University of Georgia commemorates 60th anniversary of desegregation

University of Georgia leaders last week began a monthslong series of events to commemorate one of the monumental moments in its history: the 60th anniversary of a court order desegregating the school.

Organizers are using this moment to honor the achievements of not only Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Hamilton E. Holmes, who became its first two Black students in January 1961, but also others who were as courageous in withstanding overt acts of discrimination, threats, rioting and physical attacks yet persevered to integrate Georgia’s flagship university.

The names include members of Athens’ Black community like the Rev. Archibald Killian, who allowed Holmes to live in his family’s home during his 2½ years at UGA despite threats by the Ku Klux Klan. Kerry Rushin Miller, the first Black student to be offered admission as a first-year student in 1962. And Judge William Bootle, who issued the court ruling ordering desegregation.

“The story of integration is a story of progress, but it’s not just one moment in time,” said Michelle Cook, the university’s vice provost for Diversity and Inclusion and Strategic University Initiatives and a lead organizer of the anniversary events. “It’s individual people making decisions to do courageous and valiant things at various junctures in history. We’re hoping that people pick that up.”



The anniversary plans come as a UGA committee — like many universities, businesses, civic organizations and government agencies across the nation — explores ways to better celebrate diversity and be more inclusive. UGA has faced criticism in recent years from some students and community leaders for various race-related matters, such as its handling of a slave burial site found on campus in 2015 and recently, its response to discrimination complaints.

The university has worked to offer more scholarships to low-income students while highlighting the achievements of several African American graduates in its ongoing online Georgia Groundbreakers series of articles, the latest edition released last week about Shirley Mathis McBay, who in 1966 became its first African American to earn a Ph.D.

“I’m happy that it’s happening at a time that I think we all need to be reminded of our history,” Hunter-Gault, 78, said in an interview last week.



The resistance

UGA, the first educational system in America operated by the state, was founded in 1785. But it was one of the last flagship universities in the South to admit Black students.

The first attempt to desegregate came shortly after the end of the Civil War. A group of Black residents demanded the university admit their sons. Then-Chancellor Patrick Hues Mell told the group, according to university archives, “this is a white man’s college and you are perfectly powerless to help yourselves.”

Nearly a century later, university leaders came up with technical reasons to deny admission to Black students. One Black applicant, Ida Rose McCree, was denied admission in 1960 because she was told the women’s dormitory was full. Her $25 application fee was returned.

Credit: AJC Staff

Credit: AJC Staff

Holmes and Hunter (she married after graduating from UGA), both from Atlanta, were recruited by community leaders to attend Georgia SHom University, but Holmes had a different idea.

“I want to go there (pointing toward UGA) and I said, ‘Yes, me too,’ " Hunter-Gault said.

They applied, but faced with nearly identical explanations from UGA administrators rejecting their enrollment.

UGA said Holmes’ application was incomplete because he didn’t participate in a personal interview although he did. He was asked if he ever visited a house of prostitution, if he attended interracial parties and why didn’t he apply to Emory’s medical school since it’s in Atlanta. Hunter was told there was no room in the female dorm.

The two Black students sued. Their case came before Judge Bootle, a federal jurist from Macon.

Bootle, in his Jan. 6, 1961, ruling, found UGA had some vacancies in their women’s dorms, despite what it told Hunter, and admitted some white female students after denying her admission. Holmes’ interview, the judge wrote, was conducted “with the purpose in mind of finding a basis of rejecting” him.

Bootle wrote “although there is no written policy or rule excluding Negroes, including plaintiffs, from admission to the University on an account of their race, there is a tacit policy to that effect.”

UGA must admit the two students.

‘I will fear no evil’

Holmes and Hunter arrived in Athens the following Wednesday for the first day of the new semester. That evening, about 1,000 students and others rioted outside her dorm, tossing bricks, bottles and firecrackers at her window.

Credit: Bill Young

Credit: Bill Young

Hunter-Gault, a preacher’s kid, said her faith helped strengthen her in the aftermath of the rioting.

“I wasn’t afraid,” she recalled. “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.”

Anger, meanwhile, mounted in Macon. FBI agents stayed at the Bootle home because of threats against him, the judge’s son, James, 81, recalled in a telephone interview last week. Judge Bootle died in 2005 at the age of 102.

One person called the home, alleging a bomb was placed underneath, and demanded to talk to the judge.

“The judge is asleep right now,” his wife told the caller, James said. “The house is built on a slab and there’s no way you can put a bomb under it.”

James Bootle, a retired pathologist, said his father believed in the law and “had the courage to do what needed to be done.”

James, a student at Davidson College near Charlotte in 1961, offered to come home and protect his family with his shotgun. No need, his mother said. The federal agents left about two weeks later.

Credit: Bill Young

Credit: Bill Young

Back in Athens, Holmes was taken in by the Killian family. The feeling was he wouldn’t be safe living on campus. Again, hollow threats and a shotgun became part of the story.

There were rumors the KKK was looking for Holmes. Archibald Killian, legend has it, was ready with a shotgun.

“I tell you one thing, it will be your last day,” Killian calmly said in a 2014 interview, conducted by the university, two years before he died. “I’m a veteran of foreign wars. It don’t mean a damn to me who I shoot or when. Now, come on down here.”

No one came.

Isolation and determination

Holmes made friends in the community, but he had no friends on campus, his son, Hamilton Holmes Jr., 52, said in an interview. For about two decades, Holmes thought little about UGA, and university administrators seemingly thought little about him.

Miller, the first Black student to be offered admission as a first-year student, has a similar story of isolation. Like Holmes and Hunter-Gault, Miller attended Henry McNeal Turner High School in Atlanta. Jesse Hill Jr., the influential Black business leader, came to the school to recruit students interested in attending UGA. Miller applied, thinking back to her first visit to the fabulous Fox Theatre as a 10-year-old girl, which gave Miller her first lesson in segregation.

Miller’s grandmother stopped her as she walked toward the ornate front entrance. Because they were Black, they had to walk up several rows of stairs to a side entrance and watched a movie from what she remembered was a smelly balcony.

For Miller, the reason for enrolling at UGA was her campaign for equality.

“Because I can go,” Miller, 76, who lives in Charlotte, said simply in a telephone interview.

She went to UGA and encountered discrimination. A student threw a rock at Miller that hit her in the hip. She and a Black classmate were booed because they didn’t stand when “Dixie” was played at a football game. One professor locked his classroom door to her.

Miller graduated on June 1, 1966. It wasn’t until 2017 when she returned for a ceremony organized by a Black student group that she felt welcomed by the university. During that visit to campus, Miller walked to the famed black arch on the north end of the campus, a structure she said she was told she could not walk under as a student. On that day, her husband took a picture of her under the arch.

The legacy

Many of these first students progressed to successful careers. Hunter-Gault became a barrier-breaking, award-winning journalist. Holmes taught at Emory University and became the head of orthopedic surgery at Grady Memorial Hospital. Mary Frances Early, the university’s first Black graduate, had a long career as a music educator in the Atlanta school system and what’s now Clark Atlanta University. McBay became MIT’s dean for student affairs.

Holmes’ relationship with the university changed in the mid-1980s when university leaders asked if he would get involved with its foundation. He agreed. In 1986, Holmes Jr., an aspiring business student, enrolled there, with his father’s support.

James Bootle recalled meeting a group of Emory University medical school students in 1965 while interning at Grady Memorial Hospital. One student saw his name tag and asked if he was related to the judge. The student was Holmes, who told Bootle his father was “a fine man.”

Credit: Joey Ivansco

Credit: Joey Ivansco

“It was gratifying to hear him say that,” James Bootle said.

Holmes died in 1995. His son is amazed by his father’s impact on the university and Georgia.

“To think about him being recognized for that accomplishment is very rewarding for me, personally, and for our family,” Holmes Jr. said.

Holmes Jr. is scheduled to speak at one anniversary event. Hunter-Gault is scheduled to headline another event. Most of the events will be held online.

“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,” she said.

She believes Holmes will be watching with a smile.

UGA and Diversity

Here is a breakdown of African American representation currently at the University of Georgia:

8.3 — the percentage of Black students on campus

5 — the percentage of Black faculty members

6 — the percentage of Black administrators

12.7 — the percentage of Black full-time employees

Sources: University of Georgia, University System of Georgia

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