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. Now UGA is giving her an honorary degree to acknowledge this fact.

Atlanta City Council honors UGA’s first black graduate, Corrections chief

Atlanta City Council honored Mary Frances Early, the University of Georgia’s first black graduate, for her dedication to public and collegiate education during its meeting on Monday. 

“I did not go to be the first, I went to be a part of the struggle,” Early said during the honor, speaking on why she chose to go to UGA. 

Early was one of a handful of people honored, including the city’s Department of Corrections Chief Patrick Labat. The city is also honoring The Fox Theater’s 90th anniversary. The theater opened two months after the stock market crash in 1929 on Christmas Day. 

The honor came weeks after the Georgia Board of Regents approved a request from UGA to name its College of Education after Early. UGA will unveil the college’s new name on Feb. 25, 2020, to coincide with Black History Month.


Mary Frances Early, first black graduate, honored at UGA

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“She represents an authentic voice of protest who courageously joined the struggle of civil rights in our state,” said Maurice Daniels, Dean Emeritus of UGA”s School of Social Work. 

Early arrived at UGA in 1961, a few months after Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Hamilton Holmes became the first African American students to enroll there. 

She graduated from the university on Aug. 16, 1962 with a master’s degree in music education, becoming the first African American to earn a degree from UGA. Early returned to UGA in 1964 and earned a Specialist in Education degree in 1967. 

Early was a music teacher in the Atlanta Public Schools system and eventually was promoted to music director of the entire school system. She retired from working in public schools in 1994. Early later taught at Morehouse College, Spelman College and Clark Atlanta University as head of the music department.

Atlanta’s Department of Corrections Chief Patrick Labat announced he was running for Fulton County Sheriff early Friday
Photo: Courtesy of Patrick Labat for Fulton County Sheriff

The City Council also honored retiring Department of Corrections Chief Patrick Labat, who was also presented with the Phoenix Award by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. The Phoenix Award is the city’s highest honor and has been given to those who have made significant contributions to Atlanta. The distinction is often reserved for dignitaries, prominent figures and celebrities.

“You have heart and a deep abiding love for the people of this city that’s not seen often,” Bottoms said about Labat at the presentation. “You’ve had the incredible opportunity to display that love through your work.”

An emotional Labat thanked Bottoms, council members and the city for the honor, calling it “one of the highlights of my career.”

“It is with great humility that I say ‘thank you,’” he said. “It is because of each of you that I am where I am.” 

Labat began his career with the city in 1988 as a corrections officer. In 2010, he became chief of the city’s Department of Correction, overseeing the Atlanta City Detention Center. Labat announced this past summer that he is running for Fulton County Sheriff. 

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