In Loving Memory: Voices of the Faithful: Sonnie Hereford III
Civil rights pioneer and local legend, Dr. Sonnie Herefod III, passed away yesterday. OurCityOnAHill had the opportunity to interview him as our first “Voice of the Faithful” back in 2015. To honor him and his courageous legacy in this city, we pray you enjoy his words below.
A Firm Foundation: Voices of the Faithful
Sonnie Hereford III
“…Where have you come from and where are you going?” (Genesis 16:8 NIV)
Our past does not secure our future, nor does it doom it. However, knowing where we came from gives us opportunities to celebrate God’s faithfulness in the past and to learn from our history, as we move toward our destiny. In the meantime, we are leaving a legacy.
Lean in! Listen! The wisdom that has walked before us is ready and willing to share. Their stories are rich and beautiful. Their adjectives paint layered pictures and their pauses make you long to see through their eyes. We are reminded in Scripture to tell the next generation of God’s faithfulness and nothing has changed. Our forefathers are deep wells of wisdom and they are storehouses of buried treasures just waiting to be sought.
May we take a moment to turn off our cell phones, ignore our watches, sit comfortably, wait expectantly, and listen patiently, as our faithful forerunners take us on a journey. A journey back that will propel us forward with wiser eyes and more graceful hearts!
Our city was built to display the glory of God. Those who walked before us have laid a foundation of faithful memorial stones, a foundation upon The Rock of Christ!
Listen to OurCityOnAHill’s first of many voices from our past; Sonnie Hereford III (84 years young), a leader of the Civil Rights Movement in Huntsville, speaks and time stands still:
“My dream for this city is that it would be a city that doesn’t see color. Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone loved their neighbor as themselves?” Said 84 year-old Sonnie Hereford III. He laughed a laughed filled with hope as he expressed his desire for the Huntsville’s future. We sat in the conference room of The Village of Promise, which is located just steps from downtown and Lincoln Mill. A train sounded its horn in the distance and I couldn’t help but think to myself, I don’t know whether it’s coming or going but I wish it would be quiet so I can hear clearly. Dr.Hereford’s voice continued unshaken by the sound of the train. He is a force who knows both where he has come from and where he is going.
His memories were clear as he shared stories of his Father’s church, St. James, that was once located two blocks from where we sat. His dad was a pastor who built his church from the ground up both literally and figuratively. “My Father built his church with a hammer, wood and some nails. He was a man of great wisdom.” He referenced more than 100 walnut trees outside where the American Legion now stands that his father planted over 100 years ago. His father was a share cropper. “We were share croppers that had share croppers have you ever heard of that? My father worked hard and always had two jobs. I felt like I had the best of both worlds because I lived in the country but attended school in the city. So I had the privilege of learning the ways of city and country life. Do you know where the Walmart is on Sparkman? It used to be a cornfield. It was our cornfield. My family sold it to the Walmart corporation.” He smiled with his hands crossed and continued to name familiar landmarks and share Huntsville history I would have otherwise never known. “Do you know where The Wells Fargo bank is, that is the site where I was born.”
He spoke of the swimming hole in which he and his childhood friends would freely play, until the white kids from the Lincoln Mill area would come and challenge them for it with a rock war. This was a swimming hole called the “blue hole” that they could play in for added fun on the farmland he lived on. And yet if white children wanted to swim they would want the black kids to leave. Dr. Hereford has a way of articulating these memories in a way in which you know that conflicts such as these were more of a good versus evil than a black versus white. His countenance looked just as astonished as our own each time he gave an account of the racial injustice he experienced as a child, college student or physician. Once one of the babies he cared for was sick and he had to admit the baby to the hospital. When he returned to the hospital to check on the baby it was in the hallway instead of in a hospital room because a white patient was perceived as a priority. It a was common thing for black patients to be treated in the hallway. He remarked how inappropriate it was for women to receive a shot in the hip or a bath from the nurses in the same hallway where male visitors were talking.
Dr. Hereford went on to talk about traveling to Paris to do his post-graduate education, something he was not permitted to do in Alabama. His expression lit up as he told us how he and his wife were able to see a movie there, which they were not permitted to do in the Southern United States. He talked about traveling through Texas and having a prior reservation at a black motel in El Paso. When he arrived, there were numerous black guests parked outside the motel and one of them forced the proprietor to give up Dr. Hereford’s room. There was only one black motel in the area with 13 or 14 rooms, and this created quite a challenge for all of the travelers. Dr. Hereford was forced to sleep in his convertible while being bitten by mosquitos. He was shocked to learn that across the border in Mexico, he could have any room he could afford. “And here in my own country, I couldn’t do that.” These experiences motivated him to do whatever it took when the Civil Rights movement took hold in the early 1960’s. He said if they hadn’t gotten what they were fighting for, he had no doubt some of the people with him would still be marching. He talked about his three interactions with Dr. King and how he was available as a doctor to help people who got injured during the marches and protests.
When asked what his biggest triumph was, he said it was getting the school integrated on September 9th, 1963 when he walked his son, Sonnie Hereford IV into Fifth Avenue School to become the first black student to enroll in an Alabama public school. This picture captures his courage, and the pivotal day in our city’s history.
He signed our book.
Here is link to his book: “Beside the Troubled Waters: A Black Doctor Remembers Life, Medicine and Civil Rights in an Alabama Town.”
As a parent, it is hard to even imagine the emotion of letting go of that precious child’s hand. Dr. Hereford went on to say that the Civil Rights movement, while obviously challenging, went more smoothly in Huntsville than in other places in the state. He credited the leaders as being level headed and also credited the fact that we had the arsenal.
We asked Dr. Hereford who Jesus is to him, he paused and smiled and said he has been through a lot in his life, “I don’t know how I could make it without the help of the Lord.”
Bobby Bradley from the Village of Promise said it is so important to hear the stories of generations before us and appreciate where we have come from and where we are going. She encouraged younger generations to learn from older generations to understand our rich history and the know the hearts of the people who have come before us. Sitting down face to face with Dr. Hereford was a bit of a timeless moment that is a joy to share. His story is fascinating, and you can read more about it here:
We asked Dr. Hereford his advice for generations to come. He said he would encourage them to “see people as people, not as black, white, Baptist or Presbyterian. That we are all equal in the sight of God.” His words echo the heart of OurCityOnAHill. We pray as we come together and unite to each other, our leaders, local ministries and God’s promises that we can continue to walk forward in the dreams of those before us as brothers and sisters in Christ…to see our city and the people in it as God does, to embrace healing and unity in our land regardless of any differences and see hearts like sparks united together as a wildfire for Jesus.
“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:26-28 NIV)
As we hear Voices of the Faithful in our city, we remember God’s faithfulness. We radiate God’s glory. We run with perseverance the race marked out before us. We rest in the Victory, for the war is already won!
“It is finished.” (John 19:30 NIV)
Contributors with Sonnie Hereford III: