Mary Francis Early
On May 13, 1,150 candidates for doctoral, master’s and specialist degrees gathered in Stegman Coliseum. They heard an historic speech from Mary Frances Early, who desegregated the Graduate School in the early 1960s and became UGA’s first African American graduate. This year’s Graduate School’s commencement address, delivered by Early, received two standing ovations. The following is excerpted from her speech.
“On the morning of August 16th, 1962, when I looked at the printed program for my commencement, I noticed that the academic procession had as its first participant, the Sheriff of Clarke County, followed by the Marshall, the President’s party, the Deans’ party, faculty, candidates for advanced degrees and finally candidates for baccalaureate degrees! I immediately wondered: why the sheriff?; do they expect trouble? In talking recently to Stephen Brown, archivist of the Hargrett Library, I learned that this is indeed a long-standing tradition. I didn’t know about this tradition because I’d never attended a UGA commencement before, and was, therefore, nervous throughout the ceremony because I didn’t know if any protests or confrontations would be forthcoming with African Americans in the audience and an African American seated as a candidate for degree.
Though I don’t remember what Dr. Irvin S. Ingram, the speaker for my commencement said—I do vividly remember the day.
I was the first African American to receive a degree from this university. August 16th, 1962 was agloriously beautiful day. The azure blue sky with lofty white clouds overhead, the caravan of cars driven by family and friends who bravely came to support me on this historic occasion, and the realization that I was on the brink of actually receiving the degree—of achieving my goal, made me extremely happy.
You need to know that 1962 was my second summer and my fifth quarter at UGA and during my first quarter in residence (the summer of 1961), I had asked if my mother and some friends could attend a choral concert in which I was participating. I was told no; the university was only integrated for the three African Americans who had been admitted: Charlayne Hunter, Hamilton Holmes and me. The rationale was that the university could not protect my family and friends. The tenor of the times still indicated a hostile and potentially dangerous environment for African Americans. This commencement on August 16th was, therefore, the first time I had had guests on campus. It was also probably the first time that 74 African Americans had sat in the audience of a commencement at this university.
I knew that an historical event had taken place. I came back to campus a few days later to have a photo taken under The Arches by a photographer from The Atlanta Inquirer, a local African American newspaper. The photograph was used with an article titled:“First Negro Finishes University of Georgia: Graduates With Honors.” Six weeks later, on September 26th, the Atlanta Journal published an article titled: “First Athens Degree Awarded to Negro.”
I returned to campus in 1964 to work toward a Specialist degree because there were still very few African-Americans on campus. I received that degree in 1967. After that time, I heard nothing from the University of Georgia. It was as though I had never attended. In 1997, I was contacted by Dr. Maurice Daniels, then professor in the School of Social Work—nowDean of the School of Social Work. After thirty years of feeling like an invisible alumna as far as UGA was concerned—I had been discovered.
That was the past and you need to know that time and overwhelming efforts by many people here to heal old hurts have completely changed my outlook on this university. I now feel a part of UGA and I am happy to count myself among the many thousand active alumni.
The history or roots of that past, however, are not forgotten because they connect all of us to a sense of identity of who we are and how very far we have come. Wherever your path leads, never lose sight of the humanity of others; never be guilty of ostracism or alienation because education is not simply about achieving academically as you have done. Education also embraces the understanding and the acceptance of, and respect for all people. Those qualities represent the conduit to peace in our world.”
Editor’s Note: For further reading about Mary Frances Early, see the Fall 2005 issue of the Graduate School Magazine. “Mary Frances Early Speaks: On a public education and the dynamics of change,” chronicles her experiences.