Its late but Friday is not over people! Well, not for some of us anyway so we’re going to squeeze this article on in.
Today, we have a special fun fact for you. My maiden name is Hereford and I have a mother, brother, and sisters who still carry this last name. In fact, I’ve met very few people with this name I was not related to. Unlike Johnson, Brown or Jackson (no shade to those with these last names), Hereford is not as common. So when I came across this man online, I was noticeably interested. My mother says that my grandfather, her father, is from Alabama and that Sonnie looks like her dad. This has prompted me to do more research on the man and to plan a visit to Alabama to discover more. It’s possible we had a Civil Rights Activist in the family and didn’t know it. In 1961, Hereford was one of the plaintiffs suing the Huntsville school system to end segregation, and in 1963, his son, Sonnie Hereford IV, was one of the first four black children to enroll in a previously all-white public school in Alabama. But, let’s start from the beginning.
Dr. Sonnie Wellington Hereford III was born on January 7, 1931, in Huntsville, Alabama. The family had no running water or electricity and Sonnie had to walk seven miles to school. The school, next to a garbage dump, didn’t have a library or cafeteria, much like most black schools at the time. Hereford was a farmer but developed a love for education. Even though his school had no library, the teachers were invested in him as they were in all their students. Though lacking in resources, black schooling at the time was exceptional, involving a strong community spirit and discipline. Teachers took on more than just a role as a teacher but they were also mothers, fathers, and mentors. For this, Sonnie received a good education and decided he wanted to become a doctor.
Sonnie graduated first in his class and applied to the University of Alabama for their pre-med program. However, Sonnie’s application was denied because of his color so he enrolled at Alabama A&M University instead. Hereford graduated from A&M in 2 years and went on to receive his medical degree from Meharry Medical College. He began his career at Huntsville Hospital in Huntsville Alabama and went on to play important roles in the struggle for Civil Rights. Not only was he a doctor but he also helped to aid men and women attacked during the Selma to Montgomery march, welcomed Martin Luther King Jr., to the city in 1962 and helped to integrate the city at various establishments. In fact, school desegregation is what Sonnie became most known for.
Sonnie IV was among four children chosen to desegregate schooling in Alabama and on September 3, 1963, Hereford took his six-year-old son to school but they could not get in. Instead, a mob waited for them and none of the other children were admitted to the other schools either. Sonnie didn’t give up, he returned but the school was locked down and guarded every day with armed troops. Eventually, Hereford contacted the federal judge and over time an order was issued to desegregate the schools in Huntsville. On Monday, September 9, 1963, Hereford successfully enrolled his son at Fifth Avenue School making Sonnie Hereford IV the first African-American student admitted to a previously all-white public school in Alabama. That following week, Sunday, September 15, the church bombing occurred in Birmingham killing four little girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church.
Sonnie Hereford continued to go on to inspire change and even co-authored a book, Beside the Troubled Waters: A Black Doctor Remembers Life, Medicine, and Civil Rights in an Alabama Town.
Sonnie died at 85 years old, two weeks before the ribbon cutting ceremony at the Sonnie Hereford Elementary School in Huntsville Alabama, named for him by the Huntsville board of education. The school ranges from Pre-K to sixth grade.
Learn more about Sonnie at the informative video below!