First African-American UGA graduate gets her place in history

- Few people may know about Mary Frances Early, but she made history in Georgia.

Early was the first African American to graduate from the University of Georgia. Back in 1962, she graduated with a master's degree in music education.

For whatever reason, Early's place in history was overlooked until recently, but now she's finally getting the recognition she deserves.

Early grew up in a segregated Atlanta where she couldn't go to the Fox Theatre and had to drink from "colored water fountains."

"I was tired of the oppression. I was just tired of it," she recalled.

Frustrated and fed up, she decided that she would face segregation head on and attempt to enroll at the University of Georgia. The year was 1961, and she had watched TV images of white students taunting and spitting on Charleyne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes, the first two black students to enroll and integrate the university.

"They suspended them from campus for their own safety," Early said "And I thought, they can't do that. They should be able to protect those students." 

At 25, she was already enrolled in a graduate program at the University of Michigan when she took a leap of faith and applied at the University of Georgia.

Mary was a strong candidate. She was valedictorian of her Atlanta High School and her Clark College class. She was already an Atlanta Public Schools Teacher. But none of that mattered when she arrived on the sprawling Athens campus after insisting the university meet with her.

Early says she never received an invitation to be interviewed like other students and was insulted by the registrar's first question.

"The first one was, have you ever been in a house of prostitution? I mean ...I was taken aback because ... why would he ask that?"

She left feeling defeated but was still determined to go the school.

The university admitted her the summer of 1961, just five months after her more famous classmates Hunter and Holmes. Her experience was unimaginable.

"I went to my car to get something out of it and they had spray painted the n-word in red paint on this white car," Early recalled. "They had a private bathroom, so you did not go to the bathroom with the other white girls."

It was the isolation that really got to her because there was no one to talk to.

Despite all of those problems, Early graduated from UGA in 1962. But it didn't feel like a big moment in history at the time. She said no media was there and even the university seemed to ignore her accomplishment for years until a black UGA professor actually did the research and found her.

"I wasn't angry with them because the people I should have been angry with were dead and gone," she said. "But I was disappointed that my role as the third student there and the first to get a degree was completely ignored. Nobody likes to be forgotten."

Now the school celebrates Early's courage and accomplishment.  Just last month, University President Jere Morehead graced the 81-year-old with a presidential medal. Her picture now hangs in the Academic Building and a lecture has been started in her name.

She now loves her former university.

"However it happened, for whatever reason it happened, it is not happening now," Early said. "And so I have embraced the University of Georgia as my true alma mater."

This story was first published Feb. 13, 2018.

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