Sept. 9, 1963
On this day 55 years ago, four African-American children walked into four public schools operated by the Huntsville Board of Education. It became the first public school system in Alabama to integrate. Weeks earlier, a federal judge ordered the board to enroll 6-year-old Sonnie Hereford IV – son of the local civil rights activist Dr. Sonnie Hereford III – at Fifth Avenue School. When father and son showed up on the first day of school, Sept. 6, they found the doors locked and encountered an angry, shouting mob of white parents and children. A photo taken that day shows the Herefords walking home, hand-in-hand, after being turned away. The two returned the following day, and the doors remained locked. The next day, a Thursday, Hereford sent a telegram to the judge. The following morning, state troopers were posted at the school, preventing any children from entering. But something changed over the weekend. On Monday, Sept. 9, the troopers were gone. Sonnie Hereford IV became the first black child enrolled in a formerly all-white public school in Alabama. Later that day, David Piggee was enrolled at Terry Heights Elementary, John Anthony Brewton at East Clinton Elementary, and Veronica Pearson at Rison Junior High. Despite the milestone, it took years and multiple federal lawsuits before most Alabama public schools integrated. Today, Sonnie Hereford IV is a software engineer in Huntsville and his late father’s name graces a new elementary school in the city.
For more on Alabama’s Bicentennial, visit Alabama 200.