Wilma Hosea O'Rourke, 1921-



Wilma Hosea O'Rourke, 1921-


University of Alabama


Few people can call the University of Alabama campus home. Students and even presidents of the institution live there only temporarily. Wilma Hosea O’Rourke, born on Nov. 28, 1921, grew up there.

Zeb Hosea, O’Rourke’s father, was a steamfitter and plumber for the University during the tenure of presidents George Denny and John Galalee. Housing was provided for the plumber and his family on the campus near what was then Lock 12 and is now Manderson Landing Park.

There were no plumbing blueprints in those days, so years after his retirement, Hosea was called back to locate plumbing routes. He could still point to a spot and say, “Dig here.” Both he and O’Rourke’s brothers worked on many campus projects; one was the construction of Denny Chimes.

The youngest of 14 children, O”Rourke grew up alongside a nephew who was her age. Older sisters had married and left home long before she was born.

O’Rourke was friends with a white child, remembered only as Etta Mae, whose father worked on Lock 12. Neither child realized that O’Rourke’s tan color indicated that she was from another race. Color did not matter at all until a group of older children told Etta Mae that O’Rourke should be walking behind her. O’Rourke asked her father why they would say that; “What’s the difference in us?” she asked him, and he only answered, “You’ll see.”

Hosea talked with Etta Mae’s father and the two men became fast friends; the girls continued their friendship until Etta Mae’s family moved on to another lock.

O’Rourke walked to Central School, Industrial High School, and later to Stillman College. She studied to be a teacher, but studied nursing on her own and took the test in Montgomery for certification. Her career at Druid City Hospital lasted 38 years in the neonatal department.

O’Rourke married Val Henry O’Rourke while a student at Stillman. Her children tease her about getting married to avoid that long walk to Stillman and back. Val had a car.

The couple had five children. Val Henry O’Rourke owned and operated O’Rourke and Sons Dry Cleaners on 7th Street and another location on 23rd Avenue for 50 years.

On the difficulty of Autherine Lucy, James Hood and Vivian Malone to integrate the University, O’Rourke’s only comment was, “Why,” “I don’t see what’s the difference in us?”

Though the O’Rourke family was not in the First African Baptist Church when police threw in tear gas to break up a civil rights gathering in 1964, daughter Linda, 11 years old at that time, was home alone. The O’Rourke home was on 7th Street, next door to the family’s dry cleaning business. People were running through the neighborhood to escape the melee, several asked to be let into the house, Linda complied until a policeman told her if she let anyone else in, he would kill her. She closed and locked the door.


Betty Slowe


Betty Slowe




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Tuscaloosa (AL)

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