Black History Month · HBCU News

Black History Month: I Am… Autherine Lucy

I am Black History. I am Black excellence. I am Autherine Lucy, who was the first black student to attend the University of Alabama.

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Pictured: Roy Wilkins and Thurgood Marshall (director and special counsel for NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund) in a press conference with Autherine Lucy.

I was born in Shiloh, Alabama. My father was a sharecropper, and I was the youngest child of the family of five sons and four daughters. After attending public school in Shiloh through grade ten, I attended Linden Academy in Linden, Alabama. I graduated in 1947 and went on to attend Selma University (a private historically black college) in Selma, Alabama, for two years, after which I studied at Mile College (a historically black college) in Fairfield, Alabama. I graduated from Miles with a bachelor of arts in English in 1952.

In September of 1952, I and a friend, Pollie Myers, a civil right activist with the NAACP, applied to the University of Alabama. We were accepted, but our admission was rescinded when the authorities discovered we were not white. Backed by NAACP, Myers and I charged the University of Alabama with racial discrimination in a court case that took almost three years to resolve. While waiting, I worked as an English teacher in Carthage, Mississippi, and as a secretary at an insurance company.

On June 29, 1955, the NAACP secured a court order preventing the University from rejecting the admissions applications of Lucy and Myers based upon their race. I was finally admitted to the University of Alabama but rejected Myers because a child she had conceived before marriage made her an unsuitable student. Later, the court amended the order to apply to all other African-American students seeking admission. On February 3, 1956, I enrolled as a graduate student in library science, becoming the first African-American ever admitted to a white public school or university in the state.

I attended my first classes on Friday, February 3, 1956. And on Monday, February 6, 1956, riots broke out on campus and a mob of more than a thousand men pelted the car in which the Dean of Woman drove me between classes. Threats were made against my life, and the president was stoned. The police were called to secure my admission. After the riots, the University suspended me from school because of my safety was a concern.

I and the NAACP filed contempt-of-court proceedings against the trustees and president of the University; against the dean of women for barring her from the dining hall and dormitories, and against four other men for participating in the riots. The federal courts ordered that I be reinstated after the university had taken adequate measures to protect me. When I was reinstated on February 29 by court order of the Birmingham Federal Court the university trustees met and expelled me permanently on a hastily contrived technicality. The university used the case as a justification for my permanent expulsion. University officials claimed that I had slandered the university, and they could not have me as a student.

The NAACP felt that further legal actions was pointless and did not contest this decision. For some months afterwards, I was a civil rights advocate, making speeches at NAACP meetings around the country. But by the end of the year, my active involvement in the civil rights movement ceased. For the next seventeen years, my family and I lived in various cities in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. My notoriety made it difficult for me to find employment as a teacher. My family moved back to Alabama in 1974, and I obtained a position in the Birmingham school system.

In April 1968, my expulsion was annulled by the University of Alabama. I enrolled in the graduate program in education the following year and received an M.A. degree in 1992. In the course of the commencement ceremonies, the University of Alabama named an endowed fellowship in my honor. There was also a portrait of me unveiled in the student union; the inscription reads “Her initiative and courage won the right for students of all races to attend the University.”

I am a sister of the Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc.

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Join HBCU Campaign Fund for Black History Month “I Am’s,” exhibiting the outstanding achievements of well-known Black individuals who has contributed to the Black community and beyond.

If you would like to contribute an “I Am” of your all-time favorite Black pioneer to be featured, you may e-mail your “I Am” to support@hbcucampaignfund.org.

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