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Atlanta school system honors former student, UGA’s first black graduate

Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, left, recognizes Mary Frances Early, a former APS student and educator and the University of Georgia’s first African-American graduate, during the school board’s Monday, Jan. 6, 2020, meeting. VANESSA McCRAY/AJC
Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, left, recognizes Mary Frances Early, a former APS student and educator and the University of Georgia’s first African-American graduate, during the school board’s Monday, Jan. 6, 2020, meeting. VANESSA McCRAY/AJC

Atlanta Public Schools honored Mary Frances Early, a history-making former student and educator and the University of Georgia's first African American graduate.

Next month, the university's College of Education will be named in Early's honor. But on Monday, the school district where she graduated from high school and later taught music took its turn paying homage to her.

Before Monday’s board meeting, APS officials paused to recognize Early.

“This is the most incredible way to start a new decade,” said APS Superintendent Meria Carstarphen. “We have come a long way, and you have made that possible.”

Mary Frances Early graduated with a masater’s degree from the University of Georgia in August of 1962. 
Mary Frances Early graduated with a masater’s degree from the University of Georgia in August of 1962. 

Early, 83, was the valedictorian of the former Henry McNeal Turner High School in Atlanta. She earned a bachelor's degree from Clark College, now Clark Atlanta University, and later enrolled at UGA. In 1962 she became the university's first black graduate when she completed her master's degree in music education.

She also taught music at APS and worked as a music director for the entire district.

“There’s nothing like being honored by your own,” Early said on Monday. “I call the Atlanta Public Schools my school system … because I worked in it and went to school in it for almost five decades.”

Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen presents Mary Frances Early with a photo of Early from her younger years.
Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen presents Mary Frances Early with a photo of Early from her younger years.

She said some consider her an “unlikely candidate” to be a civil rights activist because she was so studious and quiet. But she said integrating UGA was something she felt she had to do because she could not “stand on the sidelines and wait for somebody else.”

“It changed the University of Georgia forever, and I knew it would,” she said. “When you go on campus today and look at the diversity one can be so happy because it reflects all of us, not just some of us.”

Last month, the Atlanta City Council also recognized Early.