Autherine Lucy Foster, First Black Student at U. of Alabama, Dies at 92

Autherine Lucy had no particular desire to be a civil rights pioneer. Growing up as the youngest of 10 children in an Alabama farm family, she simply wanted to get the best education her state could offer.

She obtained a bachelor’s degree in English from the historically Black Miles College in Fairfield, Ala., in 1952. But then, though she was a reserved, even shy person, she took a daring step: She applied for entrance to her state’s flagship educational institution, the University of Alabama. And she was accepted — at least until university officials discovered that she was Black and promptly told her that a mistake had been made and she would not be welcome.

So began a legal fight that culminated in 1956 — nearly two years after the Supreme Court found segregation in public schools and colleges unconstitutional in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision — when Ms. Lucy became the first Black student at Alabama.

But her quest to obtain a second undergraduate degree, in library science, lasted only three days of classes at Tuscaloosa. When mobs threatened her life and pelted her with rocks, eggs and rotten produce, the university suspended her, ostensibly for her own safety. Several weeks later, it expelled her.

Ms. Lucy after appearing on the Alabama campus for classes in 1956. She was the first Black student to attend the university.Credit…Bettmann, via Getty Images

Her case was the first to test the Supreme Court’s decree giving Federal District Court judges the authority to implement the Brown decision, and she was beaten back. But when she died on Wednesday at 92, she was remembered for her courage and dignity in waging a fight that led directly to sustained integration at Alabama seven years later, in the face of Gov. George C. Wallace’s notorious “stand in the schoolhouse door” defiance.

“What is this extraordinary resource of this otherwise unhappy country that breeds such dignity in its victims?” the New York Post columnist Murray Kempton asked, observing how calm Ms. Lucy seemed in the face of hatred.

Recalling her ordeal at Alabama 36 years earlier, Ms. Lucy told The New York Times in 1992: “It felt somewhat like you were not really a human being. But had it not been for some at the university, my life might not have been spared at all. I did expect to find isolation. I thought I could survive that. But I did not expect it to go as far as it did. There were students behind me saying, ‘Let’s kill her! Let’s kill her!’”

Autherine Juanita Lucy, who was known to family and friends by her middle name, was born on Oct. 5, 1929, in Shiloh, Ala., in the state’s northeast corner. She obtained a two-year teaching certificate from Selma University in Alabama before completing her undergraduate work at Miles College. A friend at Miles, Pollie Anne Myers, a civil rights activist, suggested that they join together in seeking entrance to Alabama.

Ms. Lucy, center, emerged from a federal courthouse on Feb. 29, 1956, after Judge Hobart Grooms ruled that she be allowed to return to the University of Alabama campus. The university had suspended her from classes; after the judge’s order, it expelled her. With her were her lawyers Thurgood Marshall, behind her at left, and, to the right of her, Mr. Shores.  Credit…Gene Herrick/Associated Press

Thurgood Marshall and Constance Baker Motley of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Arthur Shores, a Black lawyer from Alabama who was experienced in civil rights cases, waged a federal court battle on the women’s behalf that began in 1953. (Mr. Marshall went on to become the first Black associate justice of the Supreme Court, and Ms. Motley became a noted federal judge.)

Federal Judge Hobart Grooms ruled in June 1955 that Alabama could not discriminate against Ms. Lucy and Ms. Myers. The Supreme Court upheld his order in October.

The university permitted Ms. Lucy to enroll, though it banned her from dining halls and dormitory rooms. (Pollie Anne Myers, who had had a child before marrying, was not allowed to enroll under the university moral code.)

When Ms. Lucy arrived for her first class, on Feb. 3, 1956, the civil rights struggle was focused on the Montgomery bus boycott in support of Rosa Parks, who was arrested when she refused to give up her seat on a city bus to a white person. But Ms. Lucy drew national coverage in her own right.

The Alabama student government called for observance of law and order, but protests and scattered vandalism erupted on and near the campus, waged by students and outsiders, on Ms. Lucy’s first two days in class. On the third day, when she was hit with debris, she made it to her classes but had to be spirited from the campus crouching in the back of a police car.

That night, Alabama’s board of trustees suspended her. The NAACP defense fund filed a suit contending that the university had conspired with rioters to prevent her admission. There was no evidence for that, and the accusation was subsequently dropped, but the university expelled Ms. Lucy at the end of February on the grounds that she had defamed it.

Alabama students on Feb. 7, 1956, protesting the admission of Ms. Lucy. Some were wiping their eyes from tear gas and smoke bombs that the police had used against them.  Credit…Associated Press

Ms. Lucy married Hugh Lawrence Foster, a divinity student, in April 1956, and they moved to Texas. She sought teaching posts, but, as she recalled, interviewers would say to her, “You were the infamous Miss Lucy, and we don’t want you to come to our school.”

She eventually did teach at various schools in the South, but she largely faded from the civil rights scene while her husband pursued his Baptist ministry and they raised a family.

In the spring of 1963, Alabama admitted two Black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, in accordance with a still-standing order by Judge Grooms relating to the 1950s court battle. But they succeeded in enrolling only after the Kennedy administration pressured Governor Wallace to stand aside from his largely symbolic blocking of the entrance to the registration building.

The University of Alabama did not drop its ban on Autherine Lucy Foster until 1988. She enrolled soon afterward as a graduate student and attended commencement ceremonies in May 1992, when she received a master’s degree in education while her daughter Grazia Foster received a bachelor’s degree in corporate finance. She said that she was still bitter over her treatment years earlier, but that “you just refuse to spend time thinking about it.”

On that graduation day, Alabama unveiled a portrait of Ms. Foster in the student union along with a plaque stating that “her initiative and courage won the right for students of all races to attend the university.”

In November 2010, the university dedicated the Autherine Lucy Clock Tower. In 2019, she was awarded an honorary doctorate by the university. And less than three weeks before she died, the university named the building of its college of education in her honor. It had earlier been named for David Bibb Graves, a former Alabama governor and Ku Klux Klan leader.

University officials announced her death but did not say where she died. Complete information about her survivors was not immediately available.

Autherine Lucy Foster in 2019 after receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Alabama. The university did not drop its ban on her until 1988.Credit…Zach Riggins/UA Strategic Communications, via Associated Press

Autherine Lucy Foster had returned to the state of Alabama in 1974 and taught at a high school in Birmingham in her later years.

In June 2003, the 40th anniversary of successful integration at Alabama, Vivian Malone Jones spoke of her debt to the woman who had first fought its racial barrier.

“I was a child when that happened, but her efforts had an indelible impression on me,” she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I figured if she could do it, I could do it.”

Alex Traub contributed reporting.

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