The bombings of a Birmingham church and the home of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. are well-publicized events of the Civil Rights Movement.
But a bombing in Columbus? Who knew?
The incident occurred July 1, 1958, when King came to Columbus facing death threats. He delivered a speech at the Prince Hall Masonic Temple without incident. But later that night, dynamite exploded at the home of a black woman residing at 2015 5th Ave. The woman, Essie Mae Ellison, had recently moved into the white neighborhood despite opposition from segregationists. She and five other occupants — including a 9-year-old boy — escaped unharmed.
Now 55 years later, the community will commemorate King’s visit, as well as the bombing at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Masonic temple, 815 6th Ave. The event will include a re-enactment of King’s Columbus speech; reflections by community leaders; and a brief history lesson presented by Richard Gardiner, an assistant professor of history education at Columbus State University. The event is being co-sponsored by the Masonic temple and the Columbus Black History Museum and Archives.
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Gardiner, in a research paper, described the bombing as the “missing chapter in the King saga.”
“It is one, however, that adds more color and depth to the narrative as it illustrates the social context that King encountered on his journey,” he wrote. “In addition to the story of the bombings of Dr. King’s house in 1956 and the deadly bombing of the Birmingham church in 1963, the bombing of Essie Mae Ellison’s house, as an alternative to bombing Dr. King in Columbus, deserves a place in history that has yet to be given.”
Matthew Bonham, president of the Prince Hall Masonic Building Association of Columbus, said the Masons are proud to be a part of the event.
“We think it’s long overdue,” he said. “We want to commemorate Dr. King’s one official visit to Columbus, and we think it’s important that the community know that the Prince Hall family opened their doors to him during his visit when others were closed.”
The blast occurred around 12:30 a.m., while Ellison and other occupants were sleeping in the seven-room frame rooming house, according to a front-page article in the July 2, 1958, Columbus Ledger. An anonymous caller had informed the Ledger earlier in the day of a plan to bomb the Masonic temple, the newspaper reported.
The article said police were investigating the bombing, “which came on the heels of a talk here by the Rev. Martin Luther King, a Negro leader from Montgomery.”
In a separate editorial the paper described the bombing as a “cowardly act” and called on police to spare no effort in trying to apprehend the bombers.
“The blasting of the Negro home was not in the public interest,” the editorial said. “Likewise, the feelings of those responsible were not those of the majority of Columbus citizens.”
Gardiner said his research is based on newspaper articles and personal interviews. He said King was invited to speak in Columbus by Delavel P. Nesbitt, a local resident. Nesbitt’s cousin, Robert, was head deacon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, where King served as pastor.
Using his personal connections, Nesbitt sent the invitation on behalf of the Prince Hall Masons, who wanted to hold the event at St. James AME Church. But the church board rejected the request out of fear of violence and political ramifications, Gardiner said. So, the decision was made to change the venue to the Masonic temple.
“On the night of June 30th, a bomb threat on the Masonic Temple was called into the media,” Gardiner wrote. “As a result security was beefed up around the Masonic Hall. The Masons themselves mostly provided the security. Throughout the event, Masons with guns were clearly visible on top of the building.”
Gardiner believes those actions had a significant impact on history that shouldn’t be forgotten.
“The Masons on the roof of the temple probably prevented the destruction of that building and perhaps saved the life of Dr. King,” he wrote. “Had they not done so, the story of Martin Luther King in Columbus would be one of the more noteworthy chapters in the history of the United States.”