Dr. Hamilton E. Holmes, whose single-minded walk through the gates of the University of Georgia in 1961 tipped the state from racial segregation toward integration, died Thursday in his Atlanta home at age 54.
Holmes, the head of orthopedic surgery at Grady Memorial Hospital and an assistant professor at Emory School of Medicine, had seemed to be recovering well from a quadruple coronary bypass operation he underwent two weeks ago, but he was found dead in his bed, said his brother Gary Holmes.
Two decades after enduring jeers and isolation on the Athens campus, Holmes overcame his quiet bitterness to become a spirited Georgia Bulldog fan, recalled PBS correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault, the other black student who integrated UGA under a federal court order on Jan. 6, 1961.
Hunter-Gault, who described their relationship as that of siblings "joined at the historical hip," said she found Holmes in the 1980s sporting a Bulldog hat and bumper sticker and reciting UGA football statistics.
"I said, 'Hamp, what happened?' 'Well,' he said, 'things change.' "
UGA President Charles Knapp said Holmes reconciled with the university about 10 years ago when he helped establish the Holmes-Hunter Lecture Series and began serving as a trustee of the UGA Foundation. His son Hamilton "Chip" Holmes Jr. later enrolled and graduated there.
Knapp recalled an emotional evening on campus last summer when the elder Holmes talked to a group of students about his experiences. "He was almost in tears, not of anger but of a kind of nostalgia."
Holmes and Charlayne Hunter, both of the Class of '59 from Atlanta's Turner High School, were chosen for their historic roles by local NAACP lawyers. Good-looking, bright and well-dressed, they were considered "perfectly cast," wrote Calvin Trillin in "An Education in Georgia."
Holmes also had pedigree. His grandfather, Dr. Hamilton Mayo Holmes, had been a prominent black Atlanta physician and role model. His father, Alfred "Tup" Holmes, was a businessman who won a U.S. Supreme Court case desegregating Atlanta's public golf courses in 1956, one of which bears his name. His mother, a tennis champion, came from a prominent family involved in Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
"Doc was a prince of a gentleman," Atlanta City Council President Marvin Arrington said of his lifelong friend and high school classmate. "He was the smartest man I ever met in my life."
Elected Phi Beta Kappa at UGA, "he knocked the end off the curve," Knapp said of Holmes.
While Hunter struggled for acceptance on campus, she said, Holmes found his outlet off campus, playing basketball with the Athens "brothers."
"He was going to the University of Georgia for one reason and one reason alone, and that was to get access to the best facitilies available for becoming a doctor. It was almost like a job."
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.