Three Generations in Tuscaloosa Changes
Foster Auditorium
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University of Alabama

Identifying the characteristics of a generation, like generation X or Baby Boomers, takes up a lot of time for people in the business of creating messages that appeal to the stereotype of millions of people. Frankly, it works; far better than we might hope, but it works because a generation shares a collection of stories that form how they define their culture. The simplest example compares the reception veterans received arriving back from Vietnam with those returning from Iraq. The way we treat those people cannot be separated from the stories that surround those two very different conflicts.

A more complex demonstration of how the our stories define our responses and understandings of events is playing out in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. It is not fair to say that it is on the campus of the University because it also extends to alumni of the school. The simple story is that a sorority was prepared to invite non-whites to pledge the organization for the first time. They were pressured by people outside of the active membership to forego what would have been a ground breaking step for the current generation of students in Tuscaloosa. The decision was followed by an article in the student newspaper and national attention.

Underlying a step toward ending discrimination in campus Greek letter organizations, shines a history of three generations from a single family at the University of Alabama. The first generation, did not attend Alabama as an undergraduate, but entered the Alabama School of Law ten years after George Wallace stood in front of Foster Auditorium to block the enrollment of two black students.

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Photo from A. P.

John England, Jr. Was among the first black lawyers from that school. The history that was the fabric of his education and career, provided him a foundation for serving as a Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, a Tuscaloosa City Councilman, a district judge in Tuscaloosa and his selection to the University of Alabama Board of Trustees.

John England, III attended the University of Alabama to earn both undergraduate and law degrees, joining his father as the first second generation to earn a law degree only thirty years after the first students integrated the school. England, III is currently a federal magistrate and proud fan of the Crimson Tide football team. He was also in Tuscaloosa when the University took the unusual step of disbanding the student government for a year after a cross was burned in the front yard of a candidate for student body president.

Now, one of John England, Jr.'s step grandchildren has sought entrance into a sorority on the Tuscaloosa campus and sparked the current discussion of values and procedures. The story being told is that the students wanted to confront the issue of segregation in sororities, but were overruled by alumni who prevented the members of the organization from discussing or voting on the members of the new group of pledges.

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Plaque at Foster Auditorium

With this background information, I could launch into a discussion of racism or the merits of Greek alphabet organizations or even the intervention of federal rules in our private lives. I could use these events as evidence to support any number of viewpoints within our political spectrum. Instead, I will remember standing at the door to Foster Auditorium and reading the bronze plaque that commemorates the confrontation between general and governor. In my myopic focus on doctoral research, I was so removed from the hubbub of undergraduate life and the debates about the disbanded student government that this was the first time that the stories surrounding the location provided meaning to my daily activities. My first taste of the history.

Because I stood and read that plaque before heading back into the libraries and computer labs, my understanding of the University bears a plaque of some historical significance. I know how powerful those events were in my own perspective with just coincidental participation in any of it. When I read a story of a family that has sought out the University as the bedrock of their education while 3 generations of that family were witness to such fundamental change in the core of the institution, my imagination overloads with the impact on this family. From the outside, it appears that this family had devoted generations to changing the environment in Tuscaloosa, but I can only wonder the stories they tell when the family gathers. I can almost hear the frustrated “Oh Granddaddy, it's not like that anymore!” Or maybe it's nothing like that at all. Maybe there is something gained from those generations of stories that brings them together in their different experiences.

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