Charlayne Hunter-Gault reflects on her past, present, future UGA ties

Charlayne Hunter-Gault talks during a Zoom interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about her experiences as one of the first two Black students to enroll at the University of Georgia in January 1961 from her home in Florida on Jan. 6, 2021.

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Charlayne Hunter-Gault talks during a Zoom interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about her experiences as one of the first two Black students to enroll at the University of Georgia in January 1961 from her home in Florida on Jan. 6, 2021.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault looked everywhere, to no avail, for her Georgia Bulldogs mask before a recent interview.

Sixty years after being one of the first two Black students to enroll at the University of Georgia (Hamilton Holmes was the other), Hunter-Gault is a proud alumna. She regularly talks to students and is a big fan of the football team, so much so that she laughed about her husband asking her to calm down after the Bulldogs’ comeback win on New Year’s Day in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution interviewed her last week. Here are some of her thoughts about the anniversary.

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Charlayne Hunter, the first of two African American students admitted to UGA, is escorted to class by university officials on Jan. 16, 1961, in Athens. (Bill Young / AJC Archive at GSU Library AJCP551-061n)

Credit: Bill Young

Charlayne Hunter, the first of two African American students admitted to UGA, is escorted to class by university officials on Jan. 16, 1961, in Athens. (Bill Young / AJC Archive at GSU Library AJCP551-061n)

Credit: Bill Young

Combined ShapeCaption
Charlayne Hunter, the first of two African American students admitted to UGA, is escorted to class by university officials on Jan. 16, 1961, in Athens. (Bill Young / AJC Archive at GSU Library AJCP551-061n)

Credit: Bill Young

Credit: Bill Young

On the attention still paid to the anniversary

“I am honored to be attached to this celebration, and the Holmes family is attached and still alive and can mark this moment, although I think Hamilton as our ancestor is going to be smiling down on us too. I’m just happy that this causes a look at our history and what it means, not just to Georgians, but to young people and to older people as well.”

On what she hopes UGA students learn from the schedule of events to mark the anniversary

“While I think there’s still some greater challenges for students of color, just as there is for the larger society, we see the disproportionate impact of systemic racism on students of color. At the same time, I think the attitude and the mood and the commitment of the university makes me happy. It makes me very proud. We’ve got work to do. But I think in my contact with the people who run the place, and the people who are hoping to make change, I’m very encouraged that UGA is going to continue pioneering good things when it comes to race and gender.”

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Charlayne Hunter, 18, makes her way through a yelling, jeering crowd of students as she left the University of Georgia Journalism School in which she is seeking admission in Athens, Georgia, on Jan. 9, 1960 as the first Black female student. They were seeking to register under a federal court order. (AP Photo/Athens Daily News)

Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

Charlayne Hunter, 18, makes her way through a yelling, jeering crowd of students as she left the University of Georgia Journalism School in which she is seeking admission in Athens, Georgia, on Jan. 9, 1960 as the first Black female student.  They were seeking to register under a federal court order. (AP Photo/Athens Daily News)

Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

Combined ShapeCaption
Charlayne Hunter, 18, makes her way through a yelling, jeering crowd of students as she left the University of Georgia Journalism School in which she is seeking admission in Athens, Georgia, on Jan. 9, 1960 as the first Black female student. They were seeking to register under a federal court order. (AP Photo/Athens Daily News)

Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

How she persevered amid students rioting against her presence on campus

“Somewhere in the back of my mind came to the front of my mind, it had to have been that Bible verse my grandmother taught me, ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.’ You just never know when some of these lessons are going to matter.”

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Whether she views what she and Holmes did as courageous

“I don’t think the word courage ever entered our heads. I think both of us had been educated by parents who gave us confidence in ourselves. ... Long before the phrase ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ was attributed to Africans, my village practiced that. And when they couldn’t give us first-class citizenship, they gave us a first-class sense of ourselves.”

Combined ShapeCaption
Charlayne Hunter-Gault talks during a Zoom interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about her experiences as one of the first two Black students to enroll at the University of Georgia in January 1961 from her home in Florida on Jan. 6, 2021.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault talks during a Zoom interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about her experiences as one of the first two Black students to enroll at the University of Georgia in January 1961 from her home in Florida on Jan. 6, 2021.

Combined ShapeCaption
Charlayne Hunter-Gault talks during a Zoom interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about her experiences as one of the first two Black students to enroll at the University of Georgia in January 1961 from her home in Florida on Jan. 6, 2021.

How she convinced Holmes not to drive home to Atlanta after a campus riot

“The only way I could talk him out of driving that car to Atlanta is to start being silly. So I started jumping up and down, saying ‘You can’t drive.’ OK. OK. OK. Calm down. I won’t drive. And then I just stopped right away. In those days, I don’t know what it’s like now, those little cities from Athens to Atlanta were populated by not good people, shall we say. I felt like if anything happened to us while we are in the patrol cars, they would be to blame. But if something happened in his car by himself, they could say, ‘Oh, well.’ My silliness convinced him not to drive.”

Her goal for commemoration event she’s participating in

“While I’m happy to pass on the baton at this moment, even though I sometimes forget the names of people, or things or places, I still have history very much in my mind. So I think it’s very important that we share our experiences, and that younger people talk to older people as they go forward.”