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March 21, 1932

April 29, 2011
1932 Shelby County tornado photo by W. M. Russell

Shelby County tornado photo by W. M. Russell

It was the midst of an economic depression. Unemployment was rampant and Alabamians turned to news stories of high-profile crimes and royal weddings to distract them from their worries. Little-known political hopefuls were competing for attention before the party primaries. Overcome by misery as he pondered the fruitlessness of plowing his small Chilton County cotton-patch, Jack Latham was praying that the Lord would take his family into His arms, as he no longer had the means to support them himself.

March 21, the Monday after Palm Sunday, was a warm and muggy spring day, with temperatures near 80°. There were signs of a cold front on its way, pushing a line of storms into the area. A mild warning was issued in the newspaper weather reports. Those gifted with foresight brought their animals inside and hunkered down with their radios to ride out the approaching front.

By mid-afternoon, though, all hell was breaking loose. A series of storm cells mushroomed and began plowing their way up from Mississippi, unleashing massive tornadoes that tore apart 7,000 homes and businesses in several central and north Alabama counties. The deadliest twister pushed through Tuscaloosa and Northport on its way northeast toward Clanton. Other tracks crossed Shelby County and points south, with smaller tornadoes impacting almost every corner of the state. 268 Alabamians died that day. Some were pulled from their homes and thrown into the ground. Others were trapped in collapsing buildings.

New, smaller cameras made amateur storm-chaser photography possible. W. M. Russell of Boothton snapped a menacing shot of a dark funnel cloud traversing part of Shelby County. The photo later ran in the “Birmingham News”, along with numerous stories of personal tragedy and images of debris strewn across wide swaths of the state.

Two men view damage from the tornado outbreak

The aftermath of the tornado

Columbiana was the hardest-hit town in Shelby County, with 15 dead. Sylacauga was also pummelled, with 29 dead inside the city limits and another 11 found in nearby rural areas.Luther Kelly, who had lost his first wife to a 1917 tornado, lost his second wife in the storm.

In Northport a group of seven townsmen ran for the shelter of a livery stable. The sole surviver of the ordeal described the approaching monster as sounding like “49 trains running wide open”. As many as two-thousand people in the Tuscaloosa area were rendered homeless. The old gymnasium at the University of Alabama was pressed into service as a temporary infirmary to relieve the overfilled Druid City Hospital. The clock at the flattened Tuscaloosa Country Club recorded the time of the disaster as 4:01 PM.

On that night of March 21, the wearied Jack Latham gathered his family in the parlor for their nightly Bible study. A loud, sustained noise interrupted him and he rose and went to the door. As soon as he opened it and looked out and shouted back, “My God! It’s a Cyclone!”

Wreckage from 1932 tornado

view of wreckage from the tornado

Several minutes later only the four youngest Lathams had survived. Katie, 7, woke up to see her mother, dead and mired in muck up to her neck in the newly-plowed field beside her. A neighbor rushed over and collected the survivors, who spent the next three weeks recuperating at Vaughan Memorial Hospital in Selma. They were showered with so much attention and so many gifts, that they were reluctant to leave after they were adopted by local business magnate W. E. Bruce.

In the days following the storm, Governor B. M. Miller toured the state and issued a proclamation calling on all citizens to pitch in and help their distressed neighbors. Gawkers streamed into the hardest-hit areas the next Sunday, Easter. Those surveying the damage in Chilton County were rudely interrupted by another tornado that afternoon which left 8 more dead and 50 injured.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. June 9, 2012 11:27 am

    I ran across the name Jack Latham on the web and noticed the book title via amazon.. My father was 13 and lived in Plantersville near Selma. I grew up hearing His hair raising account of this day, He told me that his father and him walked down to the doctors house and saw some victims of the tornado on the doctors porch. What a sad tale. I am lookingforward to getting the book.

    Like

  2. Beth Wingate permalink
    March 21, 2012 9:07 am

    This article is from a newspaper in Clay County:

    http://files.usgwarchives.net/al/clay/newspapers/tornado.txt

    Like

  3. Theron Kelley permalink
    July 31, 2011 4:09 pm

    The Luther Kelly referred to in the aricle as having lost his first wife in the 1917 tornado in Sylacauga and then his second wife in the 1932 storm was my father…
    Our home was on the same block as the elementary school, which was completely destroyed..Our house had only the floor remaining.
    As a result of the school’s destruction, I started my first grade studies in the basement of the the Presbyterian Church the following September..

    Like

  4. July 26, 2011 2:33 pm

    This story always makes me sad. My grandfather was one of the four survivors and he remembered everything. The thing that is not mentioned is that he and the other siblings suffered horrible abuse after their adoption. My grandfather was brave and did so many things that still to this day keep me in awe. He wrote a book “My God, It’s a Cyclone!” which explains the entire story. Thanks for posting this.

    Like

    • Tracia permalink
      October 28, 2011 6:11 pm

      I would like to know where to purchase this book your grandfather wrote.

      Like

    • Randy Latham permalink
      August 27, 2012 5:58 pm

      Re: “as” – Your dad wrote that book and was one of the survivors. He must have been Lewis. My dad was his brother, who went by Jack. My dad Jack was actually Lewis Jack Latham. I knew of your dad as Lewis Latham. I met him a few times when I was a child, but did not see him again until at my dad’s funeral in Alabama in 1996, I believe. I heard your dad passed away several years ago. Sorry to hear that. So both of our dads were brothers and survived that day. They, brother Alvin (Shorty) and Katherine were very lucky.

      Like

  5. Marilyn Creel Hesterley permalink
    June 14, 2011 10:33 am

    In a Family History report, my Great Grand Father was the only fatallity in a cyclone in Wilcox County, Al. on March 21,1913. There where 15 houses, two paper mills and a post office distroyed. One of my Mother’s cousins who passed away this year at 100yrs old, said her Mother & her hid under a bush in the back yard during the storm and they where spared.

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    • John Morse permalink*
      June 14, 2011 12:21 pm

      Interestingly, between 1886 and 1938 the Weather Bureau was prohibited from using the word “tornado” in its forecasts due to concerns about the general panic that might be caused. See this history by Marlene Bradford for details.

      Like

  6. Dez permalink
    May 3, 2011 2:36 pm

    Great story – of course, a lot of people in the South remember the 1936 tornado that leveled much of Tupelo, Mississippi and Gainsville, Georgia. I once worked in Tupelo as a museum consultant, helping to redesign the city musuem. The two big stories in Tupelo history in 1935 and 1936 were the birth of Elvis Presley and the 1936 tornado. We were thinking about naming that era’s section of the museum exhibit “Shake, Rattle and Roll.”

    Like

  7. May 3, 2011 8:04 am

    Fabulous story! And the circumstances sound so similar to the recent AL tornado event! But did I misread above – there are two dates in the story – Mar 21 and May 21? If it was before Easter (“Monday after Palm Sunday”) it HAD to be March and NOT May, right?

    Like

    • John Morse permalink*
      May 3, 2011 10:22 am

      You’re right, it was March. I must have had May on my mind. I’ve corrected the story. Thanks for your help!

      Like

  8. May 1, 2011 7:42 am

    For information and photos on the 1901 tornado that tore through Ensley, Pratt City, Southside, Lakeview and Irondale, read this booklet on the Birmingham Public Library online collection: http://bplonline.cdmhost.com/cdm4/document.php?CISOROOT=/p4017coll6&CISOPTR=1245&REC=2

    Like

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