By James Haynes
Passing through tall Bermuda grass growing around a building at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, a vistor might
notice that it needs to be mowed soon. A short drive away at the University of Alabama, the pristinely-cut, freshly-cut grass grows, and sticks to the tennis shoes of visitors to that campus.
Stillman College and UA both have distinct, yet intertwined, histories. Fifty years ago, Governor George Wallace famously blocked the Foster Auditorium doors at Alabama. Meanwhile at Stillman, where the doors had always been open, the civil rights movement was gaining increasing momentum among the students at the all-Black liberal arts college. Well, almost all-Black.
Sara Smith, a white college student, chose to attend Stillman College as part of a broader interest in anthropology and race relations study. On the advice, and with the help of, Chaplain James Joseph at her California college, Smith arrived in Tuscaloosa for the spring semester at Stillman in 1965.
“I was trying to be part of something,” she said.
In her semester spent at Stillman, Smith said she saw a high level of mutual support in the student body, and also spoke to this community at other historically black colleges and universities (HCBUs), such as Tuskegee University.
Eddie Thomas has been in Tuscaloosa much longer than a college semester. The 1962 Stillman graduate who earned his doctorate at UA has worked in education for most of his life and is now vice president for external affairs at the college.
Thomas said Stillman has a “sense of belonging.” He said that when Vivian Malone, along with James Hood, became the first black student to enroll at Alabama, she sometimes left the stressful environment and came on Stillman’s campus to seek a safe haven.
“When the pressure got on Vivian, we would bring her on campus, a peaceful climate,” Thomas said. Malone found more than just a safe haven at Stillman, as it turned out: she later married Mack Arthur Jones, a Stillman graduate.
Stillman wasn’t sealed off from the civil rights movement, though. One Stillman student, Nellie Hester, had a Rosa Parks experience on one of the Stillman college buses around 1963. When she sat in the white-only section protesting segregation, Thomas said, “that brought some students into the movement.”
Smith also got involved in the local civil rights movement; she participated in a demonstration Selma the Saturday before “Bloody Sunday.”
“It was an exciting time to be in Alabama,” she said.
Though Wallace’s goal in 1963 was to halt integration in its tracks, the civil rights movement couldn’t be stopped. Now, 50 years later, a majority of African-American students choose to attend predominately white institutions (PWIs). Both Thomas and Smith agree that HBCUs, however, are not obsolete.
“There is absolutely a role for HCBUs,” Smith said. “There’s a sense of community, it’s less isolating…[It’s] completely different at other schools…I can see it.”