Petric J. Smith (born Elizabeth H. Cobbs, 1940 in Birmingham; died February 6, 1998 in Birmingham) was a Methodist minister, social activist and writer whose testimony against Robert Chambliss helped convict him and two associates for the deaths of four girls in the 1963 bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church.
Elizabeth Cobbs, sometimes called "Libby Ann", was raised in Birmingham. Her mother's sister, Flora, was married to Chambliss, a Ku Klux Klan activist. Cobbs eloped with a boyfriend at age 15 and became pregnant. The marriage did not last, and she supported herself and her son, James Robin Hood, by working as a window dresser at a department store while living with a grandmother.
Cobbs recalled that a day before the September 15, 1963 bombing, she heard her uncle remark, "Just wait till after Sunday morning, and they will beg us to let them segregate." When she asked what he meant, he replied, "Just wait and see.". Then, while watching a news report on Sunday, she heard him say that, "It wasn't supposed to hurt anybody. It didn't go off when it was supposed to." At great personal risk, she gave that information to investigators from the Federal Bureau of Investigation in a series of interviews, but the Bureau closed the case in 1968 without prosecution.
Cobbs remarried in 1970 and, by then had worked as an insurance underwriter and real estate agent. She enrolled at Birmingham-Southern College and completed a bachelor of arts in history and religion. In 1977 she was ordained as one of Alabama's first female Methodist ministers. In that same year, her witness testimony was used by Attorney General Bill Baxley to convict Chambliss for the bombing. When defense attorneys asked how she could remember events so clearly, she replied that in 14 years she had thought of little else. Chambliss was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. In letters from prison to another niece, Chambliss asked for help reaching Cobbs, saying she "swore lies on her uncle," and needed to "repent" of her testimony.
In the aftermath of the trial, Cobbs, who was then pastor of Denman Memorial United Methodist Church, was beset by death threats and harassing phone calls. Her second marriage ended in 1978 and she moved to coastal Texas. While in counseling at her church there, she began the process of gender reassignment, completing a surgical sex change in Galveston in 1981 and changing his name to Petric Smith.
In the mid-1980s Smith returned to Birmingham as a human rights activist, championing women's rights and racial equality, as well as gay rights. He volunteered on the staff of the Alabama Forum and contributed book reviews and a monthly column to its magazine. As a gesture for his family, Smith made efforts to "revert" to a feminine identity, but was not successful.
He wrote a memoir, Long Time Coming: An Insider's Story of the Birmingham Church Bombing that Rocked the World which was released by Crane Hill Publishers in 1994. The book named some alleged co-conspirators who had never been prosecuted. Smith credited himself and "Elizabeth Cobbs" as co-authors, and, in a brief note in the epilogue explained the circumstances of his gender change.
- "Niece quizzed in bomb case" (November 16, 1977) Associated Press/The Tuscaloosa News
- Raines, Howell (July 24, 1983) "The Birmingham Bombing" The New York Times magazine
- Feinberg, Leslie (1996) Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Rupaul. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press
- "Petric J. Smith (1940-1998)" (April 23, 2010) A Gender Variance Who's Who - accessed September 2, 2016
- "Robert Chambliss and the Tale of Two Nieces" (November 14, 2012) The Birmingham Buff - accessed September 2, 2016
- Long Time Coming, a full-text republication of Smith's 1994 memoir, authorized by his estate