Sun. Apr 21st, 2024

Most history classes around the United States learn about how White students hounded James Meredith in 1962 when he tried to integrate the University of Mississippi. They might see the footage of Governor George C. Wallace barring Foster Hall to prevent two Black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama a year later. These moments demonstrate both the persistent hopes for equal access to education and the barriers to achieving them. But there are other, less familiar moments in civil rights history that complicate our conventional understandings of the Black freedom struggle and White reaction to it. One of these is the integration of the oldest public university in Alabama. 

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Just five days before the bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., Wendell Wilkie Gunn quietly matriculated at Florence State College (today, the University of North Alabama). Reinserting Gunn’s story in the history of the civil rights movement invites us to consider the complex historical logics of integration and offers new insights into, as Martin Luther King Jr. memorably put it, where “we go from here.”

Gunn was a native of the area in Northwest Alabama known as the Shoals, having grown up across the Tennessee River in Spring Valley, Ala. After a few years of college at the historically Black Tennessee State, he came home, hoping to enroll in the local college.

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Inspired by a yearbook at a family friend’s home, Gunn simply walked into the Florence State College registrar’s office and requested an application. The surprised receptionist summoned the University’s President, E.B. Norton, who informed Gunn that all colleges in the state were segregated and referred him to the state’s HBCUs. But then, he did something else. Norton advised Gunn that if he were to file suit in federal court, Florence State might be compelled to consider his application. Gunn, reflecting on this moment later, surmised that the college president “was waiting for me.”

He likely was. A pragmatist, Norton accepted that integration was inevitable, and he thought that it would be best to allow it quietly and peacefully. 

Gunn’s request to apply presented Norton with an opportunity. For one thing, he arrived alone and seemingly without an affiliation with any civil rights or legal organization. Gunn had, in fact, participated in an attempt to integrate the University Church of Christ in Nashville in 1960, but he insisted that his Florence State College application was borne simply of a desire to go to school near home.

Norton also thought that, despite the presence of white supremacy in the region, the residents would peacefully comply with a federal order. Because of its centrality to the Tennessee Valley Authority, Lauderdale County had long been reliant on federal money and jobs. It also had a relatively small Black population compared to the rest of the state, which meant that, for white residents, defying the federal government would pose a greater existential threat to their way of life than integration of the local college.

When Gunn returned home from campus that day and told his mother, Mattie Crawley Gunn, what Norton had said, she called Fred Gray, the famous civil rights attorney and a family friend. Gray took the case, filing suit. A few weeks later in a Birmingham courtroom, Federal Judge H.H. Grooms ordered Florence State to evaluate Gunn’s application as it would that of any white student. He enrolled that week. 

Not that it was easy. When Gunn’s attempt to enroll became public, there came predictable, terrifying calls: “You show up on that campus, there’s going to be rifles pointing at your head. I guarantee you.” Gunn’s aunt, visiting from Gary, Ind., put covers over the windows so snipers couldn’t see whom to shoot. His father, a union leader at the local Reynolds Metal plant was threatened; his mother lost her job as a cook.

Facing the threat of violence, Gunn’s family and the larger Black community offered steadfast support. At lunch on Florence’s West Side, in clubs on Friday nights, and in church on Sunday morning, people gathered around him, understanding the significance of what he was doing, and the sacrifice. 

While Gunn excelled academically at Florence State, his first months were isolating. “Almost no one spoke to me except my instructors. I had zero social life on campus.” It didn’t help that the Dean was walking with him to class every day for security purposes. Aside from loneliness, the threats continued. Norton anticipated this. He assembled the football team on Gunn’s first day and told them to make sure that nothing happened. When one player heard a racial slur directed at Gunn, he intervened, grabbing the offender and informing him, “We don’t do that here.”

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The turning point for Gunn came at the end of his first year when he won the college’s Physics Achievement Award. “As I stood up to accept the award,” he recalled, emotionally, “the audience began to applaud. It started low and grew quickly. Until that moment, I had no idea how much eight months of silence and isolation had affected me. My emotions exploded, with tears to match. The more I cried, the louder the audience applauded. Ten seconds later, the entire audience was on its feet, cheering.” From this point on he was “just another student.”

Gunn graduated, with honors, from Florence State in 1965 with a degree in chemistry. After working for four years as an industrial chemist, he made his way to Chicago, where he enrolled in 1969 in a M.B.A. program at the University of Chicago School of Business.

After years working in upper management at Chase Manhattan Bank and PepsiCo, in 1982, Gunn accepted a position as a Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan for Policy Development for International Trade, a post he held for two years. During George H.W. Bush’s administration, he was the Chief of Staff for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp. 

In 2017, he got another invitation: to deliver the Commencement address at his alma mater, now the University of North Alabama, where he received a honorary doctorate degree. The next year, the school named the newly constructed student center in his honor. Then, in 2018, the University invited Gunn to serve on its Board of Trustees, which he accepted. “I know of no other example out there where a student entered under the circumstances that he did, went on to graduate, and then returned to join the institution’s governing body,” UNA President Ken Kitts stated. “This is truly full circle.” Fred Gray agreed: “Of all my many clients, Dr. Gunn is the first to be appointed to the governing board of the institution that he helped desegregate.”

This is not the typical narrative of school integration in the American South. Instead, civil rights histories have tended—correctly, in most cases—to point out the instances of violent racist opposition, the trauma inflicted on children, the rise of Christian segregation academies, and the persistence of unequal education. But there are other narratives too, that offer not just hopeful accounts of moral sense but also visions of progress based on shared interests, what civil rights scholar and activist Heather McGhee calls, the “Solidarity Dividend.” 

Gunn’s unexpected story is one of these, offering a different, if still complex, version of integration’s afterlives. Undoubtedly, the University of North Alabama, in publicly embracing Gunn and his successes, might be acting in its own interests, not unlike Norton did 60 years ago. But Gunn’s position on the Board of Trustees also reveals genuine power-sharing, a move toward real inclusion. The paradox is not invalidating but instead invites Americans to think pragmatically about common interests in justice and to pursue collaborative possibilities for progress. Cultivating a sense of shared purpose is crucial in our current racial politics, where white supremacist violence endures and divides appear entrenched. Teaching Black history is essential work. And that means telling the truth about racial exclusion while also acknowledging and celebrating moments of cooperation.

Ansley Quiros is an associate professor of history at the University of North Alabama and author of God With Us: Lived Theology and the Freedom Struggle in Americus, 1942-1976. She and Dr. Matthew Schoenbachler are currently working on a memoir with Dr. Wendell Gunn.

Made by History takes readers beyond the headlines with articles written and edited by professional historians. Learn more about Made by History at TIME here.


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