On August 16, 1962, Mary Frances Early became the first African American to graduate from the University of Georgia (UGA). Her accomplishment has been overshadowed by that of Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes, who enrolled at UGA in January 1961, becoming the first African Americans to attend the previously segregated institution. “I sent in my application just after Char and Hamilton were evicted from campus for their own safety after a riot,” she later recalled. “And I thought, 'Well, they have been brave enough to open up the undergraduate school, so somebody needs to step forward to open up the graduate school—why not me?'” She transferred her graduate work from the University of Michigan to UGA and graduated with a master’s degree in music education in 1962, a year before Hunter and Holmes finished their undergraduate studies.
Early was born on June 14, 1936, in Atlanta to Ruth and John H. Early. As a child she spent a great deal of time in a local library across the street from the restaurant owned by her father. An amateur singer, he encouraged his daughter to learn to play the piano so she could accompany him. Early always enjoyed learning and was motivated by her mother, a public school teacher in Monroe. Her love for music and teaching was also inspired by a charismatic band teacher at Henry McNeal Turner High School in Atlanta. He influenced her decision to attend Clark College (later Clark Atlanta University) after high school and to major in music education.
When Early began the admissions process at UGA, she was required to schedule her own interview, an experience she later described as “not pleasant.” She was bombarded with inappropriate questions, such as whether she had ever been a prostitute or had any illegitimate children, and told she would lose all of her credit hours from the University of Michigan if she transferred. UGA officials even investigated her voting records and her family’s health records (particularly for evidence of sexually transmitted diseases), and checked to see whether anyone in her family had received any speeding tickets or been arrested.
Eventually Early received an acceptance letter from UGA on May 10, 1961, and within a few days she arrived in Athens for summer classes. While at UGA she was the victim of regular abuse. As she later recalled, students threw lemons at her in the dining hall and tried to bar her from the library by joining hands in front of the building’s doors. When her automobile was defiled with a racial slur, Early had the car repainted and continued her studies. Despite the mistreatment, Early’s feelings for the university wuold change over time. “I came to love Georgia as a school,” she later admitted. “I didn’t like a lot of things that went on sometimes, but the music department was a place of refuge.”
Early worked in the Atlanta Public Schools for more than three decades, first as a teacher, and later as the system’s music director. Upon her retirement in 1994, she accepted a position at Clark Atlanta University as chair of the school’s music department.
Despite her path breaking accomplishments and distinguished career, Early’s contributions went unrecognized by the university until the spring of 2000, when she was welcomed to campus by the UGA Graduate and Professional Scholars. But it was only in the years that followed that university came to fully embrace her legacy. In 2013 the university awarded Early an honorary doctorate of law. Five years later she received the UGA President’s Medal from President Jere Morehead, and in 2020 the school’s College of Education was renamed in her honor.