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Samford University honors first African American to enroll

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From left: Samford University provost J Michael Hardin and The Rev. Dr. Charles Howard.

By Ariel Worthy

The Birmingham Times

From left: Samford University provost J Michael Hardin and The Rev. Dr. Charles Howard.

It was the decade that changed Birmingham and Audrey Lattimore Gaston was part of the history.

In 1967, Gaston was the first African-American to enroll fulltime at Samford University and her son was on campus Tuesday to help students and faculty remember what the time was like for his mother.

“It was a powerful, world-changing decade in Birmingham,” said the Rev. Dr. Charles Howard, Gaston’s son during a speech at the institution. “I knew my mom as a professional lawyer, as a mom, I didn’t know her as a student. I think I get to know her as a student here which is really neat. My mom was humble and was not a loud fighter, but a quiet fighter. Being here I get to see more of that.”

Samford University is commemorating the 50th anniversary of integration during the 2017-18 academic year with a series of special events and recognitions. The commemoration kicked off during last fall’s homecoming weekend and continues through the spring semester which began Monday, Jan. 22.

A special highlight of the observances will be the recognition of African-American Samford alumni and students with the Audrey Gaston Howard Award during the month of February. The award honors the memory of the late Mrs. Howard who received her degree from Samford’s Cumberland School of Law in 1970.

Howard, who was 11 years old when his mother died, said she faced more than one obstacle as the first black student at the school. She was also one of only two women in the class, and she also had a child.

“She had my older sister while she was here too, so she had a 1-year-old while she was in law school,” said Howard, who is also the chaplain at the University of Pennsylvania.  “I can’t imagine the difficulty of knocking out a paper with an infant on your lap.”

She also had great mentors, Howard said. Her grandfather-in-law was Birmingham businessman A.G. Gaston. She also had support from civil rights icon and pastor of Bethel Baptist Church the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and Gloria Randolph, a white woman who led a community Bible study.

“She was my mom’s best friend when she lived down here, and babysitter of my big sister,” said Howard, of Rudolph. “She’s my sister’s godmother. She ran a Bible study and someone wanted to bring my mother. The question of whether or not to integrate this Bible study was on the table. Aunt Gloria said ‘absolutely, yes.’ She became friends with my mom, introducing her to people around the city.”

Howard said he is proud of what his mother accomplished but would still like to see more done.

“We should never think that we’ve arrived,” he said. “It’s profound to be the first law student here, but we’re not done, and we can’t act as if we’ve arrived as a society. The legacy is to keep doing work.”

Howard, who grew up in Baltimore, said he is learning more of his mother’s story.

“My sister is sharing a lot of the story with me, my aunts are as well,” he said. “I have kids now, I find it extremely important for them to know their grandmother.”

The Rev. Dr. Charles Howard spoke at Samford University on Tuesday about his mother, Audrey Lattimore Gaston’s legacy at the institution.

Howard said he has learned how nice people were to his mother.

“Even though people were kind – not burning a cross in front of her home – that doesn’t always translate into an affirming place,” he said. “That’s not a critique, but I feel like today there is more affirmation with black students. My aunt told me they were respectful, but many still looked at her crazy.”

Fifty years may have passed but there are still “opportunities for courage” such as “sitting next to people who don’t look like us, having a roommate who is from a different part of the country, or a coworker who worships differently than us,” he said.

“My hope is that we have courageous conversations, take risks, not be afraid to integrate friendships, cross borders,” he added. “Reach out a hand and create something special because when you do, amazing things happen. When you spark these friendships, the generation coming behind you might be completely different.”

Before attending Samford, Audrey Gaston attended and graduated from Howard University in Washington D.C. Howard said he understood why his mother chose to go to Samford.

“There’s a sweet spirit here on Samford’s campus,” he said. “My mother was the daughter of a pastor, so I think going to a Christian institute was important to her.”

For anniversary information, click here.

For a list of events, click here.