Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes, the first black students at the University of Georgia, arrive on the campus in January 1961 while surrounded by reporters. (Charles Pugh / AJC file)
Photo: Charles Pugh / AJC file
Photo: Charles Pugh / AJC file

Charlayne Hunter-Gault: Integrating UGA was just the start of her news

AJC Sepia Black History Month

Charlayne Hunter-Gault had one thing in mind when she got to the University of Georgia: being a reporter.

But in 1961, in Jim Crow South — and virtually anywhere in America — achieving that dream proved difficult.

»MORE: Read the full AJC Sepia Black History Month series

“(One) time I went to see if I could work on the school newspaper (The Red & Black) and was welcomed by the editor, but never got an assignment,” Hunter-Gault recounted in an essay for The New Yorker in 2015 — which she wrote in response to protests at the University of Missouri following a series of racial incidents at that campus.

The mistreatment reminded Hunter-Gault of the harassment she and classmate Hamilton E. Holmes experienced when they became the first black students to enroll at UGA.

Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes, the first black students at the University of Georgia, arrive on the campus in January 1961 while surrounded by reporters. (Charles Pugh / AJC file)

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In the same New Yorker essay, she recounted some of the horrors that happened to her in Athens, like going a whole semester and never being addressed by professors.

She remembers one night when a group of people, including students, gathered outside her dorm and shouting racial slurs. 

"The town police threw around tear gas, ostensibly to disperse an already-thinning crowd. By the time the state troopers arrived, the protesters were long gone," she wrote, adding that the school briefly suspended her "for, they said, my own safety."

Charlayne Hunter, left, prepares to leave one of her classes at the University of Georgia on Jan. 11, 1961. (AJC file)

But the intimidation — including the threats, epithets and spit spewed at her on campus — only fueled the now renowned journalist, who would go on to win two Emmys and a Peabody award for her work on Apartheid’s People, a PBS NewsHour series focusing on life in South Africa.

Hunter-Gault established a decades-long career most writers and journalists would envy.

Immediately after graduating, Hunter-Gault worked as an editorial assistant at The New Yorker, quickly rising to staff writer. Shortly after, she joined Washington, D.C., news station WRC-TV’s investigative team, occasionally anchoring the evening news.

Media personality and civil rights activist Charlayne Hunter-Gault was one of the first two black students to attend the University of Georgia in 1961.
Photo: AJC 2011

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Hunter-Gault returned to print reporting, working as a metropolitan reporter for The New York Times. She would go on to hold national reporting positions with PBS NewsHour and CNN. In 1986, The National Association of Black Journalists chose the decorated reporter as its Journalist of The Year.

Hunter-Gault detailed her life’s experiences in her book, “In My Place.” On Jan. 9, 2001, UGA established the Hunter-Holmes Academic building, marking 40 years since she and Holmes made history.

While she was denied opportunities at The Red & Black, Hunter-Gault kept pressing toward great success, inspiring dozens of black students who came through the UGA program.

Raisa Habersham, a graduate of UGA, was an editor at The Red & Black. She is now a reporter for The AJC.

Throughout February, we’ll spotlight a different African-American pioneer in the daily Living section Monday through Thursday and Saturday, and in the Metro section on Fridays and Sundays. Go to myAJC.com/black-history-month for more subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world, and to see videos on the African-American pioneer featured here each day.

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