When the University of Georgia admissions office interviewed Turner High School graduate Hamilton Holmes in 1961, the college staff asked the valedictorian, senior class president and co-captain of the Turner football team several shocking questions. They asked if he had frequented prostitutes or red light districts. They asked if he had been arrested.
And though Holmes answered truthfully ”no” to all those insulting questions, UGA noted on his application that he was “evasive” in his responses. And that was enough to reject a student for whom UGA would have rolled a red carpet from Athens to Atlanta had he had been white.
UGA didn’t suggest that Holmes’ high-achieving classmate, Charlayne Hunter, was evasive, although the admissions staff kept her waiting for her interview while taking white students at regular seven to 10 minute intervals. When they finally invited Hunter into the office for her session, they grilled her for an hour. And then they denied Hunter– who was ranked third in her high school school class - admission to UGA because the college lacked dorm space.
These despicable acts of racism were brought to life vividly and expertly Friday by the Davenport-Benham Black Law Students Association and the UGA School of Law in a re-enactment of the trial that enabled Holmes and Hunter to become UGA’s first African-American students. The event marked the 50th anniversary of the desegregation of UGA.
Along with more than 250 others, I watched the brilliant re-enactment. And then I had the honor of joining a panel with federal Judge Horace T. Ward, who, as a young Northwestern Law School grad, represented Holmes and Hunter 50 years ago, and two of the UGA law school’s earliest black graduates, Georgia Supreme Court Justice Robert Benham and Athens attorney Kenneth I. Dious.
Ward understood UGA’s transparent tactics to “legally” bar qualified black students from admission. He was kept out of UGA law school in the 1950s because the admissions staff also deemed him “evasive” in his answers.
Holmes and Hunter turned out to be among UGA’s most successful graduates. In 1963, Holmes became the first black student admitted to the Emory University School of Medicine. Holmes, who died in 1995 after a coronary bypass operation, became the the head of orthopedic surgery at Grady Memorial Hospital and an assistant professor at Emory School of Medicine.
Hunter-Gault wrote for the New Yorker and The New York Times and spent 20 years on the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, before moving to South Africa in 1997 with her husband Ronald Gault. She now divides her time between Martha’s Vineyard and South Africa.
On hand to witness the re-enactment were Holmes’ widow, retired APS teacher Marilyn Holmes, and her daughter, Alison. Also, Ann Hall, the daughter of the presiding judge in the case, Federal Judge William Augustus Bootle, attended with her son and husband from Macon
Bootle died in 2005 at age 102. Prior to his death, Bootle talked about the UGA desegregation case, saying, “Someone asked me the other day, ‘Wasn’t it hard to make the decision to let blacks in?’ I said it wasn’t hard at all. Once you decide what’s right, the making of it is easy. Right is right.”
Bootle’s ruling on Jan. 6, 1961, ended 176 years of segregation at UGA. In his decision, he noted that Holmes and Hunter “would have already been admitted had it not been for their race and color.”
The judge ordered immediate admission of the pair, who, a few days later, had to be spirited off the campus because a mob of students threw bricks at Hunter’s dormitory. Her windows were shattered, and she and Holmes were temporarily suspended by the school for “safety reasons.” Both students returned to campus two days after the riot and stayed until they earned their degrees in 1963.
The historic ruling certainly didn’t end the debate over school integration, a debate that goes on today.
While the South once led the nation in integrating its schools, it’s become a leader in the resegregation of classrooms, largely as a result of housing trends. Today, the argument is that that it doesn’t matter whether black, white and Hispanic students attend the same schools, only whether they attend good schools.
But it’s not easy to create a “good” school in a racially isolated classrooms if too many children are grappling with poverty, lack of health care, poor nutrition, housing evictions and job losses.
One of the byproducts of the resegregation of Southern schools is that our schools are also becoming more solidified in their poverty. (According to Kids Count Data, 35 percent of African-American children and 27 percent of Latino children live in poverty, compared to 11 percent of white children.)
–By Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog