Mary Frances Early, first black graduate, honored at UGA

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Editor’s note: This story ran in 2013, when Mary Frances Early received an honorary advanced degree from the University of Georgia. Early’s pioneering status at the school will be explored in a documentary to air on Georgia Public Broadcasting Sept. 18 at 10:30 p.m. and Sep. 23 at 11 a.m.

When Mary Frances Early returns to the University of Georgia Friday, to receive an honorary doctorate, she will sit with the school president.

But when Early was a graduate student there in the summer of 1961, she sat alone.

She wasn’t the first black student to attend the school. Her colleagues, Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes had registered the previous January as undergraduates, provoking a riot by white students who opposed their arrival.

But Hunter and Holmes were gone for the summer, Hunter at a newspaper internship and Holmes had a job as a lifeguard. When she arrived that June, Early’s suite at the Center-Meyers dormitory was outfitted with a stove and refrigerator and its own bathroom.

She needn’t share a meal or a mirror with a white student. The message was clear: She was allowed by law to attend the university, but she wasn’t to mix.

Even when she sat down to take her Graduate Record Exam, the students in her row stood up to move to another row of chairs. At the end of the semester she had scored well.

“I got A’s, but I wasn’t surprised,” said Early, now 76 and a resident of Decatur who retired from teaching music in the Atlanta Public Schools and Clark College. “I didn’t have anything else to do besides study.”

After completing her first semester and the spring and summer semesters of 1962, studying music theory and history, the music of the Greeks and vocal production, Early graduated with a masters in music education, becoming the first African American to graduate from the University of Georgia.

The significance of the event was not lost on Martin Luther King Jr. who sent her a note of congratulations. Benjamin Mays, president of Morehouse College, also sent a letter, though in typical Mays form he praised her grades as much as her pioneering courage.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Much has been made of the path-breaking achievements of Hunter, now Hunter-Gault, and Holmes, who died in 1995. Both have been frequently, but inaccurately, described as the school’s first black graduates. An academic building was even renamed in their honor. But less attention has been paid to the significance of Early’s milestone.

Early has been puzzled by her absence from many accounts.

“It’s not that I want accolades,” Early said. “I just want history to be recorded accurately.”

Still slim and erect, Early sipped a cup of coffee at her Decatur condominium, as she spoke about her academic career. Her face is unlined, and her eyes sparkle behind spectacles.

An honors graduate of Clark College, Early was working as a music teacher at John Hope Elementary School and pursuing a masters degree during the summers at the University of Michigan when a newspaper photograph changed her life.

It showed Hunter and Holmes being escorted from the college after their antagonists began smashing windows, and Hunter was seen clutching a small statuette of the Madonna. That photo touched Early’s heart.

Sit-ins and demonstrations were happening all over the city, she said, and though she wanted to participate, she didn’t want to threaten her job.

“If I was arrested I’d have been fired,” she said.

But she could certainly help the movement by attending graduate school at UGA instead of in Michigan. “I did it for the cause,” she said. Her mother was dubious, but Early insisted.

“It’s not going to stop unless some of us step up,” she said.

“I was 24 years old, I was too stupid to be scared.”

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Early applied in January of 1961, but she didn’t receive confirmation that she’d been accepted until May. During her interview with the registrar, “He asked me some questions I’m sure they would never have asked a white student, such as ‘have you ever been in a house of prostitution?’ I said No. I’m a professional, I have no need or interest.”

Life on campus was difficult. Her car, a white Ford Falcon, was vandalized: the tires were slashed and someone scrawled a racial epithet on the driver’s side in red paint.

Students threw rocks at her. A group of males linked arms as if to bar her from the library one evening, one of them commenting “I smell a dog,” as she approached.

But there were also acts of kindness. A speech professor invited her to the Presbyterian student center for supper one evening and the students there surprised her that night with a cake and ice cream. She had expected to celebrate her birthday alone.

Early went on to earn a specialist in education degree from UGA in 1967, became director of music for Atlanta Public Schools, then eventually chair of the music department at Clark Atlanta University.

Her portrait hangs along with those of Hunter-Gault and Holmes in the Holmes-Hunter Academic Building. Ms. Early served as commencement speaker for the graduate school in 2007 and received the Distinguished Alumni Award from the College of Education in 2010.

Credit: Charles Pugh

Credit: Charles Pugh

She has no children and never married — “I was married to my work,” she explains. Though plagued by macular degeneration, which makes reading and driving difficult, she has, since her 2005 retirement, indulged in travel, her favorite activity, and has been to every continent except Antarctica.

Maurice Daniels, dean of the UGA school of social work, has written about integration at the school, and helped bring Early’s achievement to public notice. Praising her “incredible grace, and dignity and humility” he said Early was “one of the unheralded freedom fighters who helped to advance our democracy.”