Alabama reconsiders decision to keep KKK leader’s name on building, along with first Black student

Published 9:22 pm Thursday, February 10, 2022

The University of Alabama is reconsidering its decision last week to retain the name of a one-time governor who led the Ku Klux Klan on a campus building while adding the name of the school’s first Black student.

Trustees will meet publicly in a livestreamed video conference on Friday to revisit their decision to keep the name of former Alabama Gov. Bibb Graves on a three-story hall while renaming it Lucy-Graves Hall to also honor Autherine Lucy Foster, the University of Alabama System said.

The decision to honor Foster alongside a one-time KKK grand cyclops was criticized harshly by some. An editorial in the student newspaper said Graves’ name doesn’t belong beside Lucy’s, given his association with the violent, racist organization.

Foster herself expressed ambivalence, telling WIAT-TV she didn’t know much about Graves, who was considered a progressive, pro-education governor in the 1930s, despite having led the Klan in Montgomery during a period when it was at its strongest.

“I wouldn’t say it doesn’t bother me, but I accept it because I didn’t ask for it and I didn’t know they were doing it until I was approached the latter part of last year,” said Foster, 92.

The committee that recommended honoring both people together “acknowledges the complexity of this amended name,” the university said.

“The board’s priority is to honor Dr. Autherine Lucy Foster, who, as the first African American student to attend the University of Alabama, opened the door for students of all races to achieve their dreams at the university. Unfortunately, the complex legacy of Governor Graves has distracted from that important priority,” it said.

Foster, who lives in metro Birmingham, briefly attended classes in Graves Hall after enrolling at all-white Alabama in 1956 but was expelled three days later after her presence brought protests and threats against her life. In 2019, she was awarded an honorary doctorate by the university, where she had returned and earned a masters degree in education in 1992.

The university also recognized Foster in 2017 with a historic marker in front of Graves Hall, which houses the college of education. It named a clock tower after Foster, and she’s a member of the university’s student hall of fame.

Graves, who began the first of two terms as governor in 1927, left the KKK in the late 1920s, after multiple terms in the legislature. As a member of the House, he opposed ratification of Alabama’s 1901 Constitution, which was meant to ensure white supremacy in the state and remains in effect today although heavily amended.

Several state universities have stripped Graves’ name from buildings in recent years as the nation reconsidered its past. Troy University renamed its Bibb Graves Hall for the late Rep. John Lewis, who was denied admission there in 1957 and led voting rights marchers in Selma in 1965.

John England Jr., a former Alabama trustee who is Black, served as chairman of the naming committee. He previously said the members wrestled with what to do about Graves’ name.

“Some say he did more to directly benefit African American Alabamians than any other governor through his reform. Unfortunately, that same Gov. Graves was associated with the Ku Klux Klan. Not just associated with the Ku Klux Klan, but a Grand Cyclops – It’s hard for me to even say those words,” he said.