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Hereford family looks at patriarch's historic steps in Huntsville civil rights history

Sonnie Hereford IV retraced the path he and his father took for racial equality in schools on September 9, 1963.

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — Saturday marked 60 years since schools were officially desegregated in Alabama, with a historic walk to class for Sonnie Hereford IV. On that fateful day, the area of Governors Drive and Gallatin Street was not lined with medical and office buildings like it is today. 

But for the Hereford family, and greater Huntsville as a city, the streets are paved with historical significance.

Herford IV was only six years old on September 9, 1963, when he walked hand-in-hand with his father, Dr. Sonnie Hereford III, on his way to begin first grade as the first Black child enrolled at an Alabama public school.

He recalls the journey was not easy. "I remember a few of the stories that my father told me about things that happened," he said. "The bomb threats and the death threats that we got at our home and so forth. But being only six… my parents protected me from a lot of the ugliness at that time."

Prior to that moment, the elder Hereford worked alongside other civil rights leaders and was one of the plaintiffs suing the Huntsville school system to end segregation practices.

On the prestigious occasion of the 60th anniversary, Hereford IV wanted to honor his father, who passed away in 2016, by continuing his legacy of activism and acknowledging how much progress he helped cause.

And, as Hereford IV said on Saturday, "passing the torch to different generations."

On that crisp and sunny September 2023 morning, Sonnie Hereford IV walked silently in pace with family members, including daughter Dr. Beth Hereford-Patin, retracing the steps her father and grandfather made for a better future.

"It feels like some responsibility, but also a really great honor and privilege," she commented. "It gives me hope to see this many people gathered and still thinking about that moment and celebrating it, because we still really have a lot of work to do here in Huntsville to make sure that our schools are equitable."

The family also acknowledged the work that still needs to be done in the struggle for equality.

"I am very happy to represent moving forward in the progress that we still have to make in the fight that is left to be fought," said grandson Maren Hereford.

The desegregation case that was made against Huntsville City Schools in the 1960s has since turned into a consent order from the U.S. Department of Justice, which instructs the district to continually address racial inequalities and to reach what is called a "unitary" status.

"We're still optimistic about Huntsville," said Dr. Hereford-Patin. "My grandfather was optimistic about Huntsville, and our family will continue to be optimistic about Huntsville and its future."

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