Autherine Lucy Foster
Lucy Foster, Autherine 1929–
Autherine Lucy Foster 1929–
Civil Rights pioneer
In February of 1956, just months after the Supreme Court had ruled against segregation in Brown v. the Board of Education, Autherine Lucy enrolled as the first black student at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Her arrival on campus came after years of court battles by the NAACP on her behalf. However, the roots of segregation and racism were too strong for the law to break, much less a shy young woman reared on a rural farm. Angry mobs chased Lucy from campus only three days after her arrival. A month later she was expelled from the university. Though a student for less than a week, Lucy’s time at the University of Alabama was an important milestone in the civil rights movement. Historian Nora Sayre wrote in Previous Convictions, “The Autherine Lucy case became a symbolic battlefield for those who were determined to maintain segregation and those who had resolved to eradicate it.” Today, with the largest percentage of black students of all the Southern universities, the University of Alabama owes much to the legacy of Autherine Lucy Foster.
Autherine Juanita Lucy was born in the small farming community of Shiloh, Alabama, on October 5, 1929. The youngest of ten children, Juanita, as she preferred to be called, grew up on the 110-acre farm maintained by her parents, Minnie Hosea Lucy and Milton Cornelius Lucy. Like her siblings, Lucy was no stranger to hard work and helped her family pick cotton and harvest crops. However, she was a bit awkward and often fell behind the others. She was also very shy, giving no inkling of the civil rights pioneer she would become.
What she lacked in physical stamina, Lucy made up for in intelligence, and she excelled in reading, grammar, and spelling. After graduating from high school she attended Selma University and earned a two-year teaching degree. Later she attended Miles College in Fairfield, Alabama, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in English in 1952. It was at Miles that Lucy met two of the most influential people in her life. One, Hugh Lawrence Foster, would later become her husband. The second, Pollie Anne Myers, would propel Lucy to the forefront of the civil rights movement.
Where Lucy was shy, Myers was extroverted. Where Lucy preferred to study quietly, Myers complemented her studies with activism in the youth chapter of the
At a Glance…
Born Autherine Juanita Lucy, October 5, 1929, in Shiloh, AL; daughter of Milton Cornelius and Minnie (Hoseat Lucy; married Hugh Lawrence Foster, April 22, 1956; children: Hugh, Angela, Crazia, Chrystal. Education: Selma University, teaching certificate; Miles Memorial College, B.A. (English), 1952; University of Alabama, M.A. (elementary education), 1992. Religion: Baptist.
Career: English teacher and substitute teacher, 1952-; teaching career was interrupted in 1956 when Lucy attempted to desegregate the University of Alabama by enrolling as a student; lecturer on the civil rights movement.
Memberships: Board member, Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
Awards: $25, 000 Autherine Lucy Foster endowed scholarship created in her name, University of Alabama, 1992; portrait installed, University of Alabama, 1992.
Addresses: Office —Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, 520 Sixteenth Street North Birmingham, AL 35203.
NAACP. Despite their differences, the two women became fast friends. A few months after their graduation, Myers called Lucy and asked her if she wanted to apply to the University of Alabama for graduate studies. The state’s premier educational institution—while not having a written policy against admitting black students—was in practice and tradition an all-white school. No black student had ever been admitted. “I thought she was joking at first, I really did,” Lucy said, as quoted in The Schoolhouse Door.
On September 4, 1952, Lucy and Myers wrote letters of inquiry to the university. On September 5th, the university responded by sending application forms, and three days later requested a dormitory registration fee of five dollars for each student. The women sent out the fees and were assigned a dormitory on September 10th. On September 13th, the women received a form letter welcoming them to the university. All was going smoothly because the university was unaware that the women were not white. On September 19th the admissions office received applications from the two women which indicated their ethnicity. University officials immediately began a campaign of dissuading the women from pursuing admission.
Lucy and Myers arrived at the admissions office on September 20th. There, the dean of admissions attempted to return their room deposits. Myers and Lucy were told a mistake had been made in offering them admission, and they were turned away. On September 24th, prominent black attorney and desegregationist Arthur Shores wrote to the university president requesting that the women be admitted to the University. The president would not budge, and Shores, along with Thurgood Marshall, then head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, took the matter to court.
In the interim, according to The Schoolhouse Door, “whatever career ambitions had spurred [the two women’s] original desire to apply would now be subservient to ‘the cause.’” While waiting for their day in court, Lucy became an English teacher in Mississippi. Then in May of 1955, the U.S. Supreme Court, ruling in the matter of Brown v. the Board of Education, unanimously declared that segregation was illegal. It became clear that Lucy and Myers’s attempt to enroll at the University of Alabama would be the first great test of Brown.
As the trial approached, the University of Alabama invoked hard-ball tactics to discredit the women, including hiring a private investigator to dig into their backgrounds. They soon discovered that Myers had been pregnant and unmarried at the time of her application. According to the moral codes then in place at the university, this fact made her ineligible for admittance. After the outspoken Myers was disqualified, Lucy faced the unappealing task of continuing on alone. She recalled to The Progressive that after much prayer, “I decided that it was just something that I must do. That I felt it was my task to do. That I couldn’t stop until I felt I had gone as a far as I could.”
On June 29, 1955, Judge Harlan Grooms’s ruling in favor of Lucy decreed that the University of Alabama could not reject her on the basis of race. Two days later the court expanded on the ruling, applying it to all people of color seeking admission to the university. It seemed Lucy had won. However, she would soon sadly find out that having the law on one’s side is not always enough. In the ensuing months, the university’s board of trustees tried all manner of legal maneuverings to overturn the ruling, while at the same time the NAACP began preparing Lucy for entrance into the university. In addition to transportation, clothing, and tuition assistance, the NAACP helped prepare Lucy psychologically. According to Previous Convictions, “[Lucy] was to ignore all insults, to hold her head high.”
In December of 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, a young woman named Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus for a white male passenger. In response, Martin Luther King orchestrated a bus boycott in protest, thereby placing the civil rights movement at the forefront of the American consciousness. The South’s shameful tradition of segregation was coming under full assault. “Segregationists were discovering that black Southerners were ready to defy racist laws,” Sayre noted in Previous Convictions, adding, “Whites had begun to understand that they were confronting a social revolution.” It was in this atmosphere that 26-year-old Lucy stepped onto the Tuscaloosa campus of the University of Alabama for the first time on February 3, 1956.
Lucy’s first two days of classes were uneventful. Though many students shunned her, refusing to sit in the same row that she occupied during classes, a few students whispered words of welcome and good luck. Because the board of trustees had denied her dining hall and rooming privileges, Lucy had to travel sixty miles from her sister’s home in Birmingham to attend classes. Volunteers from the black community drove her to Tuscaloosa and provided her with meals. After classes ended on her second day, Lucy returned to Birmingham for the weekend. As she tried to relax, her sister and brother-in-law intercepted numerous crank calls and death threats. Again, members of the black community offered their help, protecting the house with shotguns and patrols. Meanwhile, back in Tuscaloosa, a mob had begun to form. Crosses burned amid shouts of “Keep ‘Bama White!” and “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Autherine’s gotta go!” According to Previous Convictions, one student ringleader exhorted the mob to convene on campus Monday morning in front of Lucy’s first class and give her “a greeting she would never forget.”
On February 6th, Lucy arrived on campus in a Cadillac owned by a sympathetic black business leader, to find a crowd gathering in front of Smith Hall, the location of her first class. Whether due to confusion or inertia, Lucy was able to make her way peacefully through the throng and enter the building. As she sat in the tense atmosphere of the classroom, the crowd outside swelled. Her professor’s strained lecture was interrupted by shouts of “To hell with Autherine!” and “Let’s kill her!” Recognizing the severity of the situation, the Dean of Women and another university official, Jefferson Bennett, met Lucy as the class let out and insisted she drive with them to her next class at the Education Library. As Lucy and the two officials made their way to the car they were pelted with rotten eggs.
At the library, the situation began to escalate. The crowd grew to between 1, 500 and 3, 000. According to Previous Convictions, Lucy found refuge in a locked room and prayed: “I asked the Lord to give me the strength—if I must give my life—to give it freely,” she was quoted in Previous Convictions. After several harrowing hours, she found an escape. Her friend with the Cadillac had returned, inciting the crowd. The police intervened to spirit the man to safety and in the ensuing frenzy, the mob moved away from the library. Lucy was rushed quickly to a nearby patrol car and, lying on the floor in the backseat, was driven away from campus. Later that night, the board of trustees voted to suspend Lucy on the grounds that the campus was no longer safe for her.
The incident raised national and international concern. There was widespread outrage that the mob had been allowed to defy the law. Autherine Lucy became a household name. Musician Pete Seeger wrote and recorded a song called “Autherine.” Meanwhile, Shores and Marshall filed a complaint against the university, claiming that it had conspired with the rioters. The university took umbrage at this charge and the complaint was eventually withdrawn, but not before the accusations had been made public. As a result, the board finally found a legal, binding reason to expel Lucy permanently—she had defamed the university and its leadership by filing the complaint.
It was March of 1956, and Lucy was mentally exhausted. For a shy farm girl, all the international attention and local drama was too much. With her lawyers conceding that the university’s expulsion was legal, Lucy left Alabama feeling defeated and tired. A letter Marshall wrote to her at the time reminded her otherwise. “Whatever happens in the future, remember for all concerned, that your contribution has been made toward equal justice for all Americans and that you have done everything in your power to bring this about,” it was quoted in The Schoolhouse Door. Though it would be seven years before another black student would enroll at the University of Alabama, there is no doubt that Lucy helped wedge the schoolhouse door open. She told Ebony, “I can’t say that I gained complete satisfaction, but I do feel it was an opportunity to get the ball rolling for the university to be opened to other people in the state.”
Lucy moved to Texas and in April of 1956 married her former sweetheart from Miles College, Hugh Lawrence Foster, a minister. Over the next few decades the couple raised a family, including twins Angela and Hugh Jr., and daughters Grazia and Chrystal. They moved many times throughout Texas due to her husband’s ministry, and Lucy, who took on the name Foster, accepted substitute teaching jobs wherever she could, and spoke at civil rights functions when invited. The family finally moved back to Alabama in 1974.
In 1988 Lucy was invited to speak to a history class at the University of Alabama. According to an article about Lucy on the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project website at Stanford University, she was asked, “Did you ever try to re-enroll?” When she replied that she might consider it one day, a couple of faculty members decided to ask the university to overturn her 1956 expulsion. In April of 1988, 32 years after Lucy was expelled from the University of Alabama, she received a letter inviting her back. The next year she enrolled in a master’s degree program in elementary education. Her daughter Grazia entered the university as an undergraduate at the same time. Four years later, she and her daughter attended commencement exercises. Lucy was greeted with a standing ovation. A $25, 000 endowed scholarship was created in her name and a portrait of her was unveiled in one of the busiest places on campus. It reads, “Her initiative and courage won the right for students of all races to attend the University.”
Clark, E. Culpepper, The Schoolhouse Door: Segregation’s Last Stand at the University of Alabama, Oxford University Press, 1992.
Sayre, Nora, Previous Convictions: A Journey Through the 1950s, Rutgers University Press, 1995.
Ebony, November 1988, pp. 82-83.
Jet, May 25, 1992; February 9, 1998; February 8, 1999.
Progressive, July 1984, pp. 15-19.
Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project, http://www.Stanford.edu/group/King/chronology/details/560206.htm
Lucy Foster, Autherine
Lucy Foster, Autherine
October 15, 1929
Student civil rights activist Autherine Lucy was born in Shiloh, Alabama. She attended public schools there and in Linden, Alabama, before attending Selma University and Miles College in Birmingham, from which she graduated in 1952. In September of that year, she and a friend, Pollie Myers, a civil rights activist with the NAACP, applied to the University of Alabama. Lucy later said that she wanted a second undergraduate degree, not for political reasons but to get the best possible education in the state. Although the women were accepted, their admittance was rescinded when the authorities discovered they were not white.
Backed by the NAACP, Lucy and Myers charged the University of Alabama with racial discrimination in a court case that took almost three years to resolve. While waiting, Lucy worked as an English teacher in Carthage, Mississippi, and as a secretary at an insurance company. In July 1955, in the wake of the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the University of Alabama was ordered by a federal district court to admit Myers and Lucy.
On January 30, 1956, the university admitted Lucy but rejected Myers on the grounds that a child she had conceived before marriage made her an unsuitable student. Lucy registered on February 3, becoming the first African American to be accepted as a student at the 136-year-old University of Alabama.
The university's decision was met with resistance by many students, Tuscaloosa citizens, and the Ku Klux Klan. Crosses were burned nightly on the campus grounds, and mobs rioted at the university in what was, to date, the most violent post-Brown anti-integration demonstration. On the third day of classes, after white student mobs pelted Lucy with rotten produce and threatened to kill her, she was suspended from school on the grounds that her own safety and that of other students required it. The NAACP filed suit protesting this, and the federal courts ordered that Lucy be reinstated after the university had taken adequate measures to protect her. However, on that same day, February 29, Lucy was expelled from the University of Alabama on the grounds that she had maligned its officials by taking them to court. The NAACP, feeling that further legal action was pointless, did not contest this decision. Lucy, tired and scared, acquiesced.
In April 1956, in Dallas, Lucy married Hugh Foster, a divinity student (and later a minister) whom she had met at Miles College. For some months afterward she was a civil rights advocate, making speeches at NAACP meetings around the country. But by the end of the year, her active involvement in the civil rights movement had ceased.
For the next seventeen years, Lucy and her family lived in various cities in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. Her notoriety made it difficult at first for her to find employment as a teacher. The Fosters moved back to Alabama in 1974, and Lucy obtained a position in the Birmingham school system.
In April 1988 Autherine Lucy's expulsion was annulled by the University of Alabama. She enrolled in the graduate program in education the following year and received an M.A. degree in May 1992. In the course of the commencement ceremonies, the University of Alabama named an endowed fellowship in her honor.
Kluger, Richard. Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality. New York: Knopf, 1976. 2d ed., New York: Knopf, 2004.
qadri ismail (1996)