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Autherine Lucy Foster, first Black student at the University of Alabama, dies at 92

Autherine Lucy Foster, center, in 1956.
Autherine Lucy Foster, center, discusses her experience at the University of Alabama at a news conference in 1956 with Ruby Hurley, right, a regional NAACP official, and attorney Arthur Shores.
(Gene Herrick / Associated Press)
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Autherine Lucy Foster, who endured death threats and racist taunts as the University of Alabama’s first Black student but later became a much-honored alumni, has died at 92.

University officials announced her death in a statement. Her daughter, Angela Foster Dickerson, said her mother died Wednesday morning but did not state a cause.

Foster in 1956 briefly attended classes at the then all-white university. She was expelled three days later after her presence brought protests and death threats. A graduate student studying education, Foster had faced hostile crowds hurling racially charged threats and debris.

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The university later celebrated Foster’s legacy, her role in desegregating the institution and her bravery at a time when much of the Deep South was still segregated.

Foster’s determination to attend the university came six years before James Meredith arrived at the all-white University of Mississippi in 1962, sparking a night of deadly rioting as angry white people armed with rocks, bottles and guns clashed with federal marshals. Thousands of federal troops were dispatched to quell the violence, which left two dead and hundreds injured, but Meredith emerged from the shelter of a dormitory the next day to become the first Black person to attend the university, ending a century of white privilege.

Foster’s death comes less than a week after University of Alabama officials dedicated the campus building where she briefly attended classes in her honor. During the ceremony, she was also proclaimed a “master teacher.”

“If I am a master teacher, what I hope I am teaching you is that love will take care of everything in our world, don’t you think?” Foster said at the dedication ceremony last week.

“It’s not your color. It’s not how bright you are. It’s how you feel about those that you deal with,” Foster said.

In 2019, she was awarded an honorary doctorate by the university, where she had returned and earned a master’s in education in 1992.

“Dr. Foster will always be remembered as one who broke barriers, reminded us of the respect due to every individual and lived a life of strength in steadfast service to her students and community,” University President Stuart R. Bell said in a statement.

A plan for the building to also keep the name of one-time Gov. Bibb Graves, who was a leader of the Ku Klux Klan, was abandoned after heavy criticism.

“It felt that even her [Foster’s] legacy, no matter what accolades she had previously as a Black woman, it did not matter. She had to share the indignity of being on a building name hyphenated with a Klansmen,” Hilary Green, an associate history professor at the university, told AL.com.

Trustees decided instead to rename the classroom building solely for Foster, and it will be known as Autherine Lucy Hall.

Foster’s family wanted to use her maiden name since she was known as Autherine Lucy while originally on campus.

After Foster left the campus in the 1950s, Black students did not return until 1963, when Gov. George Wallace made his infamous stand in the door to prevent two Black students from entering. The National Guard later pushed Wallace aside.

A Times staff writer contributed to this report.

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