HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – When NASA moved to Huntsville in the early 1960s, it had a major impact on the growth and evolution of the city and the entire North Alabama region.
With that, the space industry’s move to the area also helped push along the fight for civil rights and desegregation.
Edna Dailey was just 15 years old in 1962 when she began participating in Huntsville sit-ins. “We would just go in and just sit down. One time a guy took his jacket off like a coat rack and he started slinging it at us to kind of back us up,” says Dailey. “We just began to do it and it becomes something that we knew we had to do every day.”
Dailey was fighting for integration, for change. That change came faster than she anticipated.
“All of a sudden it was just ok, we can go into all of these places now,” says Dailey.
The City of Huntsville wanted to be a place that welcomed innovative businesses from all over the world and NASA historian Brian Odom says that helped propel the local civil rights movement.
“The economic foundation of Huntsville became the aerospace industry and they understood that the only thing that could threaten that would be a problem in terms of race relations,” says Odom.
That economic drive put the city ahead of the rest of the state in the fight for civil rights.
“Desegregation of public accommodation took place here in Huntsville in 1962,” says Odom.
“When they told us, we were the first ones, because my husband was from Birmingham, they were doing all kinds of things down there, you know with them but they didn’t do any of that down here,” Dailey added.
Sonny Morea, an Apollo Project veteran, says “It became a very progressive city, as opposed to being a typical city of the South at the time.”
Though Huntsville was progressive, there were still many hardships for those involved in the civil rights movement. Dailey recalls her sister being arrested often. “My sister got put in jail like three times a day.”
Morea remembers a time when he first arrived and his young daughter was thirsty for a drink.
“And she says ‘Daddy, Daddy I’ve got to get a drink’ and I say ‘ok there are some fountains over here.'”
His daughter darted for the drinking fountains and went to the one labeled “Colored.”
“And I said ‘No, no you can’t drink there.’ Try explaining that to a child.”
Now 50 years later, we look back and remember the NASA engineers and aerospace architects that shaped Huntsville into the Rocket City, we should also remember the people who worked to make Huntsville a place that everyone would want to call home.
“I think what we did brought it on, and made it an issue is why,” says Dailey. “Basically, I feel like Huntsville is a good place to be, I wouldn’t live anywhere else.”
Special thanks to Sonnie Hereford IV for the archived footage.