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Sunday, January 16, 2011
Wendell Hudson takes Alabama home

By Graham Hays
ESPN.com

Foster Auditorium
Foster's renovation includes new floor seating in addition to second-level overhead seating.

Sometimes the best way to see the world change is to stand in one place and watch it happen.

Stand, for instance, outside the doors of Foster Auditorium on the campus of the University of Alabama some morning and you might see a man arriving for work. As a coach, he's likely lost in thoughts of unsolved scouting reports, but it wouldn't be a surprise to see him stop for a minute to shake a hand or return a wave. He is, after all, a bit of an institution in Tuscaloosa.

Then Wendell Hudson is through the door, heading to his office in the newly renovated home of Alabama women's basketball. And on Feb. 13, fans will file through those same doors and watch Hudson coach the Crimson Tide, a man of color baptizing a reborn relic of a monochrome world.

Wendell Hudson
Coach Wendell Hudson, the first African-American athlete to compete for any team at Alabama, and the Crimson Tide's women's basketball team will reopen Foster Auditorium on Feb. 13 against Florida.

However big the crowd for that game against Florida, the first since renovations were completed, far more people followed another first at Foster nearly five decades ago. Hudson was among them, a middle schooler in Birmingham watching on television with the rest of the nation on June 11, 1963, as Vivian Malone and James Hood arrived to register for classes, the first African-American students at the state school where the sons of slave owners sought higher education little more than a century before. Instead of passing easily through the door that day, their path was blocked by Alabama Gov. George Wallace, an avowed segregationist making a symbolic stand for the old ways that kept the university all-white nine years after the Supreme Court's decision in Brown vs. Board of Education ruled segregated schools unconstitutional.

Wallace's "Stand in the Schoolhouse Door" was, as this National Public Radio story from the 40th anniversary of the event explained, at least partly a choreographed endeavor and ended with Malone and Hood successfully registering for classes inside Foster after Wallace had his chance to publicly rail against the proceedings. Of course, few knew all that at the time, and the black-and-white photographs of Wallace defiantly obstructing Malone, Hood and U.S. Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach remain some of most indelible images of the entirely real cultural conflict that unfolded in Alabama and across the South.

For a young man watching from 60 miles up the road in Birmingham, it was another crack in a crumbling wall. Growing up, Hudson worked as a vendor at Birmingham's Legion Field during Alabama football games, but his loyalty belonged only to the favored team of whichever side of the stands he happened to be hawking Cokes to at a particular moment. Alabama or Auburn, it didn't really matter when neither thought him an equal. From that perspective, the scene he watched play out in front of Foster wasn't so much a last stand as a step forward.

"You're talking about the state university; you're talking about the governor of the state standing in the door," Hudson said. "What sometimes people don't understand is that in the black community, people did not feel like they shouldn't be at the University of Alabama. I went to an all-black high school and there were black students going to colleges all over the United States, not just in Alabama but all over the United States. … Integrating the University of Alabama was such a big thing because in the black community, black people felt like once that door was open, that's just tearing down another barrier to make an attack on racism."

Just six years later Hudson was the central actor as another barrier fell. A standout basketball player at Birmingham's Parker High School, which won the state's first integrated high school tournament his senior season, he signed for new Alabama coach C.M. Newton and thus became the first African-American scholarship athlete in any sport at the University of Alabama.

It was a decision that Hudson recalled had more to do with the 18-year-old version of himself wanting to compete against the best, and Newton likewise wanting the best players, than with any sort of social or political statement. It nonetheless left him walking into Foster to register for classes, only slightly more welcome than Malone and Hood had been six years before.

George Wallace
Alabama governor George Wallace made Foster Auditorium famous when he blocked the door as African-American students tried to register for class in 1963.

"I remember vividly walking [into Foster], understanding what I was walking into," Hudson said. "That was in 1969, that wasn't too far down the road and there were not a whole lot of other [black] college students walking through that door. There were some, but I still kind of walked into a predominantly all-white university registration."

To suggest smooth sailing from that point forward or some grand awakening is to sanitize history. There were professors who made it clear they didn't want him in their classes. There were hateful words spewed from the stands during games. But as Hudson put it, when you grew up in the South during that era, those things were part of the world around you, nothing so unfamiliar as to break the spirit of someone who knew what was coming.

And there was plenty of good, especially within the enclave of Newton's team, where Hudson was paired with a white roommate from the outset and treated as a teammate more than a trailblazer. He stayed on in Tuscaloosa after graduation as an assistant on Newton's staff before moving on to coaching and administrative positions at a number of schools.

After more than two decades away, he returned as the Associate Athletic Director for Alumni Relations. Tuscaloosa can still feel like a place where time moves like a stream rather than a rapid, at least when there isn't a football game going on. It's part of its charm and a part of the past that lingers comfortably, proudly -- a place where neither the preparation of those fall-off-the-bone ribs nor the model of the cars in the makeshift parking lot at Archibald's offer much clue as to the decade.

But as framed through the experiences of Hudson's son, attending law school at Alabama after his father's return, it's also a place where three decades changed much.

"The world that he went to school here in and the world I went to school here in was a totally different world," Hudson said. "Is it a perfect world here in Alabama? Absolutely not -- because I don't think it's a perfect world anywhere. … But the progress that has been made and the fact that we're going to be the first sport to play in this building [since renovations], you're going to have a black head coach, somebody that has some history here at Alabama -- there are people who are real excited about coming in here and watching this basketball game."

Vivian Malone and James Hood
The national guard ordered Gov. George Wallace to step aside and escorted Vivian Malone and James Hood into Foster to become Alabama's first African-American students to register for class.

The home of Alabama men's basketball until the year Hudson arrived and the team moved into its current home in Coleman Coliseum, Foster was home to the women's basketball team for part of one season in 1976, as well as gymnastics and women's volleyball until the 1980s and 1990s, respectively. It then fell into sparse usage for varsity athletics until the plan was finalized to renovate it for use by women's basketball and volleyball. But the latter was not yet under way when the 40th anniversary of Malone and Hood's registration arrived in 2003.

Both former students were on hand as part of a ceremony planned for the plaza that bears their names (Malone subsequently passed away in 2005). Hudson was also there, a witness when Mother Nature intervened to make a point.

"It started raining, and we all had to come through the front door," Hudson recalled. "People talked about the irony, because the event was planned to be outside, kind of where Wallace stood in the door. But we all came through this building together in a totally different light than they came through it 40 years before."

Now a new generation is learning to appreciate what happened at Foster and what a moment in time came to represent. Alabama senior Tierney Jenkins learned about the building the same way probably many in her generation did -- by watching the scene in "Forrest Gump" in which Tom Hanks' character is interposed in footage of Wallace's stand. But after subsequently listening to Malone speak, wondering all the while if she would have found the courage to walk into the building that day in 1963, and learning why, as Jenkins put it, her coach is perhaps second only to Nick Saban in popularity in Tuscaloosa, she is aware of being part of something bigger than just a refurbished basketball facility.

"Just how important it is to everybody involved, you kind of have to take pride," Jenkins said. "It's so much history and you want to do good, you want to represent the school well."

When Hudson looks out his office window over Malone-Hood Plaza and the Autherine Lucy Clock Tower, named for the student who first attempted to desegregate the university in 1956, it is a reminder that a building once the backdrop for the worst we could be now stands as proof that we might always be better. It is the same feeling that came over him as he walked out of Foster after registering for classes for the first time, six years after George Wallace stood in the doorway and tried to block not two African-American students but a nation's future.

"There's some things that happened here that the world had to be involved in, in making some changes," Hudson thought to himself as he left that day.

Change that still isn't finished in Alabama or anywhere else. Change that might never be finished but which will gain its own indelible image when Wendell Hudson walks through the schoolhouse doors of Foster Auditorium to coach a basketball game. Change that continues now, tomorrow and forever.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.