Autherine Lucy Foster: The First Black Student at University of Alabama

Autherine Juanita Lucy was born on a farm in Shiloh, Alabama, on October 5, 1929, the youngest of ten children. Lucy continued her education after high school, gaining a two-year teaching certificate from Selma University before graduating from Miles College, an Alabama HBCU, with a bachelor’s degree in 1952. Lucy and a friend, activist Pollie Anne Myers, took the risk of going to the University of Alabama after graduation, and Lucy was pleasantly surprised to get admitted. When the institution found she was Black, they canceled her acceptance, igniting a years-long legal battle.

In 1955, Federal Judge Hobart Grooms declared that Alabama could not discriminate against Lucy and Meyers after Thurgood Marshall, Constance Baker Motley of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and Alabama lawyer Arthur Shores filed a federal action on their behalf. The decision was upheld by the Supreme Court in October of that year. Lucy returned to Tuscaloosa on February 3, 1956, barely two years after the momentous Brown v. Board of Education decision declaring segregation in public schools and colleges illegal, to become the first Black student to enroll at the University of Alabama. Unfortunately, Myers was denied admission to the university because she had a child before marrying, citing the university’s moral code.

Lucy’s stay at the institution was cut short after mobs of white students and locals incited riots and vandalism across campus. Lucy was injured by debris on day three and had to be evacuated off-campus in the back of a police car. 

“It felt somewhat like you were not really a human being. But had it not been for some at the university, my life might not have been spared at all. I did expect to find isolation. I thought I could survive that. But I did not expect it to go as far as it did. There were students behind me saying, ‘Let’s kill her! Let’s kill her! ’,” Lucy later recalled.

Alabama’s board of trustees suspended her from school that night. The NAACP took up her cause, saying that the university colluded with rioters to impede her enrollment. The lawsuit was finally dismissed, and Lucy was expelled from the institution in February for slander. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. presented a sermon in which he condemned Lucy’s treatment.

Referencing a newspaper headline, Dr. King said, “Things are quiet in Tuscaloosa today. There is peace on the campus of the University of Alabama. Yes, things are quiet in Tuscaloosa. It was a peace that had been purchased at the price of allowing mobocracy to reign supreme over democracy. It is the type of peace that is obnoxious.”

Lucy married Hugh Lawrence Foster in April 1956, and the couple moved to Texas to start a family. While Lucy Foster applied for teaching jobs right away, she was frequently turned down, with many citing her ordeal at the University of Alabama as a reason. Later in life, she taught at a variety of Southern schools, and in the spring of 1963, the University of Alabama admitted two Black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, on the basis of an order from Judge Grooms from the 1950 court hearings.

Lucy Foster took advantage of the University’s decision to lift the restriction on her in 1988, entering as a graduate student shortly after. She earned her master’s degree in education in 1992, while her daughter, Grazia Foster, earned her bachelor’s degree in corporate finance at the same time. The institution displayed a painting of Lucy Foster in the student union that day, replete with a plaque reading, “Her initiative and fortitude secured the right for students of all races to attend the university.” 

Vivian Malone Jones commented on how Lucy Foster’s sacrifice inspired her during the 40th anniversary of the university’s successful integration in June 2003, saying, “I was a child when that happened, but her efforts had an indelible impression on me. I figured if she could do it, I could do it.”

The institution dedicated the Autherine Lucy Clock Tower in November 2010, and she received an honorary doctorate from the university in 2019. Officials at the institution announced three weeks ago that the college of education would be renamed in her honor. The institution attempted to hyphenate the name at first, but students and faculty objected, citing the prior building’s name as a Ku Klux Klan member. 

Barbara Whitesell, a student, remarked on the renaming, saying it was appropriate that officials announced it in time for Lucy Foster’s 66th birthday. 

“If you’re going to give her credit. You have to give it all to her. She endured a lot more than any student that has ever gone to UA probably has…It was very fine timing that they announced it when they did, too,” said Whitesell. 

The time is even more significant now that the 92-year-old civil rights pioneer has joined the ancestors. Ms. Foster, thank you for battling until the end. The time is even more significant now that the 92-year-old civil rights pioneer has joined the ancestors. Ms. Foster, thank you for battling until the end. We hope you understand that your efforts were not in vain. 

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