Invisible no more: UGA names college after first Black graduate

During her days as a student, and for decades afterward, Mary Frances Early felt like University of Georgia leaders treated her as “the Invisible Woman.”

Classmates refused to speak to her. Although she was the first African American to graduate from UGA, on Aug. 16, 1962, the university didn’t acknowledge her role in its history. Her achievement was not reported by major news outlets who instead focused on UGA’s first two Black students, Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Hamilton E. Holmes, who enrolled there months earlier. They graduated in 1963.

Today, though, Early is one of its most celebrated graduates. The university plans a ceremony Tuesday to name its College of Education after Early, who spent decades teaching music in the Atlanta Public Schools system and at what’s now Clark Atlanta University.

>> RELATED: Atlanta school system honors former student, UGA’s first Black graduate

“I was doing my little bit to help make the system change, and it did,” Early, 83, who precisely remembers dates and details, said during an interview last week in her Decatur home.

Mary Frances Early graduated from UGA in 1962 and is a retired educator who taught in the Atlanta school system and at Clark Atlanta University. TYSON HORNE / TYSON.HORNE@AJC.COM

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Ironically, UGA’s College of Education is in a building named after O.C. Aderhold, who was the university’s president when Early was a student. Aderhold, who died in 1969, did not acknowledge her during her days on campus, she said.

The university’s embrace of Early began in 1997 when a minority graduate student group invited her to speak on campus. Then-UGA President Michael Adams issued a proclamation acknowledging her role in the university’s history. UGA now holds an annual lecture in her name, Early was its 2007 graduate school commencement speaker, and in October 2018, she received the President’s Medal — one of UGA’s biggest honors.

"Through her courage and determination, Ms. Early has made an indelible mark on UGA, and we are pleased to honor her legacy and lifetime of accomplishments as a music educator and civil rights icon," UGA President Jere Morehead said after the state's Board of Regents approved the name change.

>> RELATED: Mary Frances Early, first Black graduate, honored at UGA

Mary Frances Early plays piano at her mother’s Atlanta home before reporting to the University of Georgia in the summer of 1961. CONTRIBUTED BY UNIVERSITY OF GEORGIA

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Early referenced the Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken” to describe her journey when she arrived on campus in 1961. The path was treacherous.

Early was pursuing a master’s degree in music education at the University of Michigan when Hunter-Gault and Holmes arrived in Athens. At the time, Early said the state of Georgia provided Black teachers additional funds to study outside its borders to prevent integration. As Early, an Atlanta native, watched the rioting that took place at UGA after Holmes and Hunter-Gault started classes, she wanted to get involved in the integration cause.

“I was tired of standing on the sidelines and waiting for somebody else to solve these problems,” she said.

Mary Frances Early in her Decatur home on Feb. 21, 2020. The University of Georgia is holding a ceremony to rename its College of Education after Early, its first Black graduate. TYSON HORNE / TYSON.HORNE@AJC.COM

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Early encountered hostility similar to that of Hunter-Gault and Holmes. A proclamation was distributed around campus urging students not to welcome “these intruders” and white students who befriended her would be ostracized. Students once threw lemon slices at her in the cafeteria. A group of male students locked arms in an attempt to stop Early from entering the library. One boy remarked, “I smell a dog.” Another replied, “I smell a (expletive).”

Early recalled being locked in a music room one night while studying. Another time, students threw rocks at her. One struck her in the face.

“I picked up a rock and threw it back at them,” she said.

Mary Frances Early keeps old newspaper articles about UGA’s first Black students. This week, the university will name its College of Education after Early. TYSON HORNE / TYSON.HORNE@AJC.COM

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Early felt regret for her response. An admirer of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., she had become a frequent worshipper at Ebenezer Baptist Church. She discussed the incident with King, who preached a nonviolent approach to combat racial injustice.

“Don’t worry about that, Mary Frances, I would have done the same thing,” she recalled him saying.

“I don’t think that he would’ve, but it made me feel better.”

Early credits her Christian faith with continuing her coursework. She kept many of the incidents to herself. Early didn’t want to upset her mother. (Her father died when she was 12.) Her brother was a police officer in Athens, and she did not want him to confront those who mistreated her.

Some on campus treated Early kindly. A Presbyterian minister invited Early to join him and his wife one afternoon for hot dogs. When Early arrived, the couple and four students surprised her with cake and ice cream to celebrate her 25th birthday.

Early’s professors treated her as she wanted, like the other students. She graduated with a 4.0 grade-point average. About 75 family members and friends traveled from Atlanta for commencement. UGA accepted transfer credits from Michigan, which enabled Early to be the first Black graduate. Administrators, she said, did not recognize the historic moment.

Copy of an article about Mary Frances Early graduating from UGA. PHIL SKINNER / AJC FILE

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Nonetheless, she returned to UGA in 1964 for a degree as a specialist in music education.

“I didn’t think my job was done,” Early said of her desire to see UGA better embrace Black students.

The atmosphere changed little. But by 1967, when she earned her degree, three other African American students earned undergraduate degrees.

Though she rarely is mentioned in the history books, Mary Frances Early is actually the first Black graduate of the University of Georgia, before Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Hamilton Holmes. UGA granted her an honorary degree in 2013 to acknowledge this fact. CONTRIBUTED

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Early left Athens and carved out a successful career as an educator in Atlanta. Three decades later, in 1997, professor Maurice C. Daniels heard about Early while working on a documentary about a Black student who unsuccessfully tried to enroll there. He asked if she would do an interview.

“I needed to tell my story because it’s a part of history,” she decided.

The story got out, through a speech on campus, an article in the student newspaper and the proclamation.

And now, UGA’s College of Education will officially be named after Mary Frances Early.

“It’s surreal,” she said. “I can’t believe it’s happening to me.”

The best part, she said, is the university has raised nearly $3 million in scholarships in her name for students with financial need.

Mary Frances Early keeps a letter from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in which he congratulated her on her graduation from UGA. TYSON HORNE / TYSON.HORNE@AJC.COM

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Early has donated many of her UGA records to the university. She has copies of some papers neatly kept in an orange loose-leaf binder. Early jogged to grab the binder. One document is a Sept. 10, 1962, letter from King congratulating Early on her graduation.

“I simply wanted to write this note to say how very proud we all are of you and your accomplishment,” King wrote. “You have done a superb job, and brought the State of Georgia closer to the American dream.”