Current Opelika resident Chris Akin Adams had stood in the crowd, amazed and proud of how her mother faced injustice with grit and determination, but saddened at the deterioration of small-town harmony.
“Our little hometown was completely unprepared for these outsiders. Wallace turned our peaceful streets into chaos,” says Chris, now married to Phil Adams, lead partner in the legal firm Adams, Umbach, Davidson and White. “After the third day the troopers denied entrance, my mother told them they better stand down because she was going to teach these (African American) students whether they liked it or not. She didn’t grow up in the South so blatant racism was foreign to her.”
Raised in North Dakota, Dot’s childhood challenge was a frozen nose as she drove her dog team to school. Her father had moved the family to Auburn where she graduated then Alabama Polytechnic Institute with a Bachelor of Arts and a Master’s in Foreign Languages by the time she was 18 years old. She then met the dashing Clifford Akin, nicknamed “Jelly” throughout his life, on a blind date. They married and settled in Tuskegee where Dot invited what seemed the entire town into her home each Christmas.
Dot’s ideal world shattered when Clifford died of a heart attack, sending her to bed for two years with a debilitating illness. Clifford’s pre-existing heart disease prevented a life insurance policy,
leaving a tremendous financial burden on the young family.
Family friend Andy Hornsby, formerly of Tuskegee, remembers Dot with admiration. “Here was a widow in the 1950s with three young children, trying to raise them on a teacher’s salary. Miss Dot made a concerted effort to make sure her children were involved in activities. Her tenacity for providing for her children was inspirational to all of us,” says Hornsby, 68, whose father Preston Hornsby Sr. was sheriff during the tumultuous years.
Chris, 12 years old at the time of her father’s death, assumed parental responsibilities during her mother’s illness for her two brothers ages 8 and 2. “I taught myself to drive so I could take my oldest brother to baseball practice and school. Our town was small, and the police looked the other way. Everyone looked out for the other back then. It was a great place to grow up.”
Tremors of change shook the “Mayberry” town in 1963. By then, Dot had rallied and obtained a job teaching at Tuskegee High School. The idea of school integration made perfect sense to her, and while many white leaders did not share her opinion, most acknowledged the inevitable. Both racial communities worked together over the summer of 1963 to plan compliance to the monumental court case Lee vs. Macon. Judge Frank Johnson, two weeks before school started, ordered the Macon County Board of Education to desegregate Tuskegee High School. Thirteen black students enrolled at the school.
“My dad was the first sheriff to hire a black deputy in the state of Alabama. At the time, he was only the second black deputy in the South. Wallace already had my father in his crosshairs,” says Hornsby. “When the day came for the integration, my father already had a plan in place, and everyone was on board. The students had been hand-picked from the 7th through 12th grades, and everyone was prepared for a peaceful integration.”
Everyone, that is, except Wallace.
When Dot arrived at school in September 1963, she met state troopers guarding the door and some 200 mounted police in the streets whom Wallace had sent from Dallas County. Racial tension erupted in the formerly quiet community. Whites raced to form Macon Academy with Wallace rumored to be a financial contributor.
In subsequent years, violence sprouted, protest marches began, vandals violated the high school, crosses burned in yards, and yet Chris remembers her
mother going to work every day.
“She was a woman of courage. After battling a debilitating illness, she got out of bed and got to work, raising three kids on her own while fighting for what she thought was right for this community. She knew these students needed an education. My mother believed each of her students was special, and she protected them as best she could,” says Chris, adding her mother would arrive to school early and find inappropriate graffiti. She called the students’ parents and asked them not to come to school until she could clean the walls. “Mother endured phone calls with strange voices threatening to burn a cross in her yard, but she never let us see her fear. She said her rosary every day. I like to think my mother set the bar high to model a Christian approach to a very serious problem.”
One of the original students reached out to Chris via email in 2004. “Your mom is so tightly woven into the history of my past, so tightly woven into the matter of my heart. She was such a courageous and principled person. I love her so much for all that she stood for, all that she was willing to stand up for, even in the most unpopular times…She was truly one of God’s special angels, and I will never forget it,” wrote Patricia G. Smith, who worked for NASA at the time of the email.
Hornsby emphasizes Dot’s chosen risk. “You have to remember, Miss Dot was a widow. All of the teachers were to be admired, as well as the students, but when you think of all Miss Dot risked for doing the right thing…Well, she was greatly admired throughout the community.”
When vandals and political maneuverings disrupted the education at Tuskegee High School, Dot rode the bus with the students to Notasulga. After a school bombing in Notasulga, she climbed the bus to go to Shorter. She often gave the students extra work as Dot recognized an untapped intelligence and fortitude in each.
Eventually, Dot moved to Montgomery, forfeiting her beautiful home in Tuskegee and her Christmas open houses, in order to finance her children’s higher education including medical school for one son. She finished her teaching days at Maxwell Air Force Base, never remarrying, but relishing in her eventual role as a grandmother. Dot died in 1991 at 76 years old, but left a formidable legacy for her descendants.
Chris laments the downward spiral of Tuskegee during those tense times, but remains grateful for the childhood memories the genteel Southern town provided and for the mother who taught her how to be a lady while standing up for what’s right.