|Mary Frances Early has been the recipient of a number of awards and honors, including the STAR Teacher Award, Coan Middle School, 1972; Benjamin E. Mays Black Music Heritage Award, 1995; University of Georgia Outstanding Alumna Award, 2000; and the Foot Soldier for Equal Justice (University of Georgia) Award.
Mary Frances Early Speaks
on a public education and the dynamics of change
Mary Frances Early enters the door of Paschal’s, a smartly urban restaurant convenient to her job as chair of the music department at Clark Atlanta University. Muzak tinkles, and waiters bustle. The educator, who gives pre-concert lectures for the Atlanta Symphony, inclines her ear towards the speaker and smiles. Despite her father’s love of classical music, he could not attend the symphony because it was still segregated.
Restaurants and music have factored heavily into her life’s narrative.
Early is small and slender, standing 5’4” tall. Yet every one of her 64 inches seems purposeful. Nothing betrays she recently celebrated her 69th birthday, or that her gentle presence could have once sparked such controversy. For it was Early who slipped past racist barricades to become UGA’s first black graduate.
She is no quitter. So she has reluctantly just announced her second retirement from her post as chair at the university. Retirement does not come easily when one’s life has been embroidered with achievement.
Early’s mother, a teacher, and her entrepreneurial father were progressive and nurturing. Early’s father owned a restaurant on Auburn Avenue. “I lived in Summerhill – southeast Atlanta – until I was twelve years of age. We moved to northwest Atlanta when my father left the restaurant business and opened a small grocery store.”
The Early family restaurant was across the street from the Auburn Avenue Library – Atlanta’s sole “black” library at that time, and “an important section of the city for African Americans to this day,” Early notes. Early’s parents would frequently shoo her across the street to read. Her scholarship later made her a class valedictorian three times. She read hungrily, never guessing that one day her own name and photograph would make headlines throughout the South.
Music and academics shaped Early’s young life. She was also riveted by the rousing oratory of an Atlanta minister. Whenever possible, she drank in the words of a minister poised to become an American legend.
“Our restaurant was about three blocks south of Dr. Martin Luther King’s church – Ebenezer Baptist Church,” Early says, opening a menu.
Early butters a steaming square of cornbread, saying how much she likes the simple Southern fare that is famously Paschal’s. But she also appreciates its cachet, for it is known as much for its sizzling social connections as for its fried chicken. Governors, mayors and celebrities (including celebrity attorney Johnnie Cochran) dined here, and Coretta Scott King celebrated her 75th birthday at Paschal’s Northside Drive address.
The first Paschal’s opened nearby on Hunter Street, now M.L. King Drive, in 1947 within the Castleberry Hill district, an area near the Georgia Dome and elbow-to-elbow with artists’ lofts and galleries. Paschal’s was then a sandwich shop; a segregated restaurant whose owners enjoyed saying that they never enforced segregation. Though the restaurant’s business license was designated as “for colored people only,” the convivial Paschal brothers pointedly “ignored the ordinance.”
By 1960, Paschal’s had evolved from an eatery into an unofficial gathering place for notable Civil Rights activists, including King. As the diners gathered together downtown, they spoke openly about desegregating the South.
Early, who feared arrest yet rallied in support of fellow students during desegregation, smiles at mentions of King’s name. She considers how her life intersected with King’s as a “foot soldier” in an army of social action when she forfeited all but 10 of her 21 graduate credits from the University of Michigan to enroll as the first black graduate student at UGA.
Her decision followed a high profile campus riot in early 1961.
“Yes, there was a riot on January 11th – after a basketball game that UGA lost,” recalls Early. Bottles and stones were thrown directly outside the dormitory where new undergraduate, Charlayne Hunter, was quartered. Two undergraduate black students, Hunter and Hamilton Holmes, were removed from campus and taken to Atlanta for their protection, only three days following a federal court order of desegregation.
“It was very nasty, and the Klan was involved,” Early recalls. “I was so upset with the riot and the psychological effect that it had on those two young people that I just had to join in the battle for our rights.”
Joining this particular battle was not, in Early’s view, so much an act of courage as a mandate. Since graduating from Clark, Early had spent three summers studying under State aid at the University of Michigan. During the school year she taught public school near the church King co-pastored on Boulevard Drive. Whenever possible she heard the powerful oratory of Reverend King. “Countless times,” Early estimates.
King, like her parents, never emphasized “hatred or retribution.” She absorbed his powerful insights as the Civil Right’s Movement gained momentum at segregated strongholds through the South.
King said that anyone could serve this movement, but there was one caveat: they must serve with love. “When evil men plot, good men plan,” he said. “When evil men bomb and burn, good men must build and bind. When evil men shout words of hatred, good men must commit themselves to the glory of love.”
The UGA riot resolved the 24-year-old musician and educator’s destiny. Early told her mother what she felt she must do. Rather than study that summer in Michigan, she would transfer into UGA’s music education program.
Early was the ideal candidate to desegregate UGA’s graduate school. The 1957 magna cum laude graduate of Atlanta’s Clark College had already demonstrated her aptitude at the University of Michigan and was a proven professional.
Her mother had misgivings.
“My dad was deceased; he died when I was 12. My mom didn’t think that it was a good idea for me to go to UGA – particularly because of the riot. She grew up in Monroe, Georgia and heard of the terrible lynchings that took place there in the 40s. When, however, she realized just how determined I was to go, she supported my decision and supported my efforts to attend.”
“I did my part,” Early adds softly over Paschal’s Muzak. “I did it for the Movement, but I didn’t appreciate it was such a big deal. At the time, I didn’t think it was a big deal. I didn’t want to walk the picket line…I didn’t want to go to jail.”
But a big deal it was. Minorities walking picket lines were one thing. But walking onto one of the nation’s oldest and only recently desegregated campuses crossed another social line.
Three days after the 1961 riot, the schoolteacher at John Hope Elementary School applied for admission to UGA for the summer quarter. On a May morning, she sat for the GRE exam, and white UGA students got up and moved away, shocking her. She submitted the application and waited anxiously: area papers announced her application. The news triggered a chain of events.
On May 11, 1961, the UPI reported that officials at (still segregated) Georgia Tech had not yet ruled on the applications of 16 black students seeking fall admission. Many eyes were on the composed young music teacher who favored pearls and cat-eye glasses. Finally, Early received notification she had been admitted by UGA’s graduate school.
“I’ll do my best,” Early vowed to a reporter in the days before leaving her close-knit family, friends and colleagues, and the quiet remark made newspaper headlines. The Atlanta Inquirer chronicled her leave-taking. They published Early’s photo, showing a poised but earnest-looking young woman whom they noted departed with “the solid backing and good wishes of scores of her fellow teachers and other Atlantans.”
|Mary Frances Early readies for a trip home in her Center Myers dorm room at the University of Georgia in the summer of 1961.
Early’s teacher-wardrobe filled a set of matching blue suitcases. She loaded them into a white Ford Falcon purchased with savings from her teaching salary for the hour and a half drive to Athens. Her heart thrummed as she made her way to the campus in June, 1961.
For not all Early’s observers were friendly ones. Since April, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation had busied themselves gathering documents about Early and her entire family. Early learned of the report in 2002 when an undergraduate student unearthed the file from university archives. The GBI produced 11 pages of fine detail of Early’s young life, beginning with the minute and hour of her birth: 9:46 pm on June 14, 1936, at Grady Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia.
UGA Registrar Walter N. Danner insisted upon a lengthy private interview session with Early. Early knew that two other minority students were rescinded by Georgia State University, reportedly “on moral grounds.”
Early was an exemplary young woman of high achievement, included in “Who’s Who in American Universities and Colleges,” and a member of Alpha Kappa Mu, a national honor society. She wrote a music column for the Atlanta Inquirer while teaching band, music and chorus at Hope Elementary.
The eleventh page of the GBI report concluded lamely. A search of the Fulton County Health Department, the Georgia Department of Public Health and the Bureau of Vital Statistics records had all proven fruitless.
“They didn’t find anything that gave them ammunition to kick me out,” Early says evenly.
Early moved into the Center Myers dormitory, placed alone the first summer and later with Charlayne Hunter, in what amounted to isolation. Hunter was a journalism student five years her junior, who had attended Turner High where Early graduated. Their paths only crossed when they returned to their shared rooms. When Early took a seat in class for the first time, most of the white students rose and moved away.
“In 2005, you can hardly believe things happened the way they did,” she adds. Early kept a diary of unfolding events.
The faculty seemed accepting of the minority students; some were particularly kind. An art student, May March, extended friendship. March accompanied Early to registration and later to a 25th birthday party organized by one of Early’s professors. An unsigned proclamation had been circulated by “Students for Passive Resistance,” an ironic term for students opposed to desegregation. They called for UGA students to disassociate with the minority students and shun those who did not.
There was further evidence that Early was unwelcome on campus. Sometimes students threw stones at her and moved away from her in the dining hall. Her Ford Falcon was spray painted with racial slurs. Her tires were slashed. She repainted her car and bought new tires, and immersed herself in her studies. Her grades soared; her spirits sagged. Newspapers reported Early’s consistently high marks. “My first summer, though a lonely one, was quite successful.”
One evening, some “football types” accosted Early verbally before physically barring the entrance to the library. Early marched ahead “like the Bulldog I was supposed to be.” The bullies gave way.
Whenever possible, Early took refuge in King’s message of peaceful resistance.
“How many times did I hear Dr. King speak? I don’t really know. I only know that I visited his church most weekends when I went back to Atlanta. His inspirational messages strengthened me in facing the week ahead.”
A blue car often trailed behind her Falcon whenever Early left campus. Hunter, her roommate, noticed the same. They were told the driver was a Georgia state officer, who followed them for their own protection, but once Early left Clarke county, she noticed the car always turned back. Why? She wondered.
“As my mother often said, there are more ways to lynch people than with a rope,” Early noted. “I didn’t let this bother me, or stop me,” she adds firmly
Early’s response to the pointless violence around her was dignified, quiet resolve. She endured a year and a half of struggle to receive a Masters in Music Education, graduating on Thursday, August 16, 1962.
A convoy of nearly 80 people traveled to Athens to see Mary Frances Early walk in a graduation ceremony held in the Fine Arts Building. After turning in her cap and gown she posed beneath the famous UGA Arch for photographer Bob Johnson. Early wore a tasteful dark top with a white skirt and pumps; her face was expressionless. She commented to a reporter later that she felt “very proud, but mostly a great relief.”
Early’s graduation from UGA was even covered in the September 26th edition of the Atlanta Journal. In another interview immediately after receiving her master’s degree Early was direct: “I hope that my commencement will be a beginning for others of my race who might wish to work toward advanced degrees at our state university.”
Back in Atlanta, a stream of jubilant letters arrived in Early’s mail. The presidents of Morehouse and Clark Colleges wrote to Early. One congratulatory letter stood out among all the others: Martin Luther King himself sent word Early had “brought the State of Georgia closer to the American dream.” He prophetically wished her a future “packed with meaningful fulfillment.”
“I have white friends, black friends, Thai friends – people that I love and cherish because of who they are inside – not because of their skin color. I wish that I could live until the day when everyone could relate in this manner. That was Dr. King’s message to the world.” Early explains.
But not all of the foot soldiers in the Civil Rights army had survived. Early recalls how on July 11, 1964, a United States Army Reserve uniformed officer named Lemuel Penn left Fort Benning and stopped off for gas at an Athens service station. Three Klansmen followed Penn to Madison County and blasted Penn with a shotgun. Early was chilled: she frequently stopped by the same station to refill her small Falcon. One of the Klansmen offered a full confession but Penn’s killers were still acquitted.
Shortly after her graduation, Early resumed her teaching post at John Hope Elementary School. But she had already decided she would continue her graduate studies at UGA. Again, Early broke the news first to her mother.
|Dean Maureen Grasso and Mary Frances Early met this year to discuss Early’s saga.
“She also understood when I told her that I was returning to work on the specialist in education degree. I guess that she was more comfortable by then.”
Early’s motivation was one part academic and one part activist. “I returned to UGA in the summer of 1964 and attended each summer through 1967. I went back because there still weren’t enough blacks to make a dent in UGA’s enrollment. I felt that the battle to integrate the university still wasn’t over,” Early recalls.
“I wanted to continue in the struggle for human rights at our state university. By this time, they had opened other dorms to blacks. I was assigned to Creswell Hall, a fairly new dorm at that time. The dorm is named after Mary Creswell, the first woman to receive a degree from UGA. The rooms were still not integrated. They placed the few blacks there with other blacks. I roomed alone after another black student who was rooming with me left the university. She didn’t stay but a couple of weeks….I never knew why she left.”
Early never faltered, finishing her specialist’s degree in 1967. “It’s not the fact that you’re better than anyone else, or less than them…I learned this from my dad. You work hard, and it doesn’t matter about other people. You’re not in competition with everyone in the world; you’re in competition with yourself.”
Still driven, she completed all the coursework for a doctorate, “ABD – all but the dissertation” at Clark.
It would be many years before Early would return to Athens, but when she did, it was triumphant. In 2000, the alumna was honored by the Graduate and Professional Scholars organization known as GAPS. In 2004, Georgia Power funded the Mary Frances Early Teacher Education Professorship at UGA. In 2003, Early’s cousin, Frankie Grooms, attended a luncheon honoring Early.
“It’s cool that my cousin was the first African-American graduate,” Grooms reported to the Athens Banner-Herald. “I’m going to be following in her footsteps…”
Mary Frances Early’s first steps onto the UGA campus were lonely but sure. She would make a good school great by broadening it.
When fellow music students resisted sharing the same program with Early, she quietly held her own aloft. When the school resisted allowing her mother to attend a choral performance, Early quietly persisted. Walls fell away.
Music could not be contained by walls.
Like her father, Early’s enduring love is music. The music of Gustav Mahler still moves her most, especially his Fifth Symphony. It is the same music chosen for President Kennedy’s funeral. Early found “pools of serenity” there.
A music professor once prefaced this famous piece saying, “It is a mixture of beauty and pain…pervaded by a longing, and a yearning.” One famous note had sometimes been played too strongly in Mahler’s Fifth. But it was discovered it was far more powerful when played softly.
Mary Frances Early is writing her memoir. Mae Armster Kendall, Early’s former Supervisor of Discipline Coordinators when Coordinator of Music in the Atlanta Public Schools, is currently writing a book about the Paschal brothers of Atlanta.
For further information and reading on Mary Early, Charlayne Hunter, Hamilton Holmes and the “foot soldier project” visit: http://footsoldier.uga.edu/foot_soldiers/early.html.