. And if anyone, and I mean anyone, says anything to you about you using a bathroom, you come tell me or Dana [the senior pastor, Dana Waters, a wonderful gentleman] and we’ll take it up with that person.”

Later, I told Dana about the conversation and he supported me and was equally incensed that one of God’s children, a servant in God’s house, would be relegated to second or third-class status. We agreed that we’d do our part, the right thing, to help erase Birmingham’s taint, if it ever came up – it never did. It was nice to know the church had grown up and moved on past those issues, at least in its building. At some point later, I saw Willie in bathrooms throughout the church – it was nice to see him using the “Whites Only” bathroom.

I miss Willie. He brought home to me for one instant, for less than five minutes, the struggles that he endured for over 65 years. I’m sorry he experienced discrimination at all but it was disgraceful that he experienced any in God’s church. I was glad I could be part of giving grace back to a really, nice man, Willie Waller.

Lead On!
Steve