National Institute on Aging

University of North Alabama Honors its First Black Graduate

The University of North Alabama is awarding an honorary doctorate to Wendell Wilkie Gunn. He is the first African American to earn a degree from what is now the University of North Alabama.

On June 11, 1963, Alabama Governor George Wallace made his infamous stand in the schoolhouse door defying the federal government’s order to integrate the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. Wallace was forced to step aside by federalized National Guard troops and allow Vivian Malone Jones and James Hood to register for classes.

Wendell Wilkie Gunn, an African American student at historically Black Tennessee State University, was emboldened by the successful racial integration at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, and sought admission to the then all-White Florence State College. In a case that lasted only 10 minutes, Gunn, with the help of famed civil rights attorney Fred Gray, obtained a court order demanding that he be allowed to enroll. He did so on September 11, 1963. Gunn graduated in 1965 with bachelor’s degree in mathematics and chemistry. Gunn went on to earn an MBA at the University of Chicago.

Gunn later became a vice president at Chase Manhattan Bank, director of investor relations for Pepsico, and an assistant professor of finance at Texas Southern University in Houston. In 1982, he was appointed by President Reagan as assistant director for commerce and trade in the Office of Policy Development at the White House.

Today, the University of North Alabama enrolls just over 6,000 undergraduate students. African Americans are 14 percent of the student body, according to the latest U.S. Department of Education data.


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