Photo via: UGA
Mary Frances Early became the first African American to be awarded a degree from the University of Georgia in 1962 when she completed the requirements of a master’s degree in education. A portrait of her to commemorate her notable achievement will be unveiled next month, October 10, in the Gordon Jones Gallery on UGA’s campus.
While Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes were the first African American students to enroll at UGA in 1961, Early’s graduate degree completion shortly after their undergraduate enrollment became a significant milestone unto itself. She originally began graduate school at the University of Michigan when she was inspired by a photo of Hunter and Holmes being escorted away from campus once riots protesting their attendance of the school got underway. She decided to 'help the movement' by transferring to UGA to complete her master's degree in music education.
When Early arrived on campus, she was placed in a single dormitory room with its own stove, refrigerator, and bathroom. Wherever she went on campus, she often times sat alone and even witnessed white students physically move from their seats once she took a seat anywhere near them. She reported having lemons thrown at her in the cafeteria on campus and endured a racial slur painted on her car.
Still Early persisted in her studies of music theory, history, and vocal production. “I got A's, but I wasn’t surprised, I didn’t have anything else to do besides study,” shared Early with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. After completing her degree, Early received a notes and letters of congratulations from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and former Morehouse College president, Benjamin E. Mays praising her for her courage and her demonstrated academic excellence in the classroom.
While an academic building on UGA’s campus has since been renamed in honor of Early’s colleagues, Hunter and Holmes, Early admits to being surprised at the absence of recognition for her trailblazing achievement over the years. “It’s not that I want accolades,” Early said. “I just want history to be recorded accurately.”
Early went on to serve as a teacher and administrator in Georgia public schools and eventually the director of music for Atlanta Public Schools. Then in 1981, she became the first African American president of Georgia Music Educators Association. She also went on to teach in the music department at Morehouse College and chaired the music department of her undergraduate alma mater, Clark Atlanta University.
Maurice Daniels, dean of the UGA school of social work has written about the integration of UGA’s campus. He shared, Early was "one of the unheralded freedom fighters who helped to advance our democracy."