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Addie Mae Collins may be buried on the other side of her tombstone

The search for Addie Mae Collins (abc3340.com)

Addie Mae Collins, one of the four little girls who died in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963, may be buried on the other side of her tombstone at Greenwood Cemetery in Birmingham, Ala.

“I think the theory that her body’s on the other side of that tombstone is an excellent theory,” said Kenneth Mullinax, who donated Collins’ headstone in 1990 to replace a wooden stake that marked her grave for 27 years. Mullinax is director of media relations at Alabama State University.

An ABC 33/40 News investigation led to the new theory.

Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Denise McNair and Carole Robertson died in the church bombing 53 years ago. Eighteen others were injured in the blast. It was a hate crime that changed public opinion across the country. It helped lead to passage of new federal laws that ended segregation in public places, banned employment discrimination, and tore down barriers that prevented African Americans from voting.

McNair was buried at Shadowlawn Memorial Park, then moved to a family plot at Elmwood Cemetery in 2007.

Collins, Wesley and Robertson were buried at Greenwood Cemetery near the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International airport on September 18, 1963 — three days after the church bombing.

The City of Birmingham maintains the cemetery now. But back in the 1980’s and 1990’s, Greenwood Cemetery was neglected.

Vandals broke tombstones and raided some of the graves. Skulls and bones littered the ground. In fact, the cemetery operators declared bankruptcy in 1986 after 10 lawsuits alleged that graves here were being recycled—an allegation the operator denied.

Sarah Collins Rudolph, Addie Mae’s sister, tried to move Addie Mae’s remains to a better resting place.

In January 1998, workers dug in front of the headstone, but the plot was empty. They tried a few feet away in another spot. They found a rusty casket — and inside — the corpse of an elderly person with dentures.

Think about that: Rudolph hasn’t known the exact location of her sister’s remains for 18 years.

“It would make me more happy to know where she’s at instead of being lost,” Rudolph told ABC 33/40. “Because she’s a civil rights martyr and should be found.”

Mullinax has the original wooden marker and donated Addie Mae’s headstone because the Collins family couldn’t afford to buy one. He said he consulted with family members of the church bombing victims, and others, to make sure the tombstone went in the right spot.

“In us putting down this marble tombstone, we weren’t being scientific about where we placed it,” Mullinax told ABC 33/40. “We knew that the marker was there. We felt confident that was the general area where her body was. But we were not being scientific in knowing for a fact that her body was in that exact location at that angle.”

When ABC 33/40 recently visited Collins’ grave with Sarah Rudolph and her husband, George, we noticed that the ground had settled in front of her tombstone. That was where workers tried to exhume her body in 1998.

We also noticed that the head of the tombstone faced in the same direction as most, but not all, of the other tombstones in Greenwood Cemetery.

In fact, if you take a look around the cemetery, you’ll find some tombstones facing in the opposite direction, especially near Collins’ grave.

Could Collins be buried behind her tombstone?

If you look on the back side of Collins’ tombstone, you’ll find plenty of room where her body could be buried. And that spot is actually closer to Cynthia Wesley’s grave.

“When I first heard that they looked for her remains there (the front of the tombstone), I didn’t know that they looked in one specific small area,” Mullinax said. “If someone had asked me, I would have looked in that entire general area with ground-seeking radar just to make sure.”

Cemetery records that could help locate Addie Mae’s remains were allegedly destroyed in a fire many years ago. In 2000, after the attempted exhumation of Collins’ remains, workers using underground radar found 15 graves in the general vicinity of Addie Mae’s tombstone, but only four of those graves were marked.

Finding Collins’ remains would bring closure to Sarah Rudolph, who has had to deal with the loss of her sister, and the loss of her sister’s body, for most of her life.

“I miss her a lot,” Rudolph said.

John Hall, the pro bono attorney for Sarah Rudolph, finds the new theory about Collins’ remains intriguing.

They would need to get the necessary approvals, use underground radar to identify the location of bodies near Collins’ tombstone and try to match the DNA from Sarah Rudolph with the DNA from the bones of bodies near Collins’ headstone.

A DNA match would solve the mystery.

In the meantime, steps are being taken to have Greenwood Cemetery registered as an Alabama Historic Cemetery — to honor the victims of the church bombing.

That designation could happen in the next few weeks.

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