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In February, I told y’all I was working on something big to honor our history. Today, I can finally stop holding back.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been interviewing members of Kids in Birmingham 1963, an organization of citizens who were children during vital moments of the city’s Civil Rights history. While the organization typically talks about racial turmoil and reconciliation, I asked members to think about moments of Black joy erased from media accounts.
This isn’t to discredit the trauma these members endured. Many of them were close to the families of the four girls who were killed during the infamous 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Some of them were attacked by dogs and sprayed with fire hoses during the Children’s March of 1963. Others had close encounters with explosives themselves as the Ku Klux Klan turned their neighborhoods into bombing ground.
But Black life and culture still thrived despite these tragedies. Kids of Birmingham 1963 were full of stories about how music, and their parent’s guidance and love sustained their communities. If we want to document the richness of American history, then we must document he nuances of Black history.
I’ll share these vignettes of joy throughout this month, which is also Women’s History Month. So we have to honor Autherine Lucy Foster, the first Black student to attend the University of Alabama, paving the way for all Black students to attend the state’s flagship university.
This week’s newsletter may be packed with history, but y’all knew we focus on Black joy from both the past and present. Hit us up and tell us how you’re spreading Black today.
‘It’s nice to be nice’
Explosions made the ground tremble in Birmingham, but it couldn’t shake the musical essence of the city’s Ensley neighborhood.
A streetcar intersection known as Tuxedo Junction buzzed with African American nightlife. Jazz music poured from the ballrooms and clubs where Black Americans shrugged off the heaviness of segregation to let loose. A 16-year-old Melvin Todd wasn’t old enough to enter the clubs, but he witnessed how big band culture influenced his community. About a block from Tuxedo Junction lived the family of Paul Williams, a founding member of the legendary Temptations. People sung and men tapped danced as they walked down the street. At Western Olin High School, Todd said the principal yelled at boys who were caught tap dancing in the hallways.
When Melvin’s classmates were jailed following the Children’s March, he said they sang in the jail cells whenever jailers tried to intimidate them.
“If there’s a gift that our ancestors passed on to us, it’s the gift of song,” Melvin said. “Because through that, you can gather the strength you need to persevere and to fight on. We used music as a psychological weapon against what we considered the other side. It was a psychological battle between the oppressed and the oppressor.”
In his essay on the Kids of Birmingham 1963 website, Melvin lays out the differences between two Americas: one for Black people and another for white. His parents tried to protect them from the psychological harms of white supremacy.
When the Christmas parade snaked through Ensley, Santa threw candy for white children to catch but threw the candy for Black children near the gutter. Melvin’s parents didn’t allow their children to take hard candy that touched the ground.
In fact, Melvin grew up believing his family was middle class. Following a Veterans Day parade in 1954, Melvin, his youngest sister and two cousins posed for a photo at a Black-owned studio in downtown Birmingham. Melvin got dressed in his fly, Sunday suit topped off with fancy felt hat.
“During this time, all the Black, grown men wore hats. You were not considered fully dressed unless you wore a hat,” Melvin said. “My dad was training me to be a man. He always stressed education. His words to me were, ‘I want you to get an education because once you get it, nobody can take it away from you.’”
The family get togethers were always poppin’. During the summer, the family traveled a little over an hour away from Birmingham to the family farm in Hale County, where Melvin’s grandfather, “Coot” Collins, raised 13 children. Here, everyone contributed to the cookout. Melvin’s uncles dug big pits and barbecued half hogs and cows over coals. The kids would have some country fun by “mudding” in the slew, a kind of swamp, to catch fish to fry.
Per Coot’s wish to preserve the land for his descendants, the family still maintains the 88-acre farm, purchased during the 1920s. The farm was Depression-proof. Coot fed and provided for his family from the land.
“If any of you children ever have a problem in the city – you just want to get away – you have a home to come to,” Melvin said, repeating the words of his grandfather.
Black love wasn’t only reserved to blood family. Melvin lived in a village that looked out for each other and had fun together. The kids were into baseball back then, but unlike in white communities, Melvin said they didn’t have a nice park to play in. So one of his teen neighbors organized a boy’s club. Their resourcefulness allowed them to raise enough money to clean up some property and create their own baseball field and get their own equipment. The same teen who created the boys club taught the younger kids how to play ball.
Whether familial or platonic, that was the kind of love that vibrated from Ensley: One that made a way out of no way. One that taught Melvin a lesson in Black Joy that he kept throughout his life.
“One of my uncles, who is no longer with us, always had a saying: It’s nice to be nice,” Melvin said. “You get joy out of giving joy to others. That’s the way I feel. I try to spread joy out by helping others.”
Roses for Autherine
If there was a Black woman who definitely should have received her roses sooner it was Autherine Lucy Foster, who died at the age of 92 this week. The youngest daughter of a farming family from Shiloh, Ala., Foster wanted something we all should have: the best education life could offer – no matter our skin color.
After graduating with her bachelor’s degree from the historically Black Miles College, and jumping multiple hurdles, Foster became the first Black student to attend the University of Alabama in 1956. Her time on campus only last three days as she dodged violent white mobs and death threats. The University Board of Trustee suspended her for the chaos white students caused on campus. A few weeks later, she was barred from attending the university at all.
It would be more than 30 years later before the University would drop it ban, allowing Foster to attend the university in 1988. She received a standing ovation when she graduated with her master’s in education in May 1992 alongside her daughter. She was 62 then. As she became older, campus activists and professors pushed the university to give her additional honors: A historic marker in 2017, an honorary doctorate in 2019.
In 1956, Foster took classes in an education building named after former Ku Klux Klan member/Alabama governor Bibb Graves. On Feb. 25, renamed the building Autherine Lucy Hall. Originally, UA’s board of trustees wanted Foster to share a building name with the Klansman. But activists, student journalists, faculty and staff created an uproar loud enough to make the board reverse its decision.
Foster died less than a week after she cut the ribbon to her namesake. According to the Crimson White, she said during the ceremony:
“If I am a master teacher, I hope I am teaching you that love will take care of everything in our world, don’t you think,” Foster said. “And it does not matter what color we are. That’s what I want to teach. It’s not your color. It’s not how bright you are. It is how you feel about those that you deal with. And if I am a master teacher, that’s what I hope to teach.”
Although Foster had to wait more than half of her life to get the honors she deserved, she didn’t hold back on finding joy. Here are a few Black joy facts I was able to find about Foster:
- She was a member of Zeta Phi Beta, one of the historically black Divine Nine sororities. Here’s a photo of her rocking her Zeta Phi Beta graduation stole.
- For Black University of Alabama students, Foster was a barrier breaking grandmother who paved the way for them. After learning about her death, Amber Scales, a Black UA graduate, spoke about how Foster oozed a healing love whenever she came to campus.
“Autherine Lucy Foster saw us y’all. In a way few others ever could. She saw our joy, plain as day on our faces, each time she came to campus and we huddled around her wheelchair beaming thank yous and heartfelt congratulations at her,” Amber said. “She hugged us, held our hands, and told each of us just how proud she was of us. She told us to keep our heads up, to study hard, and to love one another and that after all that God would do the rest.”
Rest in power, Autherine. May the rest of you continue to spread your Black joy. See ya next week!