Standing in the Schoolhouse Door: A look back 55 years later

By Briana Michel

 

Laura Hunter stood on the top floor of her dorm room on The University of Alabama Campus in June of 1954. In the brutally hot, non-air conditioned building, she looked out a corner window. She did not know she would bear witness to history in that moment. But 55 years later, she remembers it well.

June 11 marked the 55th anniversary of the Stand in the Schoolhouse Door at Foster Auditorium, when former Gov. George C. Wallace defiantly blocked two African-American students from enrolling at the University of Alabama. Hunter was there.

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“It really impacted me,” Hunter said. “I survived it and I learned an awful lot.”

Hunter said, as a “cow country girl” from a rural Alabama town with no diversity, she never would have expected the country to be so diverse now. In what she described as the “big, big world,” in that moment her eyes opened up to the idea that integration within schools can happen.

Her husband, Tom Hunter, then 22 years-old working in Galilee Hall on the UA campus, never would have imagined being part of on such an important event in history.

The two looked out onto the quad filled with nothing but media, military and state troopers. Loaded with riot gear and armed with rifles, soldiers poured out of the “cattle trucks.”

Escorted out of the enrollment hall and towards Mary Burke West Hall, the first pair of African-American students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, were circled by a sea of black suits that held the eyes of everyone within range.

Guardsmen continued to accompany the two students to class after they enrolled and there were times where entire floors were closed off for their protection. Simply put, everyone knew who they were because they were not white.

Laura Hunter could see the pair “in the wad of people surrounding them like they were a prisoner.”

“I kept thinking how lonely that lady must be,” Hunter said. “I kept thinking ‘Does anyone talk to either one of them?’”

Gov. Wallace was then escorted out of the building into a black limousine and off to Montgomery. Soldiers, state troopers and national guardsmen were left behind.

Laura Hunter, now an author, later learned that soldiers were not issued bullets that day, after speaking with a former guardsman for an article she wrote.

“When I was younger I never thought I’d see anything like that. We happened to be at the right place, at the right time to see history,” said Tom Hunter.

“We happened to be at the right place, at the right time to see history”

Regarding progress today, Laura Hunter points to a quote from the late Zora Neale Hurston, “You have to go there to know there.”

Tom Hunter, a young employee at the university’s psychology building at the time, witnessed the symbolic incident and it still sticks with him.

“We have seen many, many changes that I never really could’ve looked out there 50 years ago and anticipate,” Tom Hunter said. “The way people are treated … equality.”

Prejudice played a big role in the experience.

“I didn’t know that I was supposed to be a prejudiced person because there were no people of color, no people from any other country in our school, and certainly none in our neighborhood,” Laura Hunter said. “My first question was ‘What’s this all about anyway? Why not just let these people come to school?’”

Tom continued, “The people that I worked with, and certainly the faculty and students here were not anywhere near Wallace’s prejudice – it just wasn’t there.”

The question of whether Wallace was simply prejudiced, or just functioning in the role of a player on political field to live up to his title as governor, still lingers in the minds of many.

“Anyone one that was there and saw it would agree that it was blown up politically for Wallace’s benefit,” Tom Hunter said. “And I don’t think the people of Alabama wanted Wallace’s prejudice at that time. I know they didn’t.”

The Hunters agree that although injustices are often kept in the dark, the country has made remarkable advances towards a more progressive era. Laura Hunter, said that as a high school teacher, she was no stranger to the injustices in schools. She stood strongly in her belief in fighting prejudice and unkindness on and off school campuses.

“Tuscaloosa is a little bit ahead of other parts of the state of Alabama,” now, he said. “Things are going big for the university, and it’s crazy how the city is growing. It’s great.”

The university has always been home away from home for the Hunters for decades. As their lives centered around it, the love for their work and resources available to them was everything they felt they needed to nurture a family.

That day in 1954 Laura Hunter watched from the top floor window of a dorm room. Her world spinning away from what she thought she knew. The ending result was fear. Fear of what was, and what would be. And now? The lessons linger.

“Take your stand,” Laura Hunter said. “If you don’t, then yes, we will become a fearful country.”

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