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The Quiet Trailblazer

Updated: Mar 2, 2022

Rosa Parks. Martin Luther King, Jr. Mary Frances Early.

Chances are, you've heard the names of two out of those three historical figures before. Growing up, every year my grandparents took me to the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation which displays the Rosa Parks Bus. Parks is well-known, in my mind, for standing up by sitting down.

King is another well-known leader of the Civil Rights movement; probably most famous for the "I have a dream" speech delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Two years ago, I had the opportunity to visit King's home, church, and grave in Atlanta. A few short months later, I found myself standing in the very spot where King delivered his speech. Today, just a stone's throw away stands the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial.

But Mary Frances Early? No, never heard of her. That is, until last autumn when the school press of my academic institution (the University of Georgia, UGA for short) published Early's autobiography titled The Quiet Trailblazer. Turns out, she was the first African American to graduate from UGA. Her memoir is very appropriately named, but don't let it fool you - her tale is as riveting as anyone else's.

I found her story very familiar and strange all at the same time. On one hand, she lived in towns such as Monroe, Atlanta, and Athens. These are names and places that I am acquainted with. On the other hand, it is a coming-of-age story of a young woman in an era of which I know not. As a student in 2022 (with admittedly white privilege), I know UGA chiefly for being home to the Bulldogs football team (go Dawgs!) and for being an all-inclusive and welcoming school. On any given day the sea of students' faces will be multi-colored. But when Mary Frances Early came to UGA in 1961, it was a far different story.

But I'm getting ahead of myself...

* * *

Mary was born on June 14, 1936. Her mother was a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse and her father a restaurant entrepreneur. Mary was a bright student and entered the first grade at the age of five; her parents strongly encouraged education. After school was done for the day, Mary did her homework at the local library, finishing her assignments as soon as possible to read as many books as possible. She read widely and excelled in her academics.

Despite being raised in a loving family and having access to books, there was still a multitude of challenges that Mary had growing up. The Great Depression wasn't easy on anybody, but it was especially challenging for African Americans. Partially due to unfair prejudices, the unemployment rate of African Americans was more than double that of white Americans. As Mary recalled in her autobiography,

"Jim Crow laws forced us to sit at the back of the streetcar when traveling to the restaurant or downtown stores. We sat at the back of the bus when traveling to our grandmother's home in Monroe. We couldn't go to downtown movies, though a few movie houses accepted Blacks in segregated sections." (p. 12)

On one trip to go visit her grandmother in Monroe, Mary and her mother took the Greyhound bus line. The bus driver initially wouldn't let them sit together, as Mary was much darker than her mother. The two hugged and the driver turned beet red, but tears were shed once the two arrived at grandmother's house. Much later in life, Mary learned that her grandmother was the offspring of a white foreman and her African American great-grandmother. But she never forgot that humiliating bus ride. Despite the hardships, what shines through to me the brightest is the Early family's dedication to nonviolence, education, and endeavors to be the most ideal citizens possible.

A segregated car at the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore, Md. Note how much fancier the White Only portion of the car is, behind the sign. Mary Francis Early most likely rode in a similar car on the Silver Comet.

Even eight decades after the Emancipation Proclamation, segregation still ruled in the south. But the chance came for Mary to experience America outside of the south in 1953. In celebration of her finishing high school, Mary's mother bought her a train ticket on the Silver Comet to visit a relative (my recollection was that it was an older sister type figure) in New York City. En route to the Big Apple, Mary wondered why African Americans weren't allowed to use the dining car, sleeping cars, or luggage racks. She very much appreciated the sweater and lunch that her mother had thought to pack for her. The two ladies enjoyed playing tourist at both the Statue of Liberty and Coney Island, but Mary was most impressed by the massive non-segregated public library. The racial limitations of the south disturbed her. It was to be another eight years before she would enroll as the first African American graduate student at UGA, but the young woman was already laying the foundations of her perspective on life.

As Mary explained in the conclusion to her first chapter,

"Although these situations were very common and ubiquitous in everyday life, our parents never taught us to hate, dislike, or disrespect white people...My brother and I, however, were taught that we were equal to anyone and could accomplish anything that we were prepared to do. Education represented the pathway to our personal success." (p. 22)

* * *

Throughout her childhood, Mary continued to develop a strong interest in music. First it was voice, then clarinet in high school. In college, she majored in music education and minored in secondary education and library science. During the school year, she worked at the music library. During the summer she worked as a music counselor at a summer camp in New York State, once again enjoying the more equal treatment of races. While Clark College (now Clark Atlanta University) was an HBCU, Mary still faced pushback from a departmental chairman who thought women should only become voice teachers. However, that didn't deter Early from pursuing her passion of becoming a band teacher. She graduated in 1957.

Following graduation, Mary began a long career teaching music in the Atlanta public school system, first at John Hope Elementary School. One of her favorite activities was taking students to concerts presented by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. One time, the audience was asked to stand for a patriotic song. The Orchestra then proceeded to play Dixie, which is - in essence - the Confederate theme song. Ms. Early directed her class to sit down. The Quiet Trailblazer was beginning her career of nonviolent protests.

“We adopt the means of nonviolence because our end is a community at peace with itself. We will try to persuade with our words, but if our words fail, we will try to persuade with our acts.” - Martin Luther King, Jr. (1)

The following year, with the blessing of her employer, Mary started searching for graduate schools to apply to. At the time, the state of Georgia offered stipends to African American teachers to be educated out of state. Governor Ernest Vandiver and UGA president O. C. Aderhold were vehement opponents of desegregation at the state's flagship university. So, in summer 1958 Early applied and was accepted to the prestigious music education program at the University of Michigan. She studied first on the Interlochen campus near Traverse City, then for the following two summers at the main campus in Ann Arbor.

* * *

January 11, 1961.

Mary Frances Early and her mother watched their television broadcast coverage of a riot at the University of Georgia. The student body was violently protesting the arrival of the first two African American students, Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter. Two days previous they had been greeted with the chants of "Two, four, six, eight, we don't want to integrate!" Now, Hunter's dorm was being pelted bricks and bottles (2). Ku Klux Klan members stood by approving the actions; state troopers refused to intervene as they only took their orders from the governor.

For the first 175 years of the institution's history, those leading the University of Georgia had been staunchly opposed to integration. It was only by the decision by a federal judge had Holmes and Hunter were granted admission. Watching the riot unfold, Mary decided that there was something she could do; be the first African American to integrate UGA's graduate school. After all, Holmes and Hunter were former high school classmates of Mary's; she wanted to go and support them. Plus, the financial cost of traveling from Atlanta to Athens would be much less than that of traveling to Michigan each summer. As a resident of Georgia, why should she not receive quality education close to home?

As she recalled in her autobiography,

"I felt that I couldn't just stand on the sidelines and watch: I had to actively participate. Though a rather quiet person, I felt strongly -- like Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. -- that we must be the change that we want to see in the world. I felt that even as one person in this disturbing world of Jim Crow laws, I could contribute to the cause of civil rights and social justice." (p. 57)

The previous year four African American students had staged a sit-in at a whites-only lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. Similar protests were being staged across the south, including Atlanta. In many ways, Mary felt inspired by these students.

With both trepidation and blessing, Mrs. Early supported her daughter's decision. Working in tandem with her sympathetic principal Mr. Long, Mary began the application process. As you might (sadly) expect, there were plenty of extra hurdles that Mary had to jump through for the admissions process due to Jim Crow: personality tests, character assessments, and age limits to name a few. While in an on-campus interview with registrar Waltar Danner, she was asked if she was a prostitute and was threatened that none of her University of Michigan credits may transfer. However, state politicians didn't desire more bad publicity, so they reluctantly admitted her on May 10, 1961. Just five days earlier Alan Shepard had become the first American to fly in outer space. Four days later, a bus carrying the Freedom Riders from Washington, D.C. to Louisiana would be burned in Anniston, Alabama. Mary wondered if that brutality would spill over into Athens when she arrived on campus. However, she didn't lose sleep, refused to be intimidated, and trusted in God.

* * *

No riot occurred when Mary Frances Early arrived at UGA, but neither was she met with a warm welcome. The anti-integration sentiments of the student body persisted, but so too was the determination of Early, Holmes, and Hunter. Graduate students gave Mary the cold shoulder on the sidewalk; no smiles or greetings were given. When Mary went to take the GRE on her second day of school, the students who were already sitting down in the row she chose to sit in got up and left. Or when frequenting the Snelling Cafeteria, Mary was catcalled, and the recipient of lemon slices being thrown at her.

On the other hand, other graduate students and professors were friendly to her. The third day of classes happened to be Mary's 25th birthday. To her great delight, one of her graduate student friends and a speech professor invited her to the Presbyterian Student Center for a surprise birthday party! The Presbyterian campus minister, along with two other Presbyterian students, attended. They had hot dogs, hamburgers, and fries. Ice cream and cake were served for dessert. Tears came to Mary's eyes as she realized how much these wonderful people cared about her, even though they hadn't had much time to become acquainted yet. She found the music department faculty to be generally friendly.

The hard thing for the African American students was that they knew not what a day would bring. It could be a normal day filled with academic study and the usual stresses of academic life; on the other hand, they could be ostracized with racial taunts.

Mary mused the following in her autobiography about the mixed reception:

"I felt uncomfortable because after all, we were music educators, and we were in the classes to grow professionally. Also, I had been up North in numerous classes with other students and the energy had been thrilling; I knew that it was possible to have positive, exciting, shared experiences in the classroom. But the classroom atmosphere at the University of Georgia that summer felt so tense that I was tempted to burst out in singing "Getting to Know You" (from the Broadway musical The King and I)." (p. 67)

The UGA chapel

At the invitation of one of her music professors, Mary joined the extracurricular summer chorus. Mary's stand partner refused to share a music folder with her, so both students were given their own folder. The group sang a concert in the UGA chapel, and all of the other students were able to invite their family and friends to attend. Unfortunately, Mary was advised to not invite any of her family members, as the University wouldn't assure the safety of any African American visitors on campus. So, Mary was the only African American allowed in the room. Thus the beginning of integrating the UGA extracurricular program began.

* * *

As summer 1961 progressed, Mary began to attend Ebenezer Baptist Church on her Sundays at home to hear sermons preached by the pastor Martin Luther King, Jr.:

"I was in awe of this brilliant young minister. His sermons gave me the strength and courage that I needed to deal with the tenor of the times at UGA...Listening to Dr. King's melodious voice quote scriptures such as "Let justice roll down like the waters and righteousness as a mighty stream" stirred me in the depths of my soul. He would then relate, in simple terminology, how this theme embraced his philosophy of love and nonviolence. I felt a deep kinship with his sense of how to survive and succeed in my own challenging world at the University of Georgia." (p. 70)

The Fourth of July came and went. Mary, along with her fellow students in their Advanced Music History course, took the first exam. Unlike the others, however, Mary had studied well and enjoyed answering the questions. Her diligence paid off: Mary earned an A on the exam and the professor announced hers as the top grade in front of the entire class. Her White classmates were astonished that an African American had outperformed all of them. Some of them began to converse with Mary during class periods.

"Perhaps this was the first crack in the disrespectful wall, I thought: That's what we must do -- we have to prove to the world that Blacks can compete favorably in terms of academic achievement." (p. 71)

The UGA Library

However, the general student body was still far from welcoming. One evening as she approached the library to work on a class assignment, a group of white young men strung themselves across the steps and taunted her with racial slurs. Mary recalls:

"I was hurt and humiliated but continued to walk toward the steps. I decided that I would be the bulldog that I was supposed to be -- and barge through their barrier if necessary. Just as a neared the top step, they broke ranks and laughed loudly. I proceeded into the library, but I didn't get much research done that evening. I was too upset." (p. 71)

Mary strove for nonviolent means of protest, but that was not always possible. One day she was walking to the Athens post office to mail her mother a letter. En route, she encountered another group of white male students who started throwing rocks at her; one struck her cheek just under her glasses. She then threw a rock back at the group of boys - thankfully not hitting anyone - but her rock did successfully disperse the group, albeit amid much laughter on their part.

The next Sunday at church Mary related the rock incident to Dr. King. She shared that she regretted not holding fast to the nonviolent means of protesting that he advocated; she recognized that her violent reaction would only reinforce white students' negative impressions of her. Dr. King comforted her, laughing and assuring her that he would have done the same thing if he was in her place. Mary wasn't quite sure if she believed him, but she did feel relieved.

* * *

Despite all the challenges, by the end of summer 1961, Mary Frances Early had excelled at her academics. Her UGA advisor was so pleased that he recommended she return in the spring to finish by the end of summer 1962, as she had teaching obligations that prevented her from continuing her studies in the fall semester. She returned to Atlanta with a happy heart, satisfied that she had "survived, enjoyed my classes, and had dispelled, at least for some students, the myth that Blacks could not compete academically." (p. 75)

Mary's principal Mr. Long was more than happy to oblige the request of her returning to UGA the following spring semester. Moral and financial support for Mary poured in from Atlanta area churches, civic clubs, and her colleagues at John Hope Elementary School.

"With these kinds of people as inspiration and an abundance of support from family, other friends, and even people I didn't know, I realized I could not disappoint them; I had to succeed in my goal of receiving the master of music education degree at UGA." (p. 79)

Unfortunately, Mary did not find UGA to be much more inclusive in 1962 than in 1961. Mary was compelled to room with Charlayne Hunter, who was still an undergraduate, as they were the two African American female students on campus and no one else wanted to integrate. The two girls didn't dislike each other but would have preferred to room with other girls their age. In a social studies class, a professor arranged student seating alphabetically, with students having last names of "A" being in the front of the classroom and those with last names beginning with "Z" sitting at the back. Despite Mary's last name beginning with "E", the professor assigned her a seat behind the "Z" student. When she politely reminded him that her last name was Early, he thundered, "You'll sit where I tell you to sit." She refused and went to tell the Dean of Students. Rather than censure the professor, the Dean assigned Mary to a different section of the class, which ironically enough was entitled "Personality and Social Adjustment"!

Not surprisingly, Mary excelled at her schoolwork including her final project, which was a comparison of major music textbooks. She felt carefree and exuberant as she drove back to Atlanta following finishing the requirements for her degree. Soon she would return to campus for the commencement ceremony, and while she had not set out to achieve this milestone, she felt honored to be the first African American graduate from the University of Georgia.

No media covered this historic event, but Mary was grateful that many of her extended friends and family were allowed to attend the graduation. Following the ceremony, they held a celebratory family dinner in her honor back in Atlanta. The recognition she appreciated the most, however, came in the form of a short note from her pastor: "You have done a superb job, and brought the state of Georgia closer to the American dream." The note encouraged Mary and helped her feel that she had played her part well in the Civil Rights movement. Her goal of contributing to the fight for equality and human dignity was very much achieved.

* * *

Mary Frances Early returned to full-time teaching in the autumn of 1962. She went on to have a very successful career in the Atlanta Public School (APS) system - first as a band and guitar teacher for a variety of schools, then moving up in administration as a Music Supervisor and finally Director of Music for the entire APS system. She loved taking students to attend and participate in concerts and performances. Mary was active in music education outside of her work as well. For example, following her 1962 graduation from UGA, the Georgia Music Educators Association (GMEA) was still very much segregated, even though many national associations welcomed her membership. However, time passed, and, eventually, the GMEA integrated. They even elected Mary as president from 1981-1983, and she hosted several annual conferences that were well received by the members. Mary retired - for the first time - in 1994 from the Atlanta Public School system. However, a few months later found as an adjunct music professor, and eventually music department chairperson, at a couple of different Atlanta area universities. She retired for the second time in 2005.

But despite all of her unquestionable accomplishments and contributions to the field of music education in Georgia, it appeared that the University that she had worked so hard at desegregating chose to forget their first African American graduate for over thirty years. In 1997, Mary Frances Early was "rediscovered" by Dr. Maurice Daniels, a social work professor at UGA who was creating a documentary about the early attempts to desegregate UGA. Mary was interviewed in the presentation. In 2000 the UGA Graduate School established a lecture series in Mary's honor, with her being the inaugural speaker. A documentary specifically focusing on Mary's life was released in 2019 and shown on campus for Black History Month. In 2020 the UGA College of Education was renamed the "Mary Frances Early College of Education". She has been honored by both University and state leaders for her role in the Civil Rights movement. Rather than being filled with spite at the truly horrible animosity she experienced while a student or the stone silence she experienced during her career, Ms. Early comes across as very grateful and humbled for the honors the University of Georgia has given her. She may not have been featured prominently in past anniversaries of UGA desegregation, but this 60th anniversary she is front and center.

* * *

Early's personal belongings relating to her time on campus

I first learned about Mary Frances Early about six months ago at the start of the fall semester, while walking into the UGA Library looking for a good study spot. What immediately caught my attention were the floor-to-ceiling pictures on the main hallway denoting significant firsts that African Americans have achieved here at UGA. In front of the picture of Early by the Arch was a case of her personal belongings pertinent to her time at the University: her acceptance letter, ID card, and diploma, among other items.

Writing this blog post has been my personal project for Black History Month, to reflect more on the local African American experience here in Athens. While February may be drawing to a close, that doesn't mean our focus on African Americans' contributions to our national story needs to take another eleven-month reprieve; I'd in fact argue the opposite. So, what next?

From my current perspective, there are two actions: first to educate ourselves about Black history and secondly to share with others about Black history. These actions can take a variety of forms. Educating ourselves can be as simple as browsing a website or as immersive as visiting a history museum (I do both!). On a national level, three organizations that I have particularly benefitted from are Colonial Williamsburg, the American Battlefield Trust, and the History Underground.

Colonial Williamsburg is America's largest living history museum and operates an entire city restored to the time period of the American Revolution. For the past forty years, Colonial Williamsburg has made telling Black history an increasingly important focus of their mission. The quantity and quality of their online programming, much of it told from the first-person perspective of interpreters portraying people of the 18th century, is impressive. They have multiple livestreams focusing on African American history.

The American Battlefield Trust is an organization that aids in both preserving the lands where Revolutionary and Civil War battles took place alongside educating the public on the stories of the people whose lives intersected with these conflicts. I learned about Robert Smalls and Susie King Taylor for the first time this month through the American Battlefield Trust and am excited to delve more into their stories soon.

Finally, the History Underground is a YouTube channel run by a Missouri high school history teacher by the name of J.D. Huitt. He's produced over two hundred videos over the last three years visiting historical sites around America and Europe, most recently focusing on the Civil War and WWII. He highlights some of the most interesting African American stories that I've ever heard. He's also shot a few episodes on location at Civil Rights sites in Alabama. If you haven't heard of Huitt before, stop reading my article and go subscribe to his channel. You'll thank me later!

Certainly, visiting Colonial Williamsburg or other historical sites yourself is ideal. But even if time or finances don't allow you to travel yourself, you can still learn about African American history for free. The three organizations I listed above are just the tip of the iceberg. There's so much more!

Beyond browsing websites or visiting historical sites, I think another key component of educating ourselves is listening to African Americans - both ones you know through real life or the Internet. What are they saying? What do they recommend? One of my friends back from college days is a man named Philip Warfield. He mentored me as a small group leader during my senior year of college. He later went on to become student association president at our school and now is a Ph.D. student at Howard University in Washington, D.C. studying American history. Two years ago, he wrote a blog article on why he feels Black History Month is so important. A couple of lines especially stood out to me:

"Black History Month gives us a chance to celebrate our ancestors and family members who have paved the way for us to follow our dreams, passions, and goals. “Black Excellence” is about Black people realizing that they were made for more than just average. Black people, unfortunately had to spend hundreds of years being your average, faceless, nameless slave, incapable of changing the world. Black History Month reminds us of the resilience of people who led the largest American revolution we’d seen since the Revolutionary War--the Civil Rights Movement. Black History Month is a chance to celebrate Kobe Bryant, Ava DuVernary, Nipsey Hussle, Beyonce, and so many more. It’s a chance to celebrate my grandmother, your cousin, her brother, his auntie. It’s all around us." (3)

Warfield argues that Black History Month is an opportunity for Americans of all races to celebrate the contributions that African Americans have made to our country. It's a chance for us to listen and learn.

I have the privilege of attending a church led by a Black pastor, Michaela Lawrence Jeffrey. Last week on her Instagram she highlighted the Chesnut Grove School historical marker. Huh? What's that? I thought. A few days later my wife and I stopped by to read the marker. Turns out it was the first schoolhouse in Athens that was built for African American children, back in 1887. All to say, the African American history of Athens, Georgia includes but extends far beyond the story of Mary Francis Early. There are so many more stories to discover and learn from.

It's great to educate ourselves about African American history but helping to educate others is the natural (and needed) next step. The story of Mary Francis Early is particularly impactful for me as I not only take classes at UGA but also serve as a co-instructor for one class. At the start of last semester, I began to include short inspirational quotes from historical figures that related somehow to the topic of class that day at the start of each presentation. I call it "Inspiration Station" - yeah, it's cheesy, but it works! :) It's amazing, from petri dishes to pedagogy, I always seem to find an appropriate quote to share with my students. I do it because I want to help them grasp that understanding history can enhance their scientific and academic careers. This month, my Inspiration Station quotes were taken from African Americans. Sure, I included a quote from Fredrick Douglas. But I also included lesser-known figures such as Mary Frances Early and Madam C. J. Walker. Professionally this is one way that I can - hopefully - raise awareness on-campus to my students of the important contributions that African Americans have made to both our campus and our country.

Off-campus, I run this blog as a place to share my reflections and hope that my pontifications can help change your perspective on American history, even just a tad. I also enjoy having conversations with people on these topics in real life.

* * *

The story of Mary Frances Early in many ways reminds me of the Hidden Figures story of Katherine Johnson and her colleagues of the same period in Virginia. The chorus of "I See A Victory", from the soundtrack of the Hidden Figure movie, comes to mind...

They'll call it a mystery But we're gonna call it victory We'll be writing history It's gon' be victory They'll be signs on top of signs Just so you know the history It's saying victory is with me

* * *

Today my pastor shared another Instagram post as Black History Month comes to a close. She challenged her followers to continue to study, dialogue, and learn about African American history throughout the year, especially local history. I choose to present African Americans to my students as people worth emulating, read books on these people, and write an occasional blog post. I commit to continuing to learn about the contributions African Americans have made on both the local and national levels through reading more books and visiting sites as opportunities to do so present themselves.

What will you do? Drop me a comment and let me know what your plan is. The African American story is, the more I reflect on it, the defining national story, and it is one that cannot be ignored in anyone's genuine study of what it truly means to be American.

* * *

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Further Resources:

Resources about or relating to Mary Frances Early:

Resources about other African American stories:

LIVE! from History: The Price of Freedom - YouTube (Colonial Williamsburg's BHM 2022 program - just one of many awesome presentations they have posted to their YouTube channel!)

Some of my favorite History Underground videos on African Americans:

Historic Athens | Preservation & Heritage Conservation | Georgia - a great site I just discovered about local history. Looks to have plenty of African American content as well.

My pastor's Instagram handle: @wordhabit

All photos were taken by me except when noted.


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