Barbara Curry-Story did something remarkable. She went to school.
So, too, did James Meredith, Vivian Malone, James Hood and Autherine Lucy, whom you’ve surely heard of, and Harold Franklin, Richard Holmes, Lavonne Simon and Wendell Wilkie Gunn, whom you probably have not.
They’re permanent members of a transformational club: African-Americans who integrated the very universities that symbolized the privileged within our once-segregated society. It’s impossible to overstate the collective legacy they share.
The University of Mississippi, its campus roiled by gunshots over the notion of a Black student studying with whites, erected a statue of Meredith. The University of Alabama placed Lucy’s name on Foster Auditorium’s clock tower and honored Hood and Malone via the adjacent campus plaza. Auburn University immortalized Franklin with a historic marker.
Mississippi State University renamed its multicultural center for Holmes. The University of North Alabama put Gunn’s name on its student center. The University of South Alabama honors Simon through an endowed scholarship.
Fifty-six years ago, Curry-Story enrolled at Jacksonville State University. She graduated in 1969. She died three months ago at the age of 79. And this week, JSU’s Board of Trustees announced the naming — or renaming — of a slew of buildings, lounges, studios and auditoriums on campus.
None of those announcements mentioned Barbara Curry-Story.
That’s harsh, I admit. Curry-Story deserved better. Though let’s credit JSU for what’s in the works — a historical marker that, according to university spokeswoman Buffy Lockette, will honor “the integration of campus, which features Ms. Curry-Story and our first class of black graduates.”
If only JSU had erected that historical marker before Curry-Story’s death.
Left unsaid is the root of innumerable university decisions — money, that omnipotent necessity. And as deserving as Curry-Story is of JSU prominence, higher education’s never-ending requirement for financing rests uncomfortably, if not unfairly, at this discussion’s core.
The blunt reality: years of declining state funding for higher education, a recurring wish list of enhanced offerings and campus amenities, and the tug-of-war between tuition increases and students. JSU deserves no blame for that. Its trustees didn’t birth that statewide calamity. They just have to handle the fallout.
The casual public may see this as a potential affair between universities and the well-to-do who share their money and talents. That’s not illegal. And, let’s be honest: If you dropped a bag of cash on the trustees’ boardroom table, you’d expect something in return. I would, too.
In Jacksonville, though, this discussion is more nuanced than a simple transactional event. Be careful with the criticism.
Case in point are longtime JSU supporters Marcus and Mary Angle, for whom the administration building, Bibb Graves Hall, will be renamed. They gave a private donation to the university, Lockette wrote in an email. But the Angles have “never requested a naming on campus,” Lockette wrote, and “while this donation, like all of their contributions over the years, was welcomed as part of this renaming, it was just that — only a part of why the decision was made.” The Angle family gives to the university — their alma maters — because it “means so much to them. We are proud to honor that familial affinity permanently.”
Good deeds deserve reward. The Angle family’s commitment to JSU is undoubtedly commendable.
Contributions, though, aren’t monolithic.
Curry-Story contributed to JSU, by determination and pluck. She was a girl from Ohatchee who graduated from Calhoun County Training School and enrolled at Alabama A&M before settling in New York City. In a 2006 interview with JSU’s public relations department, she described how an abusive marriage led her back to Alabama and, eventually, to JSU and its all-white student body.
“I was determined never to put my child in the bread line,” Curry-Story said. “I could have resorted to welfare, but that was not the type of life that I wanted.”
Hood and Malone integrated Alabama in 1963; Franklin entered Auburn in ’64. Curry-Story enrolled at JSU in ’65, the same year as Bloody Sunday in Selma and President Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act. But her trepidations were nonetheless real, she said in that 2006 interview. “Driving the road to campus was a bigger deal by far than being on campus … They had ambushed a black man that summer just before I had started school in September … I did not go the back roads at all because I was afraid of being ambushed.”
But she went. She was undeterred. She was remarkable.
It’s fitting, perhaps, that the historic marker she’ll share with JSU’s first Black graduates will sit in front of Angle Hall, public proof that worthwhile contributions come in all manners of shapes, sizes and colors.