By Ariel Worthy
The Birmingham Times
Welcome to Third Thursdays! This new series—published in the Birmingham Times on the third Thursday of every month—highlights area citizens who overcome odds to make a difference in their own lives or those who make a difference in the lives of others.
Liz Huntley—an accomplished attorney with Birmingham law firm of Lightfoot, Franklin, and White LLC, author, child advocate, wife, and mother of three—was recently recognized by the Girl Scouts of North-Central Alabama as a Woman of Distinction.
Huntley is also a motivational speaker who often recounts her childhood journey “from unimaginable darkness to radiance,” including her early years in the Butler Terrace Housing Projects in Huntsville, where both of her parents were drug dealers.
“This was the early 1970s. There were five [children in our family], and we had four different fathers,” she said. “When I was 5 years old, my dad got busted and went to prison. While he was in prison, my mom was trying to hold down the drug dealing business herself and broke the rule of drug dealing: she started using heroin and became a heroin addict.”
After Huntley’s father was arrested, her mother split the children, taking Huntley and her younger sister to their paternal grandmother’s house in Clanton. Her mother returned to Butler Terrace, where she committed suicide.
“She shot herself,” Huntley recalled. “There we were at our grandmother’s house, separated from our siblings, our mom is dead, our dad is in and out of jail.”
Her grandmother was also “dirt poor” and cleaned houses for a living.
“And she still had some of her adult children living with her,” Huntley said. “Within a month of my moving there, one of her adult sons started to sexually abuse me on a regular basis, so I went through unimaginable darkness with all those things compounding on me in a matter of months. It was a lot of trauma experienced in a very short period of time.”
A Saving Grace
As a result of those experiences, Huntley is a dedicated child advocate who provides legal and consultation services to government and nonprofit agencies that serve children and families. She is often appointed by judges to represent the legal interests of children in civil cases.
In addition to handling large corporate litigation matters at Lightfoot, Franklin, and White, Huntley travels around the country speaking about these matters and sharing her own story.
In 2015, Huntley published her memoir, “More Than a Bird,” which recounts her childhood journey. A saving grace for her was preschool.
“[While in] preschool, I remember being ashamed of my situation,” she said. “I didn’t know how to react in that preschool. When I got there, those ladies just embraced me—just, ‘Come on in here, baby.’ I remember that specifically. And they just loved on me. I loved that because I wasn’t getting a lot of that at home. My grandmother was so busy earning a living, and she was so hardened to life herself because of all the struggles she had been through.”
Huntley said she remembered thinking, “I love this,” after receiving affection at preschool.
“I learned really quickly that if you do really smart stuff, the teachers really love on you,” she said. “I did smart stuff all the time. In fact, I ended up being valedictorian of my kindergarten class. I wasn’t even trying to be valedictorian of my kindergarten class.”
Huntley said she went into preschool as a traumatized child and left with the beginnings of her love for early childhood education—something she remains passionate about as a leader in the movement to expand access to high-quality pre-kindergarten to all 4-year-olds in Alabama. She has received several state and national awards for her work on behalf of children.
Solace in Church
Huntley’s lessons from preschool carried her through her undergraduate years at Auburn University and law school at the University of Alabama. School wasn’t her only way of escape from her troubles as home, however: she also found solace in church.
Her book, “More Than a Bird,” was titled after a message she heard at her aunt’s church, World’s Church of the Living God, when she was 8 years old.
“As great as it was having that buffer of school, that ended at 3 p.m. and I had to go home. … I’ll never forget my last day of third grade. I got on that bus, and as it was pulling away I started to cry. I didn’t cry, I wept,” she said. “It occurred to me that I was about to leave my school. It was the one place where no adults hurt me. It was the one place where my mind got stimulated to learn. It was the one place where I knew I was going to get a meal. It was the one place where I actually felt like a kid. I dealt with so many heavy adult things, and school was the buffer.”
Huntley said she went into a depression because she had to stay home, so a couple of weeks into the summer her aunt invited her to go to church.
“I didn’t go because I wanted to go to church,” she said. “I went because it got me out of my house that night.”
Huntley said she enjoyed the message and decided to go again the next Wednesday. At the end of the service, Huntley heard an intriguing Bible verse, Matthew 6:26—“Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (New International Version)
“The preacher said, ‘We’ve got to be more than a bird.’ The tragedy in that moment is that I sat there and was questioning if I was more than a bird. To me, it seemed like birds had it better than me,” she said. “Then the preacher said, ‘You know you’re more than a bird because God will send people to love you even when the ones you think who should be taking care of you aren’t.’ He was talking to the whole congregation, but I felt like he was speaking directly to me because when he said that a lightbulb came on.”
Huntley said she began thinking about her teachers and preschool teachers: “Because of that faith came into my heart.”
“I began my spiritual journey of learning how to live my life through God, and I started my natural journey through education as a tool for a better quality of life,” she said. “From preschool to high school, He sent people to love me.”
Huntley said she still attends that same church today. In fact, the pastor took her into his home when her grandmother was dying of cancer during her senior year in high school, she said.
When Huntley was 6 years old, “Wonder Woman” was her favorite TV show. Looking back, she tells the story of her Wonder Woman.
On her first day of first grade, Huntley went to her newly integrated school alone.
“I woke that morning to go to first grade, and my grandmother said to me, ‘Elizabeth, I want you to go to that school, and I want you to tell the teacher to put an X everywhere I need to sign on the paperwork. Bring it home, and I’ll sign it, and you take it back tomorrow.’ She put me on the bus and had me go to that school by myself at 6 years old, in the middle of integration,” Huntley said. “I got over there and didn’t know what to do. I looked on the wall and saw ‘First Grade.’ I knew I was going to the first grade, so I had to be in the right place. I saw parents looking at the list on the wall, and I thought, ‘Well, my name has to be on there. I’m going to the first grade.’ So, I got on my tiptoes and looked for my name. I saw what room I was supposed to go to and headed that way.”
When Huntley got to her classroom, she sat in the front row.
“Eventually, the teacher walked toward me,” she said. “I looked up at this woman, and she’s got this coal-black hair, pretty eyes, a pretty smile. She looked just like Wonder Woman.”
“I used to hope that one day Wonder Woman was going to come and save me from the bad stuff in my life. I thought to myself, ‘Could this be? My teacher is Wonder Woman.’ Well, it wasn’t Wonder Woman, it was Mrs. Pam Jones—she was my Wonder Woman.”
What happened next, Huntley said, had a significant impact.
“She came up to me and said, ‘Well, hello, young lady. What is your name?’ I panicked and didn’t know what to do, so all that came out of my mouth was, ‘My name’s Elizabeth Humphrey, and my grandma told me to tell you to put an X on the paperwork and she’ll sign it and bring it back tomorrow.’ I just spit it out. I had been rehearsing,” Huntley said.
“Then we had a conversation about how I got to the room. A lot of things could have happened at that time. She could have been one of those teachers who said, ‘I’m calling [the Alabama Department of Human Resources, which provides for the protection, well-being, and self-sufficiency of children and adults]. Or she could have had that bias in the classroom and decided I would be one of ‘those children’ and pushed me in the back.
“Instead, that lady, seeing my potential, she—with tears in her eyes—looked down at me and said, ‘Elizabeth Humphrey, you’re going to be the brightest student I’ve ever had.’”
To this day, Huntley still remains close with Jones. “When I had my [third child], [Jones] was the first one in the driveway, and she put him in his nursery,” Huntley said. “That woman is still loving on me to this day. She is still my Wonder Woman.”
When she was younger Huntley said she read a lot, which led to her becoming a lawyer.
“I had a history teacher who said, … ‘You need to read biographies. Read about ordinary people who did amazing things.’”
The very first book Huntley picked up was Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
“This was a woman who came from a childhood background like mine,” she said. “When she spoke at Auburn, I got to meet her.”
As she read biographies, Huntley realized that all of the great changes happened through the law.
“I didn’t understand the nuances about law, but I knew that I wanted to be a lawyer,” she said. “I felt like I could speak out against wrongdoings, and I could do it.”
Huntley, who has practiced law for 20 years—10 of those at Lightfoot, Franklin, and White—recently co-founded the Hope Institute at Samford University with lawyer and former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Drayton Nabers; the organization just completed its first year.
“We bring together schools that want to develop a culture of character,” Huntley said. “We believe that in order to give kids hope you have to give them a reason to want to be good, to be disciplined, to study, and to apply themselves. I think a school should cultivate character. Intelligence without character is just making a smart person who is going to do bad things. If we want to develop and shape students who are going to be leaders and contributors to our society, we want them to be people of character. I can’t think of a greater time than now that we need to focus on character, kindness, empathy, and resilience.”
For more information on the institute, visit www.hopeinstitute.org.