Black History Month: The desegregation of Huntsville City Schools

Black History Month: The desegregation of Huntsville City Schools

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WAFF) - During Black History Month, WAFF is honoring the men and women that sparked a change in the civil rights movement in north Alabama.

Thursday, we introduced you to the major players in that movement, gaining national attention during a sit-in, in downtown Huntsville. Those same players made sure Huntsville was the first city in Alabama to begin the desegregation of public schools.

But this too was an uphill battle. Although, Dr. Sonnie Hereford III and Dr. John Cashin didn’t give up, as they faced a number of challenges.

Both men have since died, but we got to talk to their children, about their memories of that day and the dangers their families faced along the way.

“We would get bomb threats at the house. Dad would answer the phone, and say ‘Officer Smith,' and if it was someone calling to threaten us, you would hear a click. But if it was family, they knew the drill,” said Sonnie Hereford IV.

He was just a young boy, 5 years old when his parents challenged the school board and the state to desegregate Huntsville City Schools. He remembers a few things, but he says he had no clue the degree of threats his family faced along the way.

“As a young boy, I never grasped how much courage they had because I was so young. I also didn’t understand how dangerous and violent things could be. But as I got older, I was very proud of the fact I was one of the first to integrate the schools in Alabama,” said Sonnie.

He was one of four children to integrate at Huntsville’s 5th Avenue Elementary School.

But what they thought was going to be his first day of school, was not. Governor George Wallace and others worked to prevent this from happening. Even ordering all public schools in Huntsville to remain closed for the first several days of the school year. “They had someone at the door, turning us away, so we had to turn around and walk back home that day,” said Sonnie.

But a lawsuit was filed in federal court, and persistence paid off for this group of Civil Rights soldiers.

As Huntsville schools integrated, it led to the famous picture of Governor Wallace reading The Birmingham News with the headline “Huntsville Defies Wallace”.

Sheryll Cashin, Dr. John Cashin’s daughter, would later integrate into Huntsville City schools. She watched as her family made this sacrifice, to make a change, and to give their children a better education.

“This was our family creed, to make lives better. I was born into that. I did, however, appreciate it more after college. As a child, I resented and competed for my parent’s time. They were always going to do something and make a stand for their cause. But now I’m living their dream, because of the opportunity they gave me. It’s something to be proud of though. I often say Huntsville, Alabama desegregated public schools two full years before the entire state and did it with no violence,” said Cashin.

Now there stands a school bearing the name of Sonnie Hereford III located in northwest Huntsville.

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