Sonnie Hereford and his dad walked into the front doors of Fifth Avenue School on September 3, 1963, when Sonnie was 6.
Sonnie Hereford and his dad walked to Fifth Avenue School on September 3, 1963, when Sonnie was 6. (Sonnie Hereford and his dad walked to Fifth Avenue School on September 3, 1963, when Sonnie was 6. (AP))

The Quiet Desegregation of Alabama’s Public Schools

Sonnie Hereford IV desegregated Alabama’s public schools in 1963. He was only 6 years old.

Editor’s Note: This is the third story in The Firsts, a five-part series about the children who desegregated America’s schools.

Everyone seems to make the same mistake. They look at the picture of him, Sonnie Hereford IV, and think they know the story. In the photo, he is 6 years old. He is holding his father’s hand, walking down Governors Drive on September 3, 1963. People see him and see a boy on his way to desegregate Alabama’s schools, to become the first Black kid in attendance at Huntsville’s public, all-white Fifth Avenue School.

But that’s not what the photo shows. Now, more than 50 years later, he motions to me and then points to his head in the photo. It’s slightly bent down. He wasn’t on his way to school when that photo was taken, despite what newspaper captions would say in the days and weeks and months to follow. He had been turned away. The photo shows him going home.

Sonnie Hereford IV, holding his father’s hand, walks home after being turned away from the all-white Fifth Avenue School. (Courtesy of Sonnie Hereford IV)

It should have been certain that Hereford would enroll at Fifth Avenue. The school was just a few hundred yards away from his family’s home, and Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark case that outlawed the doctrine of “separate but equal,” had been federal law for nearly a decade. Still, Fifth Avenue had remained an all-white school due to Alabama law; Hereford would have to enroll at the all-Black school roughly a mile and a half away.

Hereford’s family had been in Huntsville for generations. His father, Sonnie Hereford III, was born there in 1931, and attended the town’s public school for Black students—a school he had to walk nearly six miles to get to. “He had to walk to school even though there were school buses that ran along that route, [because] only the white children were able to ride on the school buses,” Hereford told me. The buses would kick up dirt as they passed, and sometimes white children would throw things out the window or spit at the Black children, he said. “Even worse than that, the bus driver would slow down so that the white children could aim better.”

After primary and secondary school, Hereford’s dad worked his way north. He attended Alabama A&M College—now Alabama A&M University. After two years, he was accepted into Meharry Medical College, in Nashville, Tennessee, where he earned a doctorate of medicine in the early 1950s. Then he moved to East Chicago, Indiana, where he did his residency at St. Margaret’s Hospital, in neighboring Hammond. There, he met his wife, Martha, who was working at the hospital as a nurse. And in 1957, his son, Sonnie IV, was born. But the draw of home—helping people in the town where he grew up—pulled him and his family south, back to Huntsville.

Hereford III became active in civil-rights organizing in Huntsville. And in March of 1962, his group coaxed Martin Luther King Jr. to the city. Many months of sit-ins, boycotts, and marches in the city had not changed very much, and Huntsville’s Black leaders thought that, perhaps, a visit from King could inject life back into the movement. Hereford III, as the proud owner of a Cadillac convertible, got to drive King around during his visit.

Sonnie’s dad took King to Oakwood College—now Oakwood University—where he delivered his speech. King talked about keeping the movement nonviolent, and he talked about school integration. “Dr. King knew that if you could get children together at an early age and they could see that people were just people, then as they got to be older children and young adults, things could go better,” Sonnie said.

Dozens of Black families across the city took King’s message as a charge: The schools should be desegregated—that was the law—and their children should be the ones to desegregate them. In 1962, Sonnie’s father, along with 34 other Black families in Huntsville, petitioned the school board. Their children should be allowed to go to the school closest to their family’s homes, they argued. Hereford III was well aware of the indignities of having to travel an extra distance to school because of segregation, and he resolved that his son would not have to face them.

By 1963, they had taken their grievance to federal court. The school board defended itself on grounds individual and broad: Crossing Governors Drive to get to school would be dangerous for the children; the schools hadn’t been integrated before; their presence would interrupt education for other, white students who had never been in class with a Black student; and in Sonnie’s case specifically, the school district said it couldn’t find his birth certificate—he was born in Indiana, and that’s where the document remained, Hereford recalls.

Over time, families began to drop off the suit, eventually leaving only four. These remaining families were less vulnerable to economic consequences—so they persisted.

In 1963, the federal district judge, Harlan Grooms—who had ruled in 1955 that the University of Alabama could not bar Autherine Lucy from enrolling—didn’t buy the city’s view. He dismissed part of the defense’s argument outright and questioned the leadership of the schools if they couldn’t control their students with an additional four Black students present. He ruled that the law was clear: Huntsville was operating a segregated public-school system, and the Supreme Court had deemed that unconstitutional. The city needed to integrate its public schools. The first battle had been won as Sonnie was about to enter first grade.

No parent wants to send his or her child into a potentially dangerous situation. Black students across the country had made national news in their pursuit of an equal education, for the violence that accompanied their efforts. But Sonnie’s parents were committed to the cause, as were the three other families. That meant preparing their children for what they would soon face.

Sonnie’s parents “protected me from some of the ugliness,” he told me, but they also helped him understand that “other people were depending on me to be successful.” The burden of being a first, even at the age of 6, is the need to leave a path for others to follow. Still, because Sonnie was a child, his parents took precautions. “They didn’t like for me to answer the phone during that time [between the judge’s ruling and his first day of school] because there were a lot of bomb threats and death threats.”

His father developed a unique way of handling the threats. “He would answer the phone,” Sonnie said, “and say something like, ‘Officer Timson, Huntsville Police Department,’ and frequently the next thing he would hear at the other end of the line was: click.” No one wants to threaten a police officer, he wagered. Outside of those threats, however, Sonnie doesn’t remember any incidents of physical violence against him.

On Tuesday, September 3, the day after Labor Day and the first day of school, Sonnie put on his crisply ironed shirt and his shorts. His dad donned a suit, bow tie, and fedora, and they headed off to enroll at Fifth Avenue. But Governor George Wallace, who had taken office earlier that year declaring, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” had closed schools across the state—in Birmingham, Tuskegee, Mobile, and Huntsville—to prevent their desegregation. Sonnie and his dad were turned back at the door, and that’s when the famous photo was snapped.

The headlines in the national papers over the next several days varied wildly: The New York Times situated “U.S. Ready to Use Troops If Needed in Alabama Crisis” next to “School Integration Begins Calmly in South Carolina and Baton Rouge” and “South Is Orderly as Schools Open” on its front page. The schools in Huntsville remained closed as Sonnie and his dad again attempted to enroll on Wednesday and Thursday of that week. By Friday, Hereford had alerted Judge Grooms, who stepped in to force the state to open schools’ doors. The governor sent state troopers to surround the schools set to desegregate in Huntsville.

On the following Monday, September 9, the state troopers were gone. Sonnie and his dad yet again made the march to Fifth Avenue, and this time he was admitted with little incident. “The atmosphere,” Hereford III told reporters at the time, “was almost unbelievable.” Teachers, parents, other students—everyone, he said—were all smiles. “One lady was sitting next to me and she struck up a conversation,” he recalled. This was not typical of all his interactions with white people in the city—of the death threats he received for desegregating schools. The other three Black children enrolled later that day.

When school ended at 1:30 that afternoon, Sonnie’s dad returned to pick him up. “The child was smiling as he left the school,” the Times reported, “holding his father’s hand and wearing a round paper name tag.” The day, Sonnie said, was uneventful. It was much like any other day of school would have been.

That Governor Wallace had allowed the schools in Huntsville to integrate was a wonder, and there was heavy speculation as to why. Perhaps, Hereford III theorized, the city’s reliance on federal money—Huntsville was rich with government contracts and had recently established a NASA center—gave the Black families leverage. If the city did not comply with federal laws, it stood to lose a lot.

Hereford IV at home near Huntsville, where his family has lived for generations—and where, in 2016, the Sonnie Hereford III Elementary School opened (Bethany Mollenkoff)

Sonnie’s first year at Fifth Avenue went off without much ado. He was smart, and rather athletic, he said, and kids generally didn’t pick on him in the classroom or on the playground. He learned reading, writing, and arithmetic. In his class photo, he is one Black face—beaming in the middle of the fold—surrounded by white students. However, a handful of incidents transpired that still stick with him today.

“In first grade, we had the old-fashioned cafeteria style where the trays are stacked up, and you take your tray down off the stack and slide it along the rail,” he told me. “And one little girl, a white girl, of course, wasn’t tall enough to get her tray down.” So Sonnie grabbed a tray and went to hand it to her. “And she said, ‘Oh, no, my mother told me never to take anything from a nigger.’” It was jarring, he said, but what he understood from the incident was that “children aren’t born with those prejudices; it’s not until they are taught those prejudices that they learn not to like people who are different than they are.”

Then, in second grade, another incident. His classmate Roger—“I still remember his name all these years later,” he said—was picking on him during recess. “He was calling me names, and it didn’t bother me until he threw some dirt on me, and then he and I got into a scuffle.” Sonnie said he ultimately pinned Roger down, “sat on top of him, and I was just putting handfuls of dirt on top of him. I’m not proud of that, but that’s what happened.”

Both of the boys were taken to the principal’s office. Roger was sent home to change clothes, and didn’t get in trouble. Sonnie was disciplined, and the principal, he said, explained that it was because of the amount of dirt he’d put on Roger. “That’s the only time I can remember a faculty member or an administrator making any difference between me and the white children who were at that school.”

After second grade, Sonnie transferred to St. Joseph’s Catholic School—a mission school that had been established for Black children, and that had enrolled its first white students on September 3, 1963, the day that the public schools in the city were supposed to desegregate. He attended through eighth grade, before re-enrolling in the public junior high school, Ed White. He then attended one of the city’s five public high schools, Butler, a school whose mascot was the Rebels, and where a giant Confederate flag was painted on one of the gym walls.

The case bearing Sonnie’s name—Hereford and U.S. v. Huntsville City Board of Education—has gone through several iterations and is still working its way through the court system. The city’s schools are making slow progress—earlier this year, a federal judge ruled that they had achieved racial balance in student transportation. But Black students are still disciplined at higher rates, and the facilities at schools with predominantly Black student populations are in need of renovation.

Fifth Avenue School no longer exists; it was razed in 2003. In its place on Governors Drive stands Governor’s Medical Tower, a brick, glass, and limestone edifice, home to the spine-and-neurosurgery center of Huntsville Hospital. Just outside the center, along the lengthy drag that runs clean through the city, is a freestanding marker. The plaque, honoring the history that was made at Fifth Avenue, is dwarfed by the building it’s now situated next to.

Hereford still lives near Huntsville, where, in 2016, the Sonnie Hereford III Elementary School opened. That building has a plaque too, embedded in the ground outside. It holds two sets of footprints, one representing Sonnie, the other representing his father. “The steps of courage in the past,” it says, “have created the opportunities for those today.”