Autherine Lucy Foster enrolled in the University of Alabama in 1956 after an uphill battle. She first applied to the school in 1952, but her acceptance was rescinded because she is not white. Four years later, she became the first African American to attend a white school or university in the state of Alabama, the school said. Just three days later, she was expelled.
The school removed her amid riots on campus and threats to her life. She eventually returned to the university to study and her dismissal was annulled more than two decades after she first stepped on the campus.
In 1988, Foster returned to the school with her daughter, Grazia, and the two graduated together. Foster earned a master's degree in elementary education, and the University of Alabama also honored her with two endowed scholarships and a historic marker and clocktower named for her on campus.
This month, the University of Alabama invited Foster back, bestowing an honorary doctoral degree upon her. The school said it wanted to "honor its first civil rights trailblazer."
Foster, now 89 years old, returned to the campus for the graduation ceremony on May 2. "The difference is that the crowds are here, but I see laughing faces instead of people frowning and displeased at me being here," she told WBRC.
More than six decades after she first set foot on the campus, Foster now uses a wheelchair.
"As we rolled across the campus today, I said, 'Gee whiz, this is a blessing in disguise to see this university permitting me to come on here and be involved in whatever they are doing today,'" she said.
When she went up on stage to receive her degree, she lifted her hands to the sky in praise. "I wasn't crying – tears were just rolling down my eyes because it's just so different," Foster said after receiving her honorary diploma, 63 years in the making.
University of Alabama President Stuart R. Bell said her "tenacious spirit, gracious heart for helping others and unfailing belief in the value of education and human rights positions Mrs. Foster as a meaningful example of what one can achieve in the face of adversity."