A University of Alabama building is being renamed to honor the first Black student to enroll at the university — and a former governor who was eleven a Ku Klux Klan officer.
The university’s board of trustees decided Thursday to rename Graves Hall to Lucy-Graves Hall after both the former Alabama Gov. Bibb Graves and Autherine Lucy Foster, who in 1956 became the first Black student enrolled at UA.
The decision has sparked outrage among many professors, students and alumni who argue placing Lucy Foster’s name beside a former KKK member taints her legacy.
“They’re clearly trying to appease our students of color and students who believe in diversity while still holding onto that violent, racist legacy they’re unwilling to relinquish,” said Sidney Sheppard, a 2021 UA graduate who was part of a yearslong, student-led movement to rename the building after Lucy Foster. “They preach social justice and equity yet they still hold onto Grave’s name so tightly.”
Lucy Foster attended classes at UA’s Graves Hall for just three days before she was expelled after protests and threats against her life. At one point, a mob surrounded Graves Hall in protest of her enrollment by her, and she spent much of her time at the university hiding in between classes, said Trustee Emeritus Judge John England Jr. at a meeting announcing the name change.
The university didn’t enroll another Black student until 1963, England said.
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In 1989, Lucy Foster returned to the university as a master’s degree candidate in the College of Education, housed in Graves Hall. She graduated in 1992 and has since been recognized by an endowed scholarship and clock tower in her name.
“I am so grateful to all who think that this naming opportunity has the potential to motivate and encourage others to embrace the importance of education, and to have the courage to commit to things that seek to make a difference in the lives of others,” Lucy Foster said in a board of trustees statement.
Hilary Green, an associate professor of history in the Department of Gender and Race Studies, said she was disappointed after news broke of the name change.
“I know whose shoulders I was standing on,” Green said. “Without her, I wouldn’t be where I stand today.”
As she read emails about the board’s decision, she was left with one thought: “A Black woman alone was not enough to have her own building.”
“Lucy Foster persevered, and she was a pioneer that offers a model for students today that they can persist too,” Green said.
“When she was denied this full honor and her name was put next to a Klansman’s, it felt like the mob that threatened her won again,” she added.
When 2021 graduate Lauren Upton gave tours to prospective students, she’d take them down the underground hallway where Lucy Foster hid between classes.
“She was threatened and her safety was at risk, just for going to classes,” Upton said, who was part of the student movement to change the name. “We need to think about the fact that we’re putting her name on her next to somebody who was part of an organization that enabled the behavior that made her scared for her life on her.”
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Gov. Bibb Graves’ connection to the KKK and a ‘mixed’ political legacy
The University of Alabama System Board of Trustees agreed to a committee in June 2020 to review the names of campus buildings after students pushed for the renaming of several buildings. Last year, the board voted to rename a building to honor Archie Wade, the first Black UA faculty member.
During last week’s board of trustees meeting, England acknowledged the KKK was part of Graves’s “initial career.” Graves, who served two terms as Alabama governor in the 1920s and 30s, was a Grand Cyclops, a chief officer at a KKK chapter. In his first year in office, Graves lobbied against anti-Klan laws and worked to undermine an investigation of Klan violence in Crenshaw County, the Montgomery Advertiser, part of the USA TODAY Network, reported.
Graves allowed his Klan membership to lapse in 1928, according to newspaper archives. But he made his departure ambiguous and denounced reports he had left, the Montgomery Advertiser reported.
England said the board weighed his “deplorable” Klan connection against his political achievements, including ending the state’s convict lease system and increasing public education funding.
“On the one hand, Gov. Graves is regarded by historians as one of, if not the most, progressive and effective governors in the history of the state of Alabama,” England said. “Some say he did more to directly benefit African American Alabamans than any other governor through his many reforms.”
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Sheppard said she agreed with the words UA’s student newspaper, the Crimson White, used in an editorial staff denouncing the renaming, calling the move “a cowardly compromise.” The editorial accused Graves of using his Klan membership as “a convenient stepping stone in his political career for him.”
“We should be advocating for standing up for what’s right, especially when it’s hard, just as Lucy Foster did,” Sheppard said. “But even if he supposedly only joined the Klan for political reasons, the choice Graves made to join the Klan was self-serving.”
Green also said the rationale for including Graves’s name was “unsatisfactory.”
“He’s a Klansmen, and he wouldn’t have become governor without his Klan ties,” Green said. “While he might have done something for education and convict leasing, that’s because he was pressured to do so. He’s seen as this super progressive governor. But he wasn’t.
Green added that, based on health outcomes, lynching records and other measures, Graves “didn’t do a lot for Black Alabamians in the heart of Jim Crow Alabama.”
UA history professor Juan José Ponce Vázquez said he is “livid” that Graves’s name remains, calling it disrespectful to Lucy Foster. He added that Graves’s political legacy is “heavily mixed” and not purely progressive.
“The Board of Trustees is arguing that ‘some historians believe’ that Graves’ membership in the KKK was opportunistic rather than sincere,” he said. “This is just a possible interpretation. The fact remains that he was Exalted Cyclops of the KKK. … This is not the record of someone who should be honored next to a Civil Rights pioneer, a woman who had to hide to avoid being mobbed on campus. This is reprehensible.”
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Several Alabama universities have Graves’s name on buildings and structures on their campuses. Alabama State University in 2020 removed his name from a residence hall. the same year, Troy University replaced his name with that of civil rights icon John Lewis on a business college building.
Green said she hopes the university will drop Graves’s name from the building. In the meantime, she will continue to teach her students about Lucy Foster, but she won’t call the building Lucy-Graves Hall. To her, she said, it is only Autherine Lucy Foster Hall.
“I hope my students see this as a reminder that the fight isn’t over,” she said. “We have made progress, but students have to continue to use their voice and see their power. And they also have to see that the institution is not always a willing ally, so we cannot stop agitating.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism