by Dan Price
Dr. Autherine Lucy Foster, the first black student to desegregate the University of Alabama, passed away on March 2, 2022. We try to celebrate outstanding seniors in this magazine, and I can't think of someone who exemplifies amazing more than Dr. Foster.
Autherine Juanita Lucy was born on October 5, 1929, the youngest of 10 children to a Shiloh, Alabama, sharecropper family. Education was important to the Autherine at a young age, and she attended public school in Shiloh through the 10th grade. She left Shiloh and entered Linden Academy in Linden, Alabama, to finish high school. After two years at Selma University, she graduated from Miles College with a BA in English in 1952.
Along with her friend Pollie Anne Myers, they applied to the University of Alabama. However, the school turned down Myers' application, citing the student conduct policy of having a child out of wedlock.
Alone, Autherine applied to the University for a second degree. She was accepted into the school but, sadly, was later turned away due to her race. With the help of the NAACP, Thurgood Marshall, who would eventually become the first black Supreme Court Justice, took the case. In 1955, a year after Brown vs. Board of Education desegregated public schools, a federal judge ruled they could not discriminate against Lucy. The Supreme Court upheld the ruling, and Autherine began attending UA on February 3, 1956.
As she walked onto campus, there was danger in the air for the young Ms. Lucy, as members of the Ku Klux Klan surrounded the campus, and the students were less than civil. While on campus, it was increasingly apparent that Foster needed escorts to class. She was not allowed in the dormitories or campus cafeteria. Rocks and eggs were thrown at her. Her fellow students screamed insults, racial epithets and threatened her life. One day, a student mob surrounded Smith Hall, where she was taking a class. Foster had to leave the University due to the growing number of protesters on campus after only three days. The school suspended Lucy "for her safety," said school officials. She left the state for New York and was ultimately expelled by the school.
Autherine moved to Texas and worked as a schoolteacher. In April 1956 in Dallas, Lucy married Hugh Foster, a minister whom she had met at Miles College while Hugh was doing his divinity studies. The Fosters moved back to Alabama, and Autherine got a position in the Birmingham school system.
Then, something happened: The University of Alabama truly desegregated. In 1963, Vivien Malone and James Hood, at the opposition of Alabama Governor George Wallace, enrolled in the University of Alabama, which Autherine was so proud of.
But her time with the University was not over. In 1988, Autherine received word from The University of Alabama that her expulsion was revoked. The following semester, Autherine reenrolled with her daughter, Grazia. Autherine earned a master's degree in elementary education in 1992 and crossed the stage to a standing ovation. In 2019, she received an honorary doctorate in human letters.
In 2022, the University of Alabama renamed the College of Education Autherine Lucy Hall in honor of Dr. Foster. On that day, Autherine said to the audience, "…if I am a master teacher, what I hope that I am teaching you is that love will take care of everything in our world, don't you think? …It's not your color …it's not how bright you are, it's how you feel about those that you deal with."
It's heartbreaking when I think about the courage she must have had to the adversary, and so much worse, she faced so many years back. Education is something that we must cherish, but just as importantly, everyone who seeks education is allowed to take up the challenge and be encouraged to flourish. We as a country are only as strong as our weakest link. What she faced in 1956 was a weak link exposed, and, over time, past the threats and ostracization, Autherine felt that the University of Alabama had made things right.
"To tell you the truth, as far as that concerns, it matters not," she said."I'm 92 years old. I don't have long to be here. But it's one thing I do feel, the way those children light up and they're happy that they can go to that school, it gives me the greatest respect."