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Profile: Fannie Ernestine Motley

Profile: Fannie Ernestine Motley
By France Griggs Sloat

Fannie Ernestine Motley | Master of Arts in education, 1969 | Retired teacher, Cincinnati

Making History | Seven years before George Wallace tried to block integration of the University of Alabama, Motley was preparing to become the first black student to graduate from Spring Hill College, the Jesuit university in Mobile, Ala. She had enrolled shortly after the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision—the first black student to attend Spring Hill.

Making News | Her graduation in 1956 with a degree in history caused a stir. Stories and photos appeared in the New York Times and Jet and Timemagazines.

Making Sense | “Rosa Parks and I had the same philosophy,” Motley says. “She was just tired and wasn’t trying to integrate the buses. Me, I went to Spring Hill not to break any records or the color line. It was just convenient for me to go to college and take care of my children and get my degree from a reputable school.”

Honors | In May, Spring Hill celebrated 50 years of integration by awarding Motley the honorary Doctor of Humane Letters. Though somber during the ceremony, she was masking her elation inside. “I felt real good and thankful to the Lord that I lived 48 years past the time to be able to see and participate in it.”

The Rest of the Story | It was Motley’s late husband, the Rev. Douglas L. Motley Sr., who pushed her to apply. “When the Brown decision came through, I’d finished junior college [at Alabama State] and he said, ‘You can go to Spring Hill now and finish your college work,’ and I said, ‘No, I’m not going to go be with those white folks. I don’t know nothing about white folks.’ ”

The Resistance | “I resisted because of myths I’d heard that all these white folks had all these fine schools and were so smart and they would push me in the back. I didn’t know how I’d be accepted. I don’t even know if I’d met any white people except the Watkins man selling products door to door.”

Campus Life | Motley says the welcome she received at Spring Hill surprised and encouraged her. She carried more than a full load and graduated with honors.

Up North | Motley came to Cincinnati in 1963 when her husband became pastor of Peace Baptist Church. She taught for 24 years in the Cincinnati Public Schools. In 1969 she earned a master’s degree in guidance counseling from Xavier. When her husband died in January, she moved to Jeffersonville, Ind., to be near her son.

The Chair | There is a chair she has kept commemorating the night Martin Luther King Jr., a friend of her brother, joined her family for dinner. A sign on the chair reads: “Martin Luther King Jr. sat in this chair at our house on Oct. 10, 1964.”

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