Autherine Lucy: First African American to attend University of Alabama

Autherine Lucy: First African American to attend University of Alabama

In May of 2019, the University of Alabama presented Autherine Lucy with an honorary doctorate degree. It was not, however, for the university a typical honorific. The university was honoring the very woman who integrated the school in 1956.

Born in Shiloh, Alabama, October 5, 1929—the youngest child in a family of sharecroppers, Lucy attended Linden Academy, graduating in 1947. She then attended Selma University before transferring to Miles College in Fairfield, Alabama, a historically-black college, before earning a BA in English from Miles in 1952.

Along with Pollie Myers, a civil rights activist and NAACP member who was her friend, Lucy applied to the University of Alabama seeking a second bachelor’s degree. Their admission was rescinded when it was discovered the two were African American. The duo sued the university, resulting in a three-year court battle.

The legal team representing Autherine Lucy, the first black to attend classes at the University of Alabama, leave federal courthouse in downtown Birmingham. First row, from left, Lucy, NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall, Birmingham lawyer Arthur Shores. Behind Shores is NAACP lawyer Constance Baker Motley.

On June 29, 1955, a federal court ordered that the university could not reject the two based upon their race. Although the university excluded Myers from admission, claiming a child she had conceived out of wedlock made her an unsuitable student, it did admit Lucy, but barred her from dorms and dining halls.

Lucy formally enrolled as a graduate student, studying library science, on Feb. 3, 1956.

The following Monday, the car Lucy was being driven to classes in by the college’s dean of women was pelted with rocks and threats were made against Lucy’s life. The rioting on campus are considered the most violent pro-segregation demonstration in the post-Brown v. Board of Education period. Lucy was suspended from the university as a result of the rioting.

With the NAACP, including Thurgood Marshall, as her counsel, Lucy filed contempt motions against the university and its trustees, as well as against four riot participants. The school used the case as its reason to permanently expel Lucy, claiming she had slandered the university.

In 1988, the university annulled her expulsion, and she was allowed to enroll in graduate school, earning her MA in 1992. A clock tower on the campus bears her name today. An endowed fellowship was created in her honor and announced during her graduation in 1992.

A historical marker was unveiled in Lucy’s honor in 2017.

Autherine Lucy Foster at the historical marker dedication honoring her in 2017.

She was awarded an honorary doctorate by the school in May, 2019.

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