Myra Elliott waved a lace-gloved hand, a graduation cap topping her silver curls as the audience stood to applaud her.
Three times, the crowd at Georgia State University’s new Convocation Center rose from their seats — three standing ovations to thank the 90-year-old who stood up for them before most of them were born.
It was a moment more than 60 years in the making for Elliott and the families of the late Barbara Pace Hunt and Iris Mae Welch. In 1956, two years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to segregate public schools by race, Georgia State denied admission to the three Black women. The women later won a precedent-setting federal lawsuit but never attended the school.
On Wednesday, the university awarded honorary bachelor’s degrees to all three.
”May they serve as an inspiration for all young people that when you see a wrong, do what you can to make it right, even if it takes a lifetime,” said university President M. Brian Blake, during a commencement ceremony that also honored 536 master’s degree graduates.
The trio’s court victory, supported by the NAACP and the Black business community, ushered in the end of segregation at Georgia’s universities and elsewhere in the South.
“She was in the eye of the storm while all of these things were going on around her,” said June Harland, Elliott’s daughter.
Elliott was the class valedictorian in Keysville, Georgia, where her mother sent her because Atlanta’s first Black public high school, Booker T. Washington, was crowded. When she returned to Atlanta, she took a job at Emory University. She stood on one side of a cafeteria steam table, serving beans, potatoes and cornbread to students.
“I guess I was a bit envious, wishing I was over there on that side, going to school instead of trying to make a dollar,” she said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
She got that chance when she enrolled at Spelman College but left because of the cost. Her search for more affordable tuition led her to apply at the nearby all-white public school, then known as Georgia State College of Business Administration.
“Once they told me no, I was devastated,” Elliott said.
Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com
Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com
In the aftermath of Judge Boyd Sloan’s decision to overturn the Georgia Board of Regents’ racially discriminatory policies, state officials concocted new tactics to bar them and other Black students from enrolling.
Legislators even passed an age limit law to deny anyone over the age of 21 admission to Georgia’s public colleges. The three plaintiffs were all older than that.
“All of my life, my mother taught us this: If you work hard for what you want, you can have anything you want,” Elliott said. “When I got grown, I found out that was not exactly true.”
Exhausted by the demands of work and raising her children, she put aside her college dream.
But the case made its mark. It was cited in court decisions to integrate the University of Georgia in 1961 and the University of Mississippi the following year. In 1962, Georgia State admitted its first Black students.
Until recently, the three women’s legacies had been largely overlooked, the details of their courageous fight unknown even to some family members. Elliott said the honorary degree is an unexpected blessing after being denied admission.
“These pioneers in this case played a pivotal role in helping end segregation in higher education in Georgia,” said Maurice C. Daniels, dean emeritus of UGA’s school of social work.
His 2019 book “Ground Crew: The Fight to End Segregation at Georgia State” is widely credited for shining a spotlight on the nearly forgotten chapter.
Now, nearly 42% of Georgia State’s 52,000 students are Black. The school produces more African American graduates than any public university in the nation.
This fall, Georgia State law professor Tanya Washington Hicks wrote a letter to Blake, the university’s first Black president, nominating the women for honorary degrees. Alumni and business and civic leaders gave their support, and the regents unanimously agreed to award the degrees.
“You don’t always fight so you benefit, but you fight so that you make change that will benefit others,” she said.
Crystal Freeman learned of the significance of her mother’s role only after Hunt, the lead plaintiff in the case, died in 2005.
“What she went through was unfathomable, and so for me, it’s so deep,” said Freeman, who lives in Atlanta.
The Ku Klux Klan threatened Hunt. She sought refuge in safe houses and eventually moved to Texas. There, she earned multiple college degrees.
For years, Freeman pushed for recognition of her mother’s legacy but said her efforts gained little traction. The respect that’s now been given feels like “a lifetime accomplishment.”
LaRon Rowe scrambled to take time off from work to travel from Rochester, New York, for the ceremony on behalf of a woman he never met. Iris Mae Welch was Rowe’s great-grandmother’s sister. She died three years after the legal victory and had no children, he said.
Among the many other proud family members was Jordan Holman, 18. When deciding where to go to college, Holman said it was very important to pick a school where she would be surrounded by other Black students.
Elliott’s great-granddaughter is a freshman at Georgia State.
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