When University of Georgia Student Government Association president Joshua Delaney graduates from college this spring, he won’t view it merely as a personal achievement.
Instead, the 21-year-old advertising and theater major will be thinking about how he stands on the shoulders of the two lone Black students who were the first to integrate the campus after winning a legal battle half a century ago.
“My UGA story started in 1961 when brother Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter-Gault came to this university,” Delaney said of the first Black students to integrate UGA.
“That was my beginning before I was even born,” said Delaney, who noted that being an African-American head of the student body at UGA like he is today was unimaginable 50 years ago.
“It’s something that you’re always cognizant of, you’re thankful for their courage and what they did,” Delaney continued in paying homage to Holmes and Hunter-Gault. “They could have at any time given up and said, ‘This isn’t for me.’ They didn’t do that. They did what was right.”
Such reflections have reverberated over the past few days at UGA as faculty, alumni, students and others celebrate the 50-year anniversary of the desegregation of UGA.
The civil rights milestone may not be as prominent in the public’s consciousness as, say, the Little Rock Nine—the name bestowed upon the students who integrated Little Rock Central High School under military guard following Brown v. Board of Education, the historic Supreme Court decision of 1954 that desegregated public schools—but in many ways it is similarly significant.
“Today, 50 years after my first steps on this campus, I don’t even have to put it in my own words,” Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who delivered a talk this week at the 50th Anniversary of Desegregation at UGA, said in an interview with Diverse.
“So many young people came up to me at the reception who weren’t even born at the time and thanked me for opening the doors,” said Hunter-Gault, a longtime journalist who has worked for prominent news organizations such as The New York Times and CNN
“These young people whose parents weren’t even born when we entered UGA were coming up to me,” Hunter-Gault said. “That was a tremendously moving experience.”
But while Hunter-Gault was encouraged by the appreciation she got from today’s African-American students at UGA, as well as the fact that African-Americans and others from diverse backgrounds hold faculty and student leadership positions at UGA, she also spoke of the need to press for greater diversity on campus—a need illustrated by the fact that Black enrollment has dropped from 10 percent in the 1990s to 8 percent today. Overall, non-White enrollment at UGA stands at about 25 percent.
“Elementary and high school teachers and leaders at those levels have to be more encouraging,” Hunter-Gault said. “Those in institutions of higher learning have to be reaching back into high schools, encouraging young people and also finding creative ways of helping them not only to advance academically so they come prepared to compete in college, which is going to be a real challenge, but also to help find funds for those who would succeed but who don’t have the money.”
Celebrants at UGA also heard from Hamilton Holmes Jr., a 1990 grad of UGA whose father, along with Hunter-Gault, was one of the first two Black students to integrate the campus. The late Holmes Sr., who went on to become a distinguished orthopedic surgeon, didn’t make a single friend during his time at UGA, his son recalled.
“Imagine how tough that would be where you didn’t make any friends on campus at all,” Holmes Jr. said in an interview with Diverse. “Not having a support group here on campus at all.”
The elder Holmes also had to have security escorts because of threats. Still, he graduated cum laude and as part of the Phi Beta Kappa Society.
Holmes Jr. said his 1986 enrollment at UGA led his father to reconnect with the institution, which had radically changed in the 25 years since he first integrated the school.
“I had a lot of friends on campus, was able to move around without fear of anything happening, and was able to take full advantage of the college experience,” Holmes Jr. said. He said he was appreciative of “just having the freedom on campus to be a student and do anything that you want to do without having to be escorted on campus or having fear of going certain places.”
Holmes Jr., now 42, had another experience at UGA that was almost unthinkable for his father who had been socially isolated as a student. The younger Holmes met his wife, Gail, at UGA. She works in human resources at Coca-Cola in Atlanta. Holmes Jr. is community relations manager at aerospace giant Lockheed-Martin in Marietta, Ga.