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A drone photo shows the area where the tornado hit the Harris family’s home.
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Photo by Joe Songer, AL.com

Racial barriers broken as Christians mourn three family members killed in Alabama tornado

The Harrises become the first African Americans buried in a cemetery that dates to the 1850s.

A tiny town in Alabama. A high school football star. A gospel singer gone blind.

Three open caskets at a borrowed Baptist church.

If the death and destruction weren’t so raw and real, the story of the Ohatchee tornado would read like a movie script.

Willie Gene Harris and his wife, Barbara, died in the tornado.

Willie Gene Harris and his wife, Barbara, died in the tornado.

Ohatchee, Ala., where the Tallaseehatchee and Ohatchee creeks reach the Coosa River, sits about 60 miles northeast of Birmingham and 16 miles northwest of Anniston, near Lake Henry Neely. About 95 percent of the town’s 1,100 residents are White.

As a young man, Willie Gene Harris, 73, was a gospel singer who performed in a sextet for Black Churches of Christ in Los Angeles back in the late 1970s and early 80s. For the past 15 years, he was a member of the 16th and Noble Street Church of Christ in Anniston, where he was known as Bill. His wife, Barbara, 67, also considered 16th and Noble her home church, and their daughter Ebonique, 38, a social worker, visited often. 

Bill, Barbara and Ebonique died March 25 when an EF2 twister’s 140-mph winds hit their mobile home, leaving cinder blocks and debris but little else. Ebonique’s 13-year-old daughter, Ontarriah, was injured and hospitalized. 

Bill Harris was born in Big Sandy, Texas, on Feb. 23, 1948. According to his obituary, he met Barbara when they were neighbors in Compton, Calif. The couple married and had four children.

Ebonique Harris

Ebonique Harris

“He was a great singer,” nephew L.J. Williams said of his uncle. “That was his passion.”

Williams, who serves as minister for the East Dallas Church of Christ in Texas, gave the eulogy at the funeral of his uncle, aunt and cousin.

Marvin Jones, minister for the 16th and Noble St. congregation, a body of about 120 members, said Barbara and Ebonique frequently brought Bill to church because he had been blind for the past several years as a result of a hereditary condition. Jones described Harris as “one of those guys who, if given an opportunity, he’d tell the truth. He’d tell you the gospel and advocate for the gospel.”

A drone photo shows the area where the tornado hit the Harris family’s home.

A drone photo shows the area where the tornado hit the Harris family’s home.

Relief efforts break barriers

Domonique Thomas, the Harrises’ grandson and Ebonique’s son, was a football star at Ohatchee High School. He was named first-team all-state and a finalist for Class 2A back of the year by the Alabama Sports Writers Association. After graduating in 2020, he headed to Union College in Kentucky on a football scholarship.

“I remember my last high school game, my grandfather was walking up the ramp, and he said, ‘Let’s go, Boogie’ — that’s what he always called me.”

Union delayed its 2020 football season until spring because of the coronavirus pandemic. Then a March 26 game was canceled because of tornadoes. Thomas missed the April 3 game to attend the Harris family funeral. But he told WBRC-TV he would return to play in honor of his mother and grandparents. 

“I remember my last high school game, my grandfather was walking up the ramp, and he said, ‘Let’s go, Boogie’ — that’s what he always called me,” Thomas said, describing how his family members filled a whole section of the Ohatchee stadium, bottom to top.

https://www.facebook.com/abc3340/posts/10159712124341178

In Union’s final game of the season, against Kentucky Christian, Thomas made good on his promise to honor his mother and grandparents. He caught six passes for 106 yards, ran 56 yards and had two rushing touchdowns.

“He was a community champion,” Williams said, describing the esteem in which the town held Domonique as one reason for the outpouring of support the family experienced. Many in the community were already encouraging Domonique to stay in school and finish college.

A GoFundMe page created to raise funds for Domonique and Ontarriah had raised $35,895 by mid-April, exceeding the $25,000 goal.

“The community was overwhelming, very responsive, very helpful,” Williams said. “It broke a lot of barriers.”

About a dozen Church of Christ congregations can be found in Calhoun County, but there’s only one in Ohatchee. Wayne Dunaway, minister and elder of the Ohatchee Church of Christ, a predominantly White congregation of about 200, said none of its members were hurt or had any losses, “but the community was obviously devastated.”

Tornadoes are like that, wreaking devastation in one block and leaving the next untouched.

“The community was overwhelming, very responsive, very helpful. It broke a lot of barriers.”

Fellow elder Aubrey Jones knows what it’s like.

“I had a tornado in 1994 hit my place, so I’ve felt that end of it,” he said in the slow and thoughtful Alabama drawl that seemed to emerge from the empathy he felt for the storm’s victims. 

“I’ve been involved in three tornadoes and a hurricane over the years. I got some help in ’94 — people reached out and touched my heart,” he said quietly. “Now I’ve had the opportunity to help people recover.”


Related: 50 Years: Racial Reconciliation and the Church


The retired mechanic and heavy equipment operator knows a lot of people. He grew up here. His son and daughter-in-law work in the schools. He knows a lot of the bus drivers, who in turn know where families live in scattered, rural neighborhoods. As he watched the path of the tornado, he knew.

“I noticed from where it sat down across the river. I knew people down there. I could see the path and the communities that it hit. I knew a lot of those people, went to school with some of them,” he said.

When the dust settled, he went to find them, taking checks supplied through a fund supported by other Churches of Christ throughout the area and some in Tennessee, including some of the little 30- to 40-member congregations around the county. “They couldn’t do much, but they did 100 percent,” he said softly. “You can’t get more than 100 percent.”

Ohatchee, AL, USA

By press time, he’d delivered checks to 46 families to cover whatever immediate needs they faced. He anticipated there’d be at least 25 or 30 more.

The first neighborhood he went to was the one where the Harrises’ home once stood.

“Do you know the name Domonique Harris?” he asked as he told the story. “He’s a really good young man. I tell you, he’s like one of my grandkids. He and my grandkids were real close in school.” 

A few days after the storm, he found the local hero at the home of his daughter and her five kids. “Domonique came there like on Tuesday or Wednesday. The high school coach wanted him to throw the first pitch in a rival game, so I knew where he was.”

Ever the small-town star, even in grief.

Loved ones walk up the drive of the home where three Harris family members died.

Loved ones walk up the drive of the home where three Harris family members died.

A borrowed church, donated graves

Alabama was still under a 25 percent capacity rule because of COVID-19, and no facility in a Church of Christ was open and large enough for the funeral.

Then the Leatherwood Baptist Church, a large, White church in Anniston, opened its facility for the service. Other local churches reached out as well. The Ebenezer Baptist Church, a Black congregation in Ohatchee, opened for the community viewing and a meal for the family.

Williams — preacher, nephew and cousin of the deceased — said he had questions from the experience.

L.J. Williams

L.J. Williams

“I don’t know any other fellowship than the Churches of Christ. I’m what most would consider old school, traditional, but one thing that always struck me is that Christ said it’s not the doctrine. It’s the way we love one another.”

Oak Bowery Baptist Church, another large, White church in Ohatchee, donated three plots in its cemetery, and in so doing, leveled a barrier from generations past.

“It was the only place we could find three graves in that area side by side,” Williams said. “They were quite generous, very accommodating.”

Grave markers in the cemetery bear dates from the 1850s, and some from the decades after the Civil War up to the present day. Caretaker Tony Nunnelley said the Harrises were the first African Americans buried there.

“I can’t say what happened years and years ago,” he said, explaining that he thinks a few unmarked graves in the section he calls “the old cemetery” may be American Indian graves. “We don’t know who’s in those,” he added. “But as far as I know, they’re the first.”

https://www.facebook.com/108982650875395/videos/3496956533743909

Lean on each other

Williams has served the flock his entire life, but nothing prepared him to preach a funeral for three. Three family members. Three silver caskets adorned with flowers and marked by banners bearing the photos of his loved ones.

“I’ve been preaching 35 years. I have done hundreds of funerals. But I’ve never experienced anything like this. It was just overwhelming.” 

“God is love,” he told the masked mourners. “He is not an ogre, a meanie waiting to catch us and have bad things happen to us. God is love, and he has spoken. He loves Barbara, Ebonique and Bill more than we did.” Still, he went on, “We’re promised our time is short and full of trouble.”

If ever an audience understood those words, it was this one.

When people have lost everything, they begin to take the anger and hurt out on each other, he said. “That’s one thing I wanted to address: Lean on each other.”

Williams experienced some of that leaning himself. Many displaced residents were staying at the Hampton Inn where he and his family were. The hotel guests visited over the free breakfast each morning. 

“Even though my relatives were African American people — the community was there to help clean up, handing them money and gifts of time and expressing love.”

“These folks were 70, 80 years old, mostly Caucasian people,” Williams said. “They were talking with us before they even knew why I was there.

“Even though my relatives were African American people — the community was there to help clean up, handing them money and gifts of time and expressing love.”

He paused, pained.

“The outpouring was tremendous — but I did not see my brethren.”

He didn’t meet Aubrey Jones or know about the check he gave the Harrises.

And despite 40 years in Ohatchee, minister Dunaway had never met them.

Tearing down barriers can be a bit like tornadoes, healing one block, leaving the next untouched.

“We’ve got to fix it,” Williams said. “That’s what I’ll be working on.”

Filed under: African American churches Alabama breaking barriers disaster recovery National News Ohatchee Race race and church Top Stories tornadoes

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