Autherine Juanita Lucy Foster (1929-2022)

Autherine Juanita Lucy, 1956
Public Domain Image

Born on October 5, 1929 in Shiloh, Alabama, Autherine Lucy was one of ten children in a family of farmers. Despite this modest background, Lucy would impact history as the first African American to integrate the University of Alabama. Lucy will also be remembered as the first black student in the history of desegregation to experience the anger of an organized mob.

Autherine Lucy attended high school at Linden Academy in Shiloh, graduating in 1947. She then attended historically-black Selma University in Selma, Alabama before transferring to another black institution, Miles College in Fairfield, Alabama. In 1952, Lucy graduated from Miles College with a B.A. in English. Lucy’s next educational goal was to obtain a master’s degree in education at the University of Alabama.

Lucy’s decision to integrate the University of Alabama was met both with support and opposition from within the black community. She was praised by the Reverend Martin Luther King who declared, “Thank God, there are some people who can rise above the old and broken down thoughts of their parents, who can rise above their background and heredity.” However, Lucy’s own father, who received threats from his white neighbors, was publicly critical of her choice. “That girl’s grown, I raised her to know better. I always treated white people with respect. I always go to the back door,” he explained.

Lucy and her classmate, a journalist and activist named Pollie Anne Myers, engaged in a series of legal proceedings lasting from 1953 until 1955. They were supported by Alabama attorney Arthur Shores along with  Thurgood Marshall and Constance Baker Motley from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. On June 29, 1955, the NAACP received a court order which prevented the University of Alabama from discriminating against applicants based on race. Although both women were legally allowed to enroll in the university, Myers was dismissed as unsuitable because she had a child out-of-wedlock before marriage. This left Lucy alone to run the gauntlet on her first day of class, February 3, 1956.

On February 6, hundreds of people descended on the university to protest Autherine Lucy’s enrollment. The mob, armed with rocks, eggs, and bricks, screamed racist epithets at Lucy and threatened her life. At one point, Lucy was hit in the back with an egg as she was ushered, under police escort, into an auditorium. Although physically separated from the mob, Lucy was still able to hear the jeers and the shouts of the crowd outside. Lucy remained in the auditorium for hours as the crowd outside taunted her.  Eventually, Lucy was escorted from the building unharmed.

After attending the University of Alabama for just three days, Lucy was suspended by the board of trustees. Although ordered by a federal judge to reinstate Lucy, she was expelled at the end of February “for her protection and for the protection of other students and staff members.”  Her attorneys unsuccessfully challenged the expulsion.

Shortly after the expulsion in 1956, Autherine Lucy married Hugh Foster, a minister. The couple had four children. Lucy’s expulsion was finally overturned in April 1988, and she enrolled at the University of Alabama again. In the spring of 1992, Lucy earned a master’s degree in elementary education.

To honor its first black student, the University of Alabama dedicated the Autherine Lucy Clock Tower in 2010. In 2019, the university awarded her an honorary doctorate. Sixty-six years after she was expelled from the University of Alabama, a building–once named for former governor and leader of the Ku Klux Klan, David Bibb Graves–was renamed Autherine Lucy Hall on February 25, 2022.

Autherine Lucy Foster passed away on March 2, 2022. She was 92 years old.