Mary Frances Early (b. 1936)
On August 16, 1962, Mary Frances Early became the first African American to graduate from the University of Georgia (UGA). Her accomplishment has been overshadowed by that of Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes, who enrolled at UGA in January 1961, becoming the first African Americans to attend the previously segregated institution. Early remembers, "I sent in my application just after Char and Hamilton were evicted from campus for their own safety after a riot. . . . And I thought, 'Well, they have been brave enough to open up the undergraduate school, so somebody needs to step forward to open up the graduate school—why not me?'" She transferred her graduate work from the University of Michigan to UGA and graduated with a master's degree in music education in 1962, a year before Hunter and Holmes finished their undergraduate studies.
Early was born on June 14, 1936, in Atlanta to Ruth and John H. Early. As a child she spent a great deal of time in a local library across the street from the restaurant owned by her father. An amateur singer, he encouraged his daughter to learn to play the piano so she could accompany him. Early always enjoyed learning and was motivated by her mother, a public school teacher in Monroe. Her love for music and teaching was inspired by a charismatic band teacher at Henry McNeal Turner High School in Atlanta. He influenced her decision to attend Clark College (later Clark Atlanta University) after high school and to major in music education.
According to Early, she was not brought up to talk about racial or gender superiority even though she grew up in segregated Atlanta. She says, "It wasn't in our vocabulary to think that people were good or bad because of their skin color, so I was just sort of taken aback that it became a big issue later in my life."
When Early began the admissions process at UGA, it became obvious to her exactly how big an issue her racial identity was. She had to schedule her own admissions interview, which she later described as "not pleasant." She was bombarded with inappropriate questions, such as whether she had ever been a prostitute or had any illegitimate children. She was told she would lose all of her credit hours from the University of Michigan if she transferred, but Early was determined and persistent. UGA officials investigated her voting records and her family's health records (particularly for evidence of sexually transmitted diseases), and checked to see whether anyone in her family had received any speeding tickets or been arrested.
Eventually Early received an acceptance letter from UGA on May 10, 1961, and within a few days she arrived in Athens for summer classes. While at UGA she was the victim of repeated abuses. She recalls students throwing lemons at her at the dining hall and students trying to bar her from the library one evening by joining hands in front of the library doors. Her automobile was defiled with a racial slur, but Early had the car repainted and continued her studies. Despite the discrimination she endured at UGA, Early says, "I came to love Georgia as a school. I didn't like a lot of things that went on sometimes, but the music department was a place of refuge."
Early was formally recognized by the university for the first time at a reception hosted at UGA by the Graduate and Professional Scholars in the spring of 2000. She acknowledges that UGA has exhibited a "greater awareness that bigger efforts need to be made to integrate the student body" in the past forty years. She is pleased that UGA now hosts an office of diversity, and hopes that in her lifetime she will see "the kind of equity and diversity our state university deserves." Early was the chair of the Department of Music at Clark Atlanta University. She is now retired. She celebrated her Golden Reunion with her 1957 Clark College classmates in 2007.