Hereford family looks at its place in Huntsville history - WAFF-TV: News, Weather and Sports for Huntsville, AL

Hereford family looks at its place in Huntsville history

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Four generations of a Huntsville family marked the anniversary of the desegregation of the city's public schools 50 years later.

On Sept. 9, 1963, Dr. Sonnie Hereford III walked his 6-year-old son Sonnie IV to the city's Fifth Avenue Elementary School, making him the first black student to enroll in the formerly all-white school.

The Herefords actually lived close by the school. "It's only two blocks from the school, but it seemed like 20 blocks that morning," Hereford said.   

The younger Hereford's enrollment was smooth and quiet but it came after a lengthy court fight and some frightening late night phone calls. 

"Somebody would say ‘Dr. Hereford, I'm going to blow your G-D head off tomorrow morning,'" Hereford said. "Or they'd say ‘I'm going to blow up your office.' ‘I'm going to plant a bomb in your car.'  ‘If you walk that kid to school, we're going to shoot you on the way to school.'  That sort of thing. So it was a long walk that morning."

Sonnie Hereford IV has little recollection of that first day. 

"I had no idea really what was going on," he said. "I'm really glad that I was only six and not 16 because when I was six I didn't understand how the world can be and I would have been a lot more afraid at sixteen than I was at six. My parents did a great job of protecting me from the ugliness."

The younger Hereford is now a father, and a grandfather.

His daughter Catherine grew up hearing the stories and was starkly aware of how different her own experience was starting school in post-segregation upstate New York.

"It was nothing like his," she said. "All the anxiety, the apprehension I had, I know that it was nothing compared to what he was feeling. I don't think that there's any comparison there. I can't even imagine."

The experience became more remote still for her son Maren Hereford, now 11.  But the family has tried to teach him about its role in history.

"I think that I am pretty lucky," he said. "I'm glad that thing have been helped and there aren't as many racist things going on now."

In trying to pass the story along, Sonnie Hereford III admitted to finding some frustration not among young people but among his own contemporaries. 

"I actually get eye rolls," he said, "from older people who ask questions like 'well, why do you still talk about this? Why is this? Why do you keep bringing this up?' 'That was 50 years ago' or 'that was 40 years ago.' 

"I think it's important for people to understand the battles that had to be fought. The sacrifices that had to be made. The risks that had to be taken.  I think it's very important for people to understand that."

Catherine Hereford agreed, and reflected on her own experiences following her grandfather to public appearances.  

"Just recently I've been going with him," she said, "introducing him at certain talks and hearing his speech, more and more and thinking about carrying on the tradition because when he's not able to tell the stories any more, we're going to need to tell his stories."    

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