OPINION: Honor ‘hidden figures’ of Georgia’s college desegregation battle

Three women who risked their lives to compel integration of Georgia State deserve recognition
Iris Mae Welch, left, Barbara Pace Hunt, center, and Myra Elliott, right, are largely unrecognized for the role they played in integrating Georgia's public universities. The author of a book about their sacrifices urges the state to honor the women by creating a statue of them or naming a building for them.

Credit: Courtesy photo

Credit: Courtesy photo

Iris Mae Welch, left, Barbara Pace Hunt, center, and Myra Elliott, right, are largely unrecognized for the role they played in integrating Georgia's public universities. The author of a book about their sacrifices urges the state to honor the women by creating a statue of them or naming a building for them.

In a guest column, Maurice C. Daniels urges the University System of Georgia to honor three forgotten activists who won a landmark case against segregation in the South.

Dean emeritus and professor emeritus of the University of Georgia School of Social Work, Daniels is author of “Ground Crew: The Fight to End Segregation at Georgia State,” which tells the story of Barbara Hunt, Myra Elliott and Iris Mae Welch and their legal battle to integrate Georgia State in 1959.

The three women – only Elliott is still living – were heroic figures, enduring attacks on their characters and physical threats. They won the case, but were still not able to enroll at GSU; while the judge ordered the campus to integrate, he did not mandate the admission of Elliott, Welch and Hunt.

Daniels said it is time these women’s contributions were recognized by the University System of Georgia.

By Maurice C. Daniels

On Jan. 9, 1961, civil rights pioneers Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter broke the 175-year-old color line at Georgia’s flagship university, the University of Georgia, after Judge William Augustus Bootle ordered their admission to the state’s most cherished all-white institution.

Holmes and Hunter’s epic battle was led by chief counsel Donald Hollowell, NAACP LDF counsel Constance Baker Motley, Vernon E. Jordan Jr. and Horace T. Ward. The nation’s most elite civil rights lawyers — Thurgood Marshall, Robert Carter, and Jack Greenberg — also contributed to the historic victory.

Holmes and Hunter were the first black students to enroll at a white public school, college, or university in the state, a seminal moment that represented a major turning point in Georgia history. Judge Elbert Tuttle of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, as well as the U.S. Supreme Court, affirmed Bootle’s decree, and the two brilliant and courageous students rightly became icons of the civil rights movement. In 2001, on the 40th anniversary of UGA’s desegregation, UGA renamed its Academic Building the Holmes-Hunter Academic Building to honor its first two black students.

A few months after the admission of Holmes and Hunter, following an FBI-style background check and interrogation by university officials, UGA admitted Mary Frances Early to its Graduate School for the summer quarter of 1961. On Aug. 16, 1962, Early became UGA’s first black graduate and the first black graduate of any of the white public colleges and universities in the University System of Georgia. In 2020, nearly 60 years after her graduation, UGA renamed its College of Education the Mary Frances Early College of Education.

The victories of Holmes, Hunter, and Early were grounded in precedents set in an earlier legal case, one that history has largely overlooked. Though the Supreme Court declared school segregation illegal in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, Georgia was among many Southern states that refused to abide by the Court’s ruling. In 1956, the all-white Georgia State College of Business Administration, now Georgia State University, denied admission to nine black applicants.

Three of those applicants—lead plaintiff Barbara Pace Hunt, Myra Elliott, and Iris Mae Welch—filed a landmark lawsuit (Hunt v. Arnold) against the state of Georgia and its Board of Regents (BOR) with the help of the NAACP and local activists.

Dr. Maurice Daniels, right. wrote a book about three Black women who sued to integrate Georgia State in 1959. He is shown here with one of them, Myra Elliott, center, and the daughter of the late Barbara Pace Hunt, Crystal Freeman, left.

Credit: Special to the AJC

icon to expand image

Credit: Special to the AJC

Civil rights barristers Hollowell, Motley, E. E. Moore Jr. and Austin T. Walden coordinated with Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP to win a groundbreaking federal injunction against the USG Regents and Georgia State two years before the Holmes triumph. Federal Judge Boyd Sloan issued the unprecedented ruling overturning segregation in Georgia’s public colleges and universities. Sloan ruled that the BOR’s policies demonstrated preferential treatment for white students and enjoined the Regents from “continuing to limit [Georgia State] to white students only.” The ruling, which broadly outlawed the BOR’s racially discriminatory policies, applied to every all-white college and university in the USG.

The Hunt v. Arnold decision marked a watershed moment in the fight against segregation in higher education and had far-reaching effects across the Deep South. Not only did Hunt’s legal precedents figure prominently in the Holmes decision, but one year later, in Meredith v. Fair, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals cited the Hunt ruling in upholding the injunction against racial discrimination at the University of Mississippi. The historic Meredith v. Fair ruling led to the admission of James Meredith to the University of Mississippi in 1962.

Hunt, Elliott, and Welch’s arduous struggle and tremendous sacrifice established groundwork that played a key role in removing state-sanctioned legal barriers to desegregation in higher education. Despite the plaintiffs' federal court victory, however, Georgia officials went to deplorable lengths to ultimately block their admission to Georgia State. Perhaps as a result, although the efforts of these three “hidden figures” and their lawyers established vital legal precedents that figured prominently in Holmes v. Danner, Holmes has largely overshadowed the Hunt triumph.

In 2019, I was privileged to publish “Ground Crew: The Fight to End Segregation at Georgia State,” chronicling the untold story of the NAACP’s first federal court triumph against segregated education in Georgia. On Feb. 20, 2020, more than 60 years after the Hunt v. Arnold decision, Georgia State President Mark Becker and Provost Wendy Hensel hosted the inaugural Groundbreaker Lecture honoring Barbara Hunt, Myra Elliott, and Iris Mae Welch. I was honored to deliver the inaugural lecture. It was a grand occasion that included special recognition for the 88-year-young Myra Elliott.

I commend GSU for establishing the Groundbreaker Lecture Series to honor these pioneers. To the extent that Georgia State and other traditionally white USG institutions have made progress with regard to diversity and equity, they owe a tremendous debt for the enormous sacrifices and activism of Hunt, Elliott, and Welch. Going forward, it will be equally important to honor the courageous lawyers and key civil rights activists who played a pivotal role in this victory.

Today, the time has come to pay tribute to Hunt, Elliott, and Welch with an honor befitting these courageous individuals. As our nation reckons with removing symbols of racial oppression — often erected to celebrate white supremacy and in defiance of racial equality — the USG Board of Regents and Georgia State University should erect an appropriate statue or name a prominent building to celebrate Hunt, Elliott, and Welch. Naming a building or erecting a statue to honor these trailblazers will be a significant first step in recognizing their role in the fight to end segregation in Georgia’s public colleges and universities.