When I arrived for my first day of school as a first-grader in Huntsville, Alabama, in 1963, my entrance was blocked by the governor. In fact, George Wallace closed all the Huntsville schools that day rather than have a black boy enroll at one. The governor relented a few days later, but only after my family had made another visit to federal court in Birmingham, allowing me—on September 9, 1963—to be the first black child to attend a previously all-white primary or secondary public school in the State of Alabama.
My desegregation experience began with my father’s experiences—conditions he was determined his children would not live under. My father was born in 1931, grew up in Madison County, Alabama, and went to school in the ’30s and ’40s when “separate but equal” (a description that was only half true) was the law of the land. My father walked seven miles to school. School buses ran along parts of his route to school, but black children were not allowed on them. Instead, the buses would kick up dust into the faces of the black children, and white children would sometimes spit out of the windows and throw things at the black children.
My father’s school was surrounded on three sides by the Huntsville City Dump. Given the climate of north Alabama and the lack of air conditioning that often made it necessary to open the windows, one can only imagine the odors the black students had to endure. This was then the only school for black children in Huntsville, and it had very little lab equipment, no gym, no playground equipment, no lunchroom and no library. Black citizens were not allowed to use the public library, even though their taxes, too, helped support the public library—and, for that matter, the school buses.
In high school, my father decided he wanted to become a doctor. He wrote to the University of Alabama to obtain a catalog for their pre-med curriculum. The university obliged, and he later applied there. His application was rejected, even though he was valedictorian of his high school class. The problem may have been that he had checked the “Colored” box indicating his race. But knowing what classes made up a pre-med curriculum, he took them at a local black college and was accepted into medical school after only two years.
In 1954, two years before my father began his medical practice, the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Brown vs. Board of Education (brought against the Topeka, Kansas, school system) struck down the “separate but equal” segregation plan. But public schools and other facilities in Alabama did not immediately begin to desegregate. Challenges by courageous and determined people would be needed.
My father began his medical practice in Huntsville in 1956. At Huntsville Hospital the black doctors—both of them—were not allowed to eat in the hospital cafeteria. Only one room was available to black patients; it served as the delivery room, the operating room and the emergency room. A patient who had been prepped for surgery would sometimes have to be taken off the table and wait while an emergency, such as a woman in labor, was attended to. This was true even though some facilities on the “white” side of the hospital frequently went unused.
Separate but not so equal
The beginnings of major social changes came to Madison County in 1962. At that time all public schools were segregated. There were no black policemen, firemen or bank tellers. There were no bathrooms for blacks at stores. Blacks were not allowed to go to the downtown public park, nor were they allowed to go to bowling alleys, professional sporting events or concerts. The Madison County Courthouse had restrooms for white men, white women, colored men and colored women. Restaurants that served blacks at all would only do so through a side window. When I was about 4 or 5 years old, my father had to explain to me why we couldn’t walk into Shoney’s Big Boy restaurant and order a meal. I knew there was food inside because of the large statue outside of the boy holding a hamburger up high.
A white gentleman had moved to Huntsville from St. Louis, and was a violinist in the Huntsville Symphony Orchestra. His belongings had not yet arrived. He found out my father owned a very expensive violin. The gentleman asked to borrow the violin to play a solo in a concert, and my father agreed. My father remembers thinking later, My violin is good enough to go to the concert, but I am not.
Some whites in northern Alabama assisted the civil rights movement. One such group was referred to as the “Block Busters.” At a time when real estate agents would not even show a home in a white neighborhood to a black family, the Block Busters would buy a home then sell it to a black family who wanted to buy it. There was also a white pediatrician who signed bonds for black students arrested at demonstrations and sit-ins. Even though many of his fellow white physicians refused to refer patients to him, he continued to sign the bonds. The Unitarian Church in Huntsville was the only white church that supported the civil rights movement in our area. None of the white Christian churches formally supported the movement, although I’m sure a few individuals from white Christian churches did.
Often repercussions were worse for whites who supported the movement than for blacks. I have always thought that no matter how racist a person is, at some level he or she can understand a person fighting for his or her own equal rights. But whites who did not support the movement considered whites who were sympathetic to the cause as traitors to their own race.
In spring 1962, in spite of appeals to public officials, poster-walk demonstrations, lunch counter sit-ins and other efforts, little progress had been made in the civil rights movement in Madison County. The movement had lost much of its momentum, and organizers decided to bring someone influential to the area to help the cause. So in March 1962, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., at that time not nearly as famous as he became, came to Huntsville. My father, as one of the principal organizers of the movement, met King at the airport and escorted him to his speaking engagements. King emphasized voter registration, school desegregation and nonviolence. His rousing speeches included an early version of the “I Have a Dream” speech. He generated enthusiasm, and by attracting regional attention to the situation he helped shine a light on the circumstances in northern Alabama—a light local politicians and leaders were not eager to see.
Poster-walks and sit-ins continued, as did negotiations with local officials. People from Huntsville even picketed at the New York and Chicago stock exchanges, discouraging potential investors from supporting companies that operated in Huntsville. Progress was slow. My mother, who was eight months pregnant with my second sister, was arrested for sitting at a Walgreen’s lunch counter. Gradually, as a result of these and other efforts, local officials began allowing the integration of public facilities, restaurants, hotels and entertainment facilities.
The court case
Still, in summer 1962, Huntsville city schools remained segregated. There was an all-white school a few hundred yards from my family’s home. The all-black school was about a mile and a half away. My father initiated a lawsuit in my name to allow me to go to the nearer school. The case was heard in federal court in Birmingham, and the lawyers for the school system tried everything to keep me out of that school. Their four-point argument was: (1) it would be dangerous for me to cross such a wide street to get to the school; (2) such a thing had never been done before; (3) admitting me (and three other black children) would completely disrupt the Huntsville school system; and (4) officials had turned the state capital, Montgomery, “inside out” and could not find a copy of my birth certificate.
Readily dismissing the first two points, the judge—assessing the third point—commented that he found it difficult to believe that the Huntsville Board of Education had such poor control of their schools that four young children could completely disrupt the entire system. As for the fourth point, I must assume they were trying to prove I didn’t really exist. They must have been more than a little embarrassed when it was explained to them in court that I was born in Indiana.
At the conclusion of the arguments, the judge did not retire to deliberate; he ruled from the bench. He said this case could be decided based on the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling. Consequently, in spite of the efforts of Alabama Governor Wallace, I became the first black child to attend a previously all-white public school in Alabama. Even then I was something of a survivor. At one point during the civil rights movement in Madison County, about 35 black families had offered to have their children be a part of the first wave of school desegregation. Because of threats of physical violence and property damage and destruction, and threatened dismissals from employment, only four families remained at the time of the court’s decision.
Between the brief time of the court case decision and actually starting first grade (kindergarten was not required in those days), it was the Unitarian Church of Huntsville that put together a “playschool” for me, three other black children and about a dozen white children. The purpose of the preschool was to enable us to get used to going to school together—to show us that children were just children.
For me, being in a large school with only white children was mostly uneventful. At that age, for the most part we simply thought of each other as children, classmates and playmates. However, two experiences stand out in my mind and will be with me forever. In first grade, I remember being in the cafeteria lunch line next to a little white girl who was not tall enough to get her tray down off the stack. I got her tray for her and attempted to hand it to her. As I did she said, “Oh, no, my mother told me never to take anything from a nigger.” Amazingly, I took something positive from that experience. Even at age 6, I realized this little girl did not know what she was saying. She had not been born with these sentiments; this was her mother speaking through her. Throughout my life, this incident has given me hope that, with time, fewer and fewer parents will teach this kind of bigotry to their children.
The other experience occurred in second grade at the same school. I was on the playground, and another second grader named Roger started calling me names. I’ve never had a quick temper; I merely told him to leave me alone. Roger saw he wasn’t getting under my skin, so he decided to throw some dirt on me. That was more than I could take. We got into a fight, and I got him down and sat on his chest. I then scooped up dirt and put it all over him, head to toe. We were soon separated by one of the playground monitors and dragged into the principal’s office. She asked us what had happened. I told her the story exactly as it had occurred, and Roger didn’t dispute any of it. Our principal decided I would be the only one punished for this incident “because of the amount of dirt Roger had on him.” I guess I had failed to understand the concept which President Reagan would later refer to as a “measured response."
A few years later, still as a grade-schooler, I went with family and friends, both black and white, to the only ice skating rink in Alabama at that time, which was in Huntsville. I remember the person collecting admission telling the white members of our group they could come in but telling the blacks we could not. Many years later that rink had been closed, and a new rink was opened in Huntsville, run by the same family. When I was about 30 years old, I went skating and recognized the gentleman who had been in charge of the rink when I had been denied access all those years earlier. I told him about my earlier experience. He said that must only have been because of the person at the ticket window that day. He said he would never have had such a policy at his place. Right.
I also remember receiving an autographed picture of Governor Wallace at the time of my graduation from high school in 1975. Quite ironic considering how he had tried to keep me from ever entering first grade at the school around the corner from my home.
Still, today, when I look at Huntsville and Madison County in 2007, it is clear that tremendous progress has been made. Institutionalized racism is practically nonexistent. However, I’m afraid racism in people’s hearts will last for many more generations—as long as parents and others keep teaching it to children.
Every year I am asked to speak to several groups about my desegregation experiences. One particular teacher has me speak each year to her 4- and 5-year-old students. Of course their attention spans are much shorter, and one must use smaller words. But they have a basic understanding of right and wrong, and of being mean or being nice. Once, after I had finished speaking to this group, a little girl raised her hand to make a comment. She said in her family they have a white dog and a black dog. When they take their dogs to the vet, he treats the dogs just the same. This little girl got it; why do adults have such difficulty?
Sonnie Hereford is a software engineer at Freedom Information Systems and supports the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
The photo of Sonnie Hereford is by Glen Campbell.