© Rob Culpepper for The New York TimesThe site of the house where Annette Singleton, her son and two other boys took shelter on April 27. Her son says they were turned away from a church.
It was discussed openly and in whispers, over the phone and in the church pews. When it was brought up at school, the curious were quickly shushed. Eventually, the whole thing got pushed aside by other concerns, a bit of nastiness better forgotten, or judged never to have occurred at all.
But Madison Phillips says it is true. He says that he and his mother, Annette Singleton, both black, were turned away from a church shelter by a white woman on the afternoon of April 27, the day of the tornadoes
. And within hours, Ms. Singleton and two of Madison's young friends, who had been huddling with him in his house within yards of that church, were dead.
"People said, 'Don't go around telling this, this is going to ruin Cordova's name,' " said Madison, 16, who is now living in Hawaii with his half-brother, a Marine corporal. "But the truth is going to sit there forever and ever."
There is little agreement about what happened, or whether it happened at all, and the full truth may never be known. Madison says he did not recognize the woman. The only other witness, an older man who is known around town for his frequent run-ins with the law and fondness for alcohol, is saying that he did not see the situation firsthand, but only talked to Madison's mother as she was coming and going.
The minister at the church, the Rev. Ryan Rosser, said the doors were open all day long to anyone seeking shelter; indeed, there were black utility workers among the 45 or so people in the church basement during the second tornado.
Mr. Rosser said that none of the people he had spoken with who were there recalled anything like what Madison describes happening.
"Usually in a small town, stuff's going to rise to the surface," he said.
Versions of the account multiplied and changed around town, often molded by personal animosities. But Madison's story has stayed consistent, prompting a nagging, uneasy question about what kinds of things are possible, still possible, in a small Southern town.
Much of Cordova, a once-prosperous mill town, still appears a bombed-out shell. A stately ruin remains of the nearly century-old Methodist church where, Madison says, he and his mother sought refuge. Only a concrete slab remains of the house where they lived.
A dispute about post-storm temporary housing exploded last month, set off by the city government's insistence on upholding an ordinance against single-wide trailers. The mayor, Jack Scott, citing a need to maintain property values, said exceptions would not be made for FEMA trailers, though the temporary police headquarters, a pharmacy and City Hall are all in similar trailers.
The controversy attracted reporters and protesters, and earned Cordova some unwelcome national attention, though, as it turned out, only two households were actually eligible for the trailers and both found other arrangements.
Amid the clamor, the story about the mother and son at the church did not rise above whispers.
Few whites in Cordova believe that it could have happened here, and, pointing to versions of the story that are demonstrably false, generally dismiss it as a malicious rumor.
© Rob Culpepper for The New York TimesLong United Methodist Church in Cordova, Ala., had a number of people inside when tornadoes swept across the state.
As in so many small towns, the black residents, who make up about an eighth of Cordova's population of 2,400, see things differently. It has never occurred to many whites, for example, what the name of the popular restaurant, Rebel Queen, may suggest to blacks, let alone that black people in town felt uncomfortable meeting someone there.
"It's a lot of hidden racism that goes on in Cordova," said Pete Bush, who is black and was the high school football coach here until he resigned in January. "I know that because I've been here all my life."
There is a nearly unanimous conviction among blacks here that the incident described by Madison Phillips not only could happen here, but did. Yet there is little vocal outrage.
Ms. Singleton, who was 46, was relatively new to town. She went to church 45 minutes to the southeast in Birmingham. The two boys who died with her, Jonathan and Justin Doss, ages 12 and 10, were from a poor white family who lived in an apartment complex on the outskirts of Cordova, where Madison and his mother had lived until recently.
"Nobody hardly knew her," said Theodore Branch, 74, who has been the city's only black council member for 36 years. "If you live here and everybody knows you, it's a different situation."
The story of what happened, or what might have happened, at the Long United Methodist Church started spreading immediately after the tornado passed, most likely beginning with Homer Rodgers, the older man who was the secondhand witness. Given Mr. Rodgers's past, it was met with skepticism.
But Madison, who was hospitalized with head and shoulder injuries, told a similar story.
After a destructive early morning tornado, Madison said, he and his mother drove to their old apartment complex. Another tornado was coming in the afternoon, and Ms. Singleton was trying to collect gas money for a drive to Birmingham. She met a couple who had sought shelter from the first tornado at the Methodist church, and, fearing the next tornado was approaching, she and Madison returned to town.
They spoke briefly to an older man, said Madison, who does not know Mr. Rodgers, before approaching a woman coming out of the church. Ms. Singleton asked whether the church was being used as a shelter, he said. The woman told her it was not.
They then returned to the apartments and picked up the Doss brothers, Madison's playmates.
Jacqueline Doss, the boys' mother, recalls a different chronology of the day's events, saying that Ms. Singleton came over only once, in the afternoon. But Ms. Doss also says that at that time, Ms. Singleton told her she had been turned away at the church.
Nevertheless, Madison and the two boys were at the house less than an hour before the second, deadly tornado hit.
In the ensuing weeks, a group of well-off people in the county put together money for Ms. Singleton's funeral expenses and for Madison's ticket to go live with his brother in Hawaii. The talk faded into the background.
On a recent weekday, at a soup kitchen for tornado survivors at the Free Will Baptist Church, whites and blacks worked alongside one another. Everyone who was asked had heard the story. Some believed it, and were disgusted by it. Others said with so many rumors flying around, they were inclined to just let it go.
Loudelia Branch, the wife of the city council member, lamented that, pointing out what was undeniably true.
"She existed," she said of Ms. Singleton. "It's not like she did not exist."