What’s it Like to Come From a Family That Made History?

Prof. Beth Patin

Assistant Professor Beth Patin

iSchool Professor Beth Patin knows what it’s like. She’s the granddaughter of Sonnie Hereford III, the man who sued the Board of Education that led to the desegregation of Alabama Public Schools in the 1960s. It was this lawsuit that led Patin’s father, Sonnie Hereford IV, to attend a non-segregated school at the age of six.

Patin Reflects on Her Grandfather’s Journey

“He [her grandfather] grew up going to the black schools, called ‘council schooling’ at the time. When he started, there were about 40 people in the class. By the time he graduated, there were six people. Even there, you start to see the disparity [in the school system],” she said.

After graduating from council schooling, he realized he wanted to go to medical school. The problem was, no place in Alabama would let a black man pursue a medical degree. Instead, he went to Tennessee, and later became Dr. Hereford. But even then, he faced struggles in succeeding at his practice because of his race.

“He wasn’t allowed to use the operating room. When delivering babies, he did it in the basement. He couldn’t attend medical conferences. Every now and then, they would let him attend. But even then he had to sit in the kitchen or hide behind a curtain,” Patin recalls.

Sonnie Hereford IV was later born in 1957. During this time, Dr. Hereford became very involved in the civil rights movement. In August of 1963, he sued the Alabama Board of Education on the belief that they should desegregate the schools so that his son could attend with other children. Later, in September, as Dr. Hereford and young Sonnie tried to enter the school, they were met by armed state troopers. The troopers were sent by Alabama Governor Wallace to ensure that a six-year-old black boy could not enter the school.

Dr. Sonnie Hereford III and Dr. Martin Luther King. Photo from Beth Patin.

Breaking Down Barriers

Dr. Hereford sent a telegram to the attorney general to inform him of the events. The week after, members of the National Guard escorted the young boy into school. Sonnie Hereford IV became the first black boy to combat segregation in schools in the state of Alabama. Like his father before him, he faced harsh discrimination but did not let it affect his education.

“Education has always been a big part of our family. He took it very seriously,” Patin said. Today, her father is a Notre Dame graduate, and works as a computer scientist.

More than fifty years later, Dr. Hereford’s efforts have come full circle. His granddaughter [Patin] works in education here at Syracuse University. It’s because of her family’s impact that she is especially passionate about building cultural competence and crisis informatics. Currently, she is teaching IST 600, a graduate class on cultural competence in information studies that she designed herself. She holds four degrees, most recently her Ph.D.

Professor Beth Patin (right) and her grandfather Sonnie Hereford III. Hereford’s lawsuit led to the desegregation of Alabama public schools. Photo from Patin.

The Challenges Continuing Today

Dr. Hereford’s lawsuit against the Board of Education is still currently ongoing. Due to the lawsuit, the Department of Justice is not entirely satisfied with the compliance of Huntsville public schools. Only now, names were replaced and new people took over. Patin’s sister replaced her father’s name on the paperwork with her son’s name. Through three generations, the family is still fighting for desegregation today, even though a school is now named after Dr. Hereford.

Patin herself is still advocating for equality in college education. It’s part of why she wants to keep teaching multicultural competence. She brings in her experience, as well as her family’s experiences, into the space of her teaching. While members of her family remain fighting in Huntsville, Alabama, where her father was confronted by armed men for entering an elementary school, she is spreading her advocacy here at Syracuse University.

“It’s like we’ve done all this work. But there’s still plenty of work for us to do. I feel like I’m the next step in that line of making sure that our organizations are truly inclusive,” she said.

by Lianza Reyes