BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — At first glance, it’d be hard to guess Autherine Lucy Foster’s place in Alabama history.
At her home outside Bessemer, family photos stand on a piano. On one chair is a pillow with a photo of her and her late husband, Hugh, on it. Above her is a few awards she has received from schools like Miles College and the University of Alabama.
Very little in the house shows how Foster was the first Black student enrolled at the University of Alabama in 1956, where she attended for three days until mobs and threats of violence forced her to leave.
However, in some ways, Foster said she doesn’t feel she deserves all the praise and recognition.
“I know it’s an honor, but I don’t feel that I’m so blessed to get that honor,” she said. “I mean, I’m blessed, but I never expected to get that honor.”
Over the last few years, the 92-year-old retired teacher has received further accolades from the university she was once a student at. In 2017, she received a marker outside Graves Hall to commemorate her contributions to civil rights. In 2019, she received an honorary doctorate from the university.
Now, 66 years after first enrolling at the university, Foster’s legacy will continue with Graves Hall being renamed Lucy-Graves Hall, sharing the name of Bibb Graves, a former Alabama governor who had been the Montgomery chapter leader of the Ku Klux Klan before taking office in 1921.
‘I haven’t done anything to them’
For Foster, getting into the University of Alabama was just as hard as getting out. In 1952, she and Pollie Myers Hudson, a friend from her time at Miles College, applied and were accepted at UA. However, they were not allowed to enroll because they were Black, leading the two women to take the matter to court. Eventually, the university was forced to admit Foster, but refused to admit Hudson, citing a violation of the school’s moral codes because she had given birth before she was married at the time of her application.
“I wanted to go then because they wouldn’t let her go and I couldn’t understand it,” Foster said. “I felt that that was just an excuse to keep us from going and they felt like if she didn’t go, I probably wouldn’t try to go, so I was happy to try to prove them wrong at that point and if they would let me go, that’s what I did.”
On February 3, 1956, Foster went to Tuscaloosa to enroll at the university, becoming the first Black student the school had had since it was first founded in 1831. By that time, tensions were starting to boil in the community with her.
According to The Birmingham News, four crosses were seen burning on campus a couple of days before Foster arrived in town. For her safety, Foster had to be escorted to her classes in a car. All the while, angry crowds would linger all day.
“At that point, it was almost all people in the white race didn’t want me,” she said. “I just said, ‘Oh well, I haven’t done anything to them. I have to learn to do like my dad.’ My dad didn’t care what color they were.”
On February 26, 1956, a crowd began surrounding Smith Hall, where Foster was having class. She was eventually escorted out by car, all as protesters began throwing rocks at the car. The university soon suspended her, citing concern for her safety if she returned, and eventually expelled her when she and others took them to court over the protests.
Foster said that for a time, she felt like the trauma of what happened to her on campus stuck with her, at least until she and her husband married in 1956 and moved to Texas.
“A lot of times, I had trouble sleeping,” she said.
In 1974, Foster and her family moved back to Alabama, where she eventually became a teacher at Charles F. Hard Elementary and Ensley High School. In 1988, the university wiped out Foster’s expulsion, allowing her to enroll again. The next year, Foster began studies for a master’s degree, which she received from UA in 1992.
Foster said that while she is proud of the recognition the university has given her over the years, there’s only one thing that matters to her.
“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.”
‘I don’t know anything about him’
During the UA trustees meeting, longtime board member Judge John England discussed the legacies of both Foster and Graves, who led the state from 1927 to 1931 and then from 1935 to 1939.
“On the one hand, Gov. Graves is regarded by historians as one of, if not the most, progressive and effective governors in the history of the state of Alabama,” England said. “Some say he did more to directly benefit African American Alabamians than any other governor through his many reforms. Unfortunately, that same Gov. Graves was associated with the Ku Klux Klan. Not just associated with the Ku Klux Klan, but a Grand Cyclops. It’s hard for me to even say those words.”
Nonetheless, England said he and the naming committee for the motion decided to keep Graves’ name on the building, along with Foster.
“We also considered the contributions made and we decided, after much wrestling with it, should this man’s initial and temporary political association with such an organization outweigh the tremendous progress and positive impact achieved? We’re talking about during a time when Alabama was rigidly segregated.”
The Crimson White, UA’s student newspaper, criticized the decision as conflating one legacy worth celebrating for another that shouldn’t.
“Lucy risked everything to desegregate The University of Alabama. For her efforts, she was driven out of the University and was not permitted to return as a student until more than 30 years later,” an editorial from the newspaper read. “Graves’ Klan membership was a convenient steppingstone in his political career. He shed his white robes once they no longer suited his political purpose. While he became known as one of the most progressive governors in the South, his ability to do so came with the endorsement of a white supremacist organization.”
Rep. Nikema Williams, Foster’s great niece, echoed the CW editorial board.
“My Aunt, Autherine Lucy Foster, effectively changed the course of education not only in the state of Alabama, but across the country. Her courage should be recognized by generations to come,” Williams said in a statement to CBS 42. “I look forward to the day that The University of Alabama can celebrate her courage and commitment to justice without uplifting the stains of our past.”
Foster said she had been told about the board wanting to add her name to the building, but did not know it had passed until the weekend.
“I don’t know how to feel because I don’t know anything about him,” she said. “I wouldn’t say it doesn’t bother me, but I accept it because I didn’t ask for it and I didn’t know they were doing it until I was approached the latter part of last year.”
However, Foster said she doesn’t mind having her name next to Graves’.
“Everybody can change,” she said. “Maybe he changed before he left this world.”
Instead of dwelling on Graves or the anger and violence she faced decades ago, Foster said she has decided to focus on love and coming together.
“I’m going to keep my mind free and I’m going to do what I say I’m going to do: I’m going to love everybody, forgive them for what they’ve done,” she said. “I’ve had some things happen to me, but I can’t go around worrying about how people have treated me in the past. We got to forget about all that if we’re going to ever get together. How are we going to go to heaven together if we can’t live down here together?”