(The Root) — Fifteen years after Vivian Malone and James Hood successfully enrolled at the University of Alabama, I had my first day of classes in August of 1978 at the "Capstone of Higher Education" — the state's flagship.
On June 11, 1963, Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace, an iconic segregationist, stood in the door of Foster Auditorium to prevent Malone and Hood from enrolling as undergraduates at the university. Wallace stepped aside only after President John F. Kennedy activated the Alabama National Guard, which ordered him to allow Hood and Malone to enroll. They began classes on June 12.
I entered in the summer of 1978 fully aware of the institution's racist past and with a quiet commitment to single-handedly tearing down any remaining vestiges of segregation. I exited four years later, with a crimson-covered diploma in hand, a few battle scars and dozens of lifelong friends, including many who grew up along winding roads in the countryside instead of on urban streets and asphalt courts.
Educated in the inner-city schools of Birmingham — where the works of Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks and Nikki Giovanni had been woven into my tapestry — I put on my Levi's jeans, sneakers and an Izod knit top and dashed off for a 9 a.m. Biology 101 class with Dr. Graham. In the huge auditorium filled with about 350 students, I counted five blacks.
It's always hot in Alabama in August. On that Monday morning, I quickly made my way on foot from my residence at Tutwiler Hall, passing Denny Chimes and crossing the huge quad along the way. A photographer had captured Malone making a similar trek in 1963. But on this day, there was no need for photographers or an escort. After the first two black students successfully entered and began classes at the university in 1963, thousands more would follow.
In storied places like ten Hoor Hall, Manley Hall and Phifer Hall, I studied political theory, broadened my knowledge of English literature and learned that true journalists develop a mastery of Associated Press style. Those lessons, however, pale in comparison with the learning that is yet to be captured in bound pages and volumes:
* A person's race may affect his or her appearance, but beneath the exterior, many of us are basically the same, with similar needs and desires. I had never listened seriously to country music until I got to know one of my dorm neighbors from Sand Mountain in northeast Alabama. She had never really listened to jazz or the blues until I pulled out some albums. We both enjoyed the stories told in the music. She's probably on a beach right now with B.B. King on her iPod.
* Stereotypes exist when we fail to stretch beyond our familiar and get to know people of other races, religious and ethnic backgrounds. Although many successful black students had gone before me at Alabama, in each class I attended, I felt that I still had something to prove. I didn't want anyone — white, black Asian or other — to think that I was an affirmative action case. I wanted to be at the top.
After a while, my mostly white classmates (mainly in political science or English) would ask for my help or invite me to study groups. It didn't matter who we were or how we had arrived in Tuscaloosa. What mattered was our ability to put together an essay on the works of Edgar Allan Poe or our knowledge of the origins of representative government.
* When attending college at a majority white institution, blacks can enjoy their greatest success by focusing on the race to succeed, while also remembering who they are and why they are there. I decided to attend Alabama because I knew I wanted to be a lawyer or a journalist. When I studied the backgrounds of successful lawyers and journalists in Alabama, I discovered that a large number had graduated from the University of Alabama. I wanted that same success. I wanted to tap into that network.
There was a lot of hard work involved. In 1979 I went to talk about my grades once with a political science professor who told me that maybe I shouldn't be there. I responded by saying, "You don't know me." I had another professor in the speech department who took issue with my vocal tone. His real concern was that I only did presentations in class on the works of black leaders. We had a conference and I advised him to get over it. That's probably why I got a B in that class.
Although I often regret the fact that I missed the culture and tradition of historically black colleges, I have never regretted my decision to attend the University of Alabama. Years after graduating, I was invited to return in 1996 as a visiting professor. Today I remain as an unofficial recruiter and, of course, a major sports fan. While I realize the university still has much work to do when it comes to race and equality, I am proud of the advancement made since June 11, 1963. The next 50 years should be even greater.
Sherrel Denise Stewart is a freelance writer in Alabama and a 1982 graduate of the University of Alabama.