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Hereford’s account of desegregation captivates Columbia third-graders

Sonnie Hereford IV shows a photo of his Fifth Avenue School classroom in Huntsville in 1963 to Columbia Elementary School third-graders. (Photo by Trey Buis)
Sonnie Hereford IV shows a photo of his Fifth Avenue School classroom in Huntsville in 1963 to Columbia Elementary School third-graders. (Photo by Trey Buis)

MADISON – Sonnie Hereford IV, one of Huntsville’s most notable influences in civil rights, captivated third-graders at Columbia Elementary School by sharing his experiences as a child in the 1960s.

In 1963, Hereford was the first African-American to integrate a public school for whites in Alabama when he enrolled at Fifth Avenue School in Huntsville.

Columbia third-grade teacher Jamie Eckert said parent Amy Patel emailed her about Hereford’s appearance at James Clemens High School’s Black History Month program and suggested his visit to Columbia.

Hereford spoke to all six classes of approximately 120 third-graders.

During his slide show, Hereford “talked about what life was like growing up during segregation. (Integration) seemed more real by having someone sit in front of the students and tell them, ‘This is what I went through,'” Eckert said.

“The kids gasped” when Hereford said a black family could not be served at some restaurants but had to go to the back door for food. “It was so much more powerful than reading in a textbook,” Eckert said.

“Were the other kids nice to you?” Columbia students asked. “For the most part,” Hereford said. “But you’ll have some people who are not. Some kids weren’t nice because the parents had taught them that way. In today’s world, parents aren’t teaching that message.”

Hereford personified a positive attitude and patience with student questions. He showed his classroom’s photograph at Fifth Avenue, in which he was the only black student, and asked, “Can anyone pick me out?”

The children also identified with Hereford when they learned he lives in Madison. “That made an impression,” Eckert said. “He asked, ‘What street do you live on?’ and told the student that he lived nearby.”

In cross-curricular experience, media students with James Clemens JetsPress filmed the Columbia students’ interaction with Hereford.

A groundbreaking was held in Huntsville recently for the new Sonnie Hereford Elementary School.

New to Columbia this year, Eckert previously taught fourth-graders at the Academy for Academics and Art in Huntsville and years before in North Carolina.

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