The past and future of North Huntsville leadership are sitting on the front porch of a Sparkman Homes apartment among a mini-garden of plants.
“There’s so much you’ve experienced I’ll never have to go through. I’ll never be at a sit-in. I’ll never have to go through non-violence training. I want you to bridge the gap. I want your legacy to live on as long as I can.”
The admiring speaker is Devyn Keith, the Huntsville City Council Member from District 1. The object of the admiration is 84-year-old Willie Hereford.
Hereford has seen a volume of history pages flip past, as an observer and a participant, a curiosity and an icon.
In the 1960s, he was on the front line of the civil rights battle. There is a narrative that “it wasn’t as bad in Huntsville as some places,” and while that may be accurate, it doesn’t mean those in the trenches didn’t face resistance, threats and hatred. Sighs Hereford, “It was rough.”
Huntsville’s “sit-in” protests were designed at the African American First Baptist Church, with leaders designating various businesses with lunch counters. During one protest, a woman told Hereford, “I guess tomorrow y’all will be here in prayer.” He related that when he returned to the church “and they said what we’ll do is everybody is going to carry a Bible and wherever you’re sitting put that Bible right in front of you.”
I’m hoping I can do something that would make them [neighborhood kids] want to be like Mr. Hereford. That’s why I try everything I can.”
One day, Hereford and a friend decided to venture out on their own, to W.T. Grant, a now defunct merchandise store that use to call Huntsville home. Quickly, a police officer was summoned.
“The policeman didn’t say anything. He just stood up against the wall and gave us the eye,” Hereford recalls. “I remember Mama and them didn’t have to tell us if we were doing something wrong. They’d give you the eye. Well, I looked at that policeman and he was giving me that eye. We said, ‘We better get on back to the church.’”
Dr. Sonnie Hereford III is one of Huntsville’s most famous civil rights activists, who in 1963 led Sonnie IV to the front door of Fifth Avenue School to integrate Huntsville City Schools. Dr. Hereford is the second cousin to Willie’s father and the family has maintained a close relationship.
Willie Hereford, Sr., who died in 1944, and wife Mattie, who died in 1946, lived in a small red house on what is now part of the Alabama A&M campus and had three children. Willie had a sister Catherine, the middle child, and brother Alfred.
In the 1940s, a nine-year-old Hereford worked at J.J. Sullivan Grocery on Holmes Ave. He would clamber onto the running boards of cars and onto the hood, fueling cars through the intake near the motors and “they used to have cars lined up for blocks to see this little boy pumping gas,” he says.
Later, he became a fixture at the Russel Erskine Hotel, where his father Willie Sr. had been a chef. He did “everything but sit back and prop my feet up on the boss’ table” Willie Jr. loves to say. He worked all sorts of jobs, including running the elevator. Jimmy Taylor, the hotel’s manager for decades, would summon Hereford for the delicate duties of meeting VIPs in the hotel basement and whisking them nonstop to the 12th floor “where all the celebrities stayed.”
He had a number of jobs in his young adult years – bartender, landscaper, cab company owner – but that tenure at the Russel Erskine was most fortuitous. That’s where he met Stella Hartfield. They were married in 1958 and had two sons, Terrial Marchell and Jimmy Joe.
As he sees youngsters of this generation growing up around him without a father figure, it makes his heart ache. The Devyn Keiths – the leaders and positive role models — emerging from the area are rare, Hereford frets.
“We’re gonna have to do something,” he says. “We need more leaders. Parents need to take the first step being a leader, but if they’re a kid, they’re training another kid. I’m hoping I can do something that would make them [neighborhood kids] want to be like Mr. Hereford. That’s why I try everything I can.”
He tries by reaching out to the children in Sparkman Homes. He’s often assumed a father-figure role, attending parents’ night functions at nearby schools at the request of students whose own parents are unavailable or apathetic. He’s made sure they’re fed breakfast.
Hereford still maintains a leadership role on the Sparkman Homes Resident Council. As time goes on, it becomes ever more difficult to find others to serve alongside, though.
“Peoples’ hands are out. They want to know what’s in it for me. I don’t get no pay in money,” Hereford says. “But I get my blessings.”