In 1956, Myra Elliott wanted to return to college. Valedictorian of her high school class in Keysville, Ga., she had attended Spelman but couldn't afford the tuition and left to work at Atlanta Life Insurance Company on Auburn Avenue. She thought the Georgia State College of Business -- soon to be renamed Georgia State University -- would be ideal; it was around the corner from her downtown office and, as a public institution, less expensive than Spelman.
There was one problem. The state of Georgia had ignored the federal mandate to integrate its schools, and denied African American students admission to its all-white public colleges and universities through bogus requirements to obtain endorsement letters from alumni or certification from a judge. Elliott was among the rejected students.
Asked to become a plaintiff in a lawsuit to integrate the colleges, Elliott agreed, explaining in her Riverdale home earlier today that she didn't realize the attention the case would attract. Or the political chicanery and character assassination that the state would employ.
"I was just young, naïve and stupid," said the 87-year-old Elliott. She was also heroic, as were her two co-plaintiffs Barbara Pace Hunt and Iris Mae Welch, both of whom have since died.
While few people recognize their names or their role in history, that may change with the publication of "Ground Crew: The Fight to End Segregation at Georgia State."
"I call them the foot soldiers of the civil rights movement," said "Ground Crew" author Maurice C. Daniels, dean emeritus and professor emeritus of the University of Georgia school of social work and founder and director of the Foot Soldier Project for Civil Rights Studies. "It required a lot of courage by all these students. They were willing in essence to put their lives on the line."
His book details the brilliant NAACP strategists and the extraordinary legal team including Constance Baker Motley and Donald Lee Hollowell who won the groundbreaking lawsuit in 1959. U.S. District Court Judge Boyd Sloan ruled Georgia State’s racial discriminatory policies and practices violated the Constitution.
Hunt v. Arnold became the NAACP's first federal court victory against segregated education in Georgia, establishing legal precedents that helped Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Hamilton Holmes integrate the University of Georgia in 1961 and James Meredith integrate Ole Miss in 1962.
Yet, Elliott, Hunt and Welch never attended Georgia State. Because while U.S. District Judge William Bootle two years later in the UGA case forced the university to immediately admit black students, Judge Sloan stopped short of mandating the admission of Elliott, Welch and Hunt when he ordered GSU to integrate.
In the face of Sloan's ruling, the Board of Regents and the Legislature went to shocking lengths to continue to lock out African Americans, including imposing morality standards that could block women who had conceived before marriage and even passing a law denying college admission to anyone over the age of 21, as were all three plaintiffs.
"It was appalling that they should actually pass a law that the speaker pro tem said on the floor of the Georgia House was designed to keep blacks out. He did not use the word 'blacks.' It is disheartening to see the things that our state did to sustain that system of segregation," said Daniels.
The rancor around the case led Barbara Pace Hunt to not only flee Georgia, but to decline to ever detail the experience to her three children, said her daughter Crystal Freeman, who now lives in Atlanta.
"She didn’t like to talk about it and always said it was a dark time," said Freeman, the youngest of Hunt's children and born after the trial.
Hunt worked for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and the civil rights leader suggested she apply to GSU, said Freeman. Her mother's role as lead plaintiff and her civil rights background may have exposed her to greater harassment than her co-plaintiffs.
"She had to move her daughters from place to place because the KKK threatened her," said Freeman. When the trial ended, Hunt left Georgia for Texas, where she earned two master's degrees.
Freeman has requested that GSU recognize her mother, Welch and Elliott, even offering to pay for the planting of a tree in their honor. "I have been fighting for this for about 10 years. I was told by GSU that this is a very negative thing and that they are not like this now, that now they graduate the highest number of African American students in the country. But this is history."
Elliott's daughters are only discovering the scope of their mother's contribution to that history. She, too, shared few specifics of the lawsuit with her kids. June Harland recalls her mother announcing a few years ago that a professor was interviewing her for a book, but was shocked when she saw her mother on the cover of "Ground Crew."
"As I read the book now, I am learning all this information and filling in the blanks. My mouth is hanging open," said Harland. "I am very proud of her and excited not just for her, but for the story of how we, as a people, finally were able to get a postsecondary education here in the state of Georgia."
Daniels offered an explanation why the two women may have been reticent. “Although they won an important and groundbreaking case, the fact that Georgia State refused to admit them was disappointing. The inflammatory statements by public officials and personal threats may also explain why they did not discuss their involvement more openly,” he said.
A year after the integration of UGA, two African American women enrolled at GSU, including Annette Lucille Hall, who held an undergraduate degree from Spelman and a master’s from Atlanta University. A teacher in Rockdale County, Hall was 53 but the state had repealed the age limit by that point.
Hall’s extended Atlanta family broke other color lines; nephew Ralph Long Jr. helped desegregate Georgia Tech, a benchmark honored in September with the unveiling of statues of Long and three other African-American students. Her niece Carolyn Long Banks became the first African-American woman to serve on the Atlanta city Council.
A few months later, Marybelle Reynolds Warner enrolled, becoming Georgia State’s first full-time African American student. Warner already held degrees from St. Louis University and Washington University but decided to study music education. Three years later, Joseph Howard McClure earned a bachelor’s degree and walked into history as the school’s first black graduate.
As for Myra Elliott, the belated attention to her critical role in these achievements is not something she sought. "I never expected it and that wasn't my reason for being part of the lawsuit. They told me I couldn't go to that school, and I started thinking about all the black children who might want to go. That was my reason."
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.