In 1963, Wendell Wilkie Gunn integrated Florence State College (now UNA). Though Gunn too was initially denied admission under Alabama law, President E.B. Norton advised him to sue in Federal court, thus overturning state law and allowing the college to admit him.
President Norton reportedly visited departments across campus and stressed the importance of complete integration when Gunn first began attending the college, however it took years for that to come to fruition. Despite these challenges, African American students slowly integrated academic clubs, the choir, and ROTC. In 1968, the university became the first predominantly white institution in the state to play African American football players, among the first being Bobby Joe Pride, Gene Stoval, and Leonard Thomas. By 1974, African American students made up approximately five percent of the total student population.
Vivian Gunn Morris, Gunn's sister, and her husband, Curtis Morris (UNA ’66), wrote The Price They Paid: Desegregation in an African American Community, describing how, for many years, AfricanAmerican graduates of Shoals Area high schools were compelled to travel far away from home to attend historically black colleges and universities, incurring extra expense, despite the proximity of Florence State College.
Dr. Gunn spent his first years of college at Nashville’s Tennessee A&I State College. Seeking a more affordable option closer to home, and assuming the federal court order that recently desegregated the University of Alabama also applied to other Alabama schools, Wendell attempted to enroll at what was then called Florence State College in 1963.
Florence State President E.B Norton told Gunn that without an order from a federal judge, the college “did not have the authority to admit a Negro.” When Gunn’s application was in fact denied, his parents sought the help of famed Civil Rights attorney, Fred Gray, who agreed to represent the case in a federal court. After only twenty minutes, the judge ruled in favor of Wendell Gunn. On September 11, 1963, Gunn enrolled at Florence State College.
Recalling that he was not attempting to do anything extraordinary, in fact Wendell Gunn was the first African American to desegregate Florence State University.
Wendell spent his first year at Florence State living at home and attending classes during the day. In those early months, Gunn remembers virtually no students speaking to him. Citing security concerns, Dean Turner Allen even escorted Gunn to his classes during his first week, but stopped when Gunn mentioned that he “didn’t want to look conspicuous,” as the only student escorted by the Dean. Everything changed when Dr. Gunn received the “Physics Achievement Award” for the top student in Physics at Florence State’s Honors Day ceremony. Performing in the school choir, Gunn was stunned when they called his name for the award. He was also not prepared when the entire student body and faculty gave him a standing ovation to recognize his achievement. That was an emotional moment for both Gunn and the students. Gunn reflects this was the moment he became “just another student - exactly what I wanted in the first place.” In 1965, Dr. Gunn received a Bachelor of Arts in Chemistry & Mathematics.
Read more about Dr. Gunn's life and career here.
Ethelbert Brinkley Norton III was president of what is now the University of North Alabama from 1948 to 1972. Norton had a long, distinguished career in education. He served as Alabama's Superintendent of Education and a U.S. Deputy Commissioner of Education. He was part of twenty-seven-member U.S. Education Mission, which under the direction of General Douglas McArthur helped initiate educational reforms in Japan post World War II.
At UNA, Norton is credited with faculty and student population growth, reinstating football on campus, establishing a marching band and a military science program. Campus facilities grew under his tenure as well. Perhaps more importantly, he is remembered for the role he played to facilitate integration at UNA. A Times Daily article on his death and legacy quoted former UNA football player and director of physical plants Clyde Beaver: "Perhaps my most vivd memory of him was in the school's first case of integration. He called the football team together and said we'd be the deciding factor as to whether integration was accepted or rejected because we were leaders and it was imperative we assume that role." Consequently, UNA's football team was the first athletic program to integrate fully, the first to offer African American players scholarships, and the first intercollegiate program to play African American students in the state.
Barbara Glenn integrated Florence State faculty c. 1970. Originally from Richmond, Virginia, Glenn moved to Florence with her husband Vernon Glenn who worked in labor relations for Reynolds Manufacturing in Sheffield. She was an English instructor at the college and was involved in local theatre, appearing in "Man of La Manchia" in 1970. She sang soprano, studied piano, ballet, and tap dancing.