When Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes enrolled in classes at UGA in 1961, the walked past the arch, steps away from the UGA marker that claims most of the students went to fight during “the War for Southern Independence.” Hunter and Holmes were the first African American students admitted to UGA, 7 years after Brown v. Board and 11 years after McLaurin v. Oklahoma Board of Regents and Sweatt v. Painter. UGA denied Hunter and Holmes transfer and admittance to the university, claiming that they did not have any more space available in the dorms; however, white students who sought to transfer were admitted without question. This lead Hunter and Holmes to file suit against UGA’s registrar Walter Danner.
In Holmes v. Danner, the district court ordered that UGA admit Hunter and Holmes. On January 11, 1961, the two students enrolled at the university. That night, as court documents show, “a demonstration what at times became violent occurred in front of the dormitory in which plaintiff Hunter resided.” Officials at UGA “suspended” Hunter and Holmes “from the University ‘in order to protect all students,’ and were removed from the University to their homes in Atlanta.” The District Court stepped in an overruled the university officials, and Hunter and Holmes returned to campus.
Writing to her niece Marianne Fink, Lillian Smith detailed the events at UGA. She told Marianne, “The mob on the campus of the University of Ga. was really something. 2000 students pushed down on that dormitory and stoned the windows of this one girl, Charlayne Hunter. It was a terrific bad time.” Smith goes on to talk about those who stood up and fought back against the protestors, and she notes that a faculty member and about three-fourths of the faculty spoke out against the mob and against Hunter and Holmes’ suspension, a suspension that came about through the nothing that the two students did but arose merely from white supremacists’ reactions to their presence on campus. “Some of the teachers,” Smith continued, “the morning after the mob, refused to teach the mobsters who entered their classrooms. . . . There was real moral indignation on that campus.”
Marianne and her husband Omar served as ministers at a Methodist church in Athens, and in 1955, the church asked them to leave their position due to their outspokenness against racial segregation. Smith told Marianne, “You see, you and Omar did a good job in Athens; it may have seemed wasted but it wasn’t; and I have heard several people mention you during this trouble.” Changing someone’s views does not occur over night. It takes time, purposeful action, and communication. What Smith highlights is that Marianne and Omar, and I would say some of the faculty, had been laying the groundwork with their white parishioners, students, and community members, for years. When “fascistic-segregationists,” as Smith called them, gathered and rioted outside of Hunter’s dormitory, they stood up, pushing back against the hate.
Holmes stayed with a Black woman in town, and Smith notes that the woman told her the Athens police patrolled the area constantly and provided a large light for the backyard to keep would-be “fascistic-segregationists” from attacking Holmes. She also told Smith that “she and three Negro men (all with guns) sat up at the windows throughout each night” protecting Holmes by keeping a lookout over the property. A total of 20 men rotated shifts on various nights sitting at the window as Holmes slept in bed. The community protected him, making sure he would be able to attend UGA.
As they made their way to the registrar’s office on that January day in 1961, Hunter and Holmes must have walked feet away from the UGA historical marker describing the university during “the War for Southern Independence.” They knew, as their feet moved towards the registrar’s office, the history they walked upon as well as they history they were paving along the way. Enslaved individuals worked in manual positions at UGA, either in building maintenance and repair, cleaning dorms, working in the gardens, or more. The Board of Trustees minutes talk about this, as well the minutes detail the number of enslaved individuals that board members owned and leased out to the university. “The War for Southern Independence” sought to keep this system in place, to maintain the institution of slavery and to deny individuals such as Hunter and Holmes entrance onto campus in any position above that of manual laborer.
On UGA’s campus, there is a marker in front of the Holmes-Hunter Academic Building. Named after Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes, the building housed the registrar’s office where Holmes and Hunter enrolled at UGA. Originally built in 1832 as the Ivy Building, an expansion occurred in 1905 which connected the Ivy Building to the then library using a Corinthian portico. In 2001, the building became the Holmes-Hunter Academic Building to mark the 40th anniversary of Holmes’ and Hunter’s enrollment at UGA.
The historical marker that stands in front of the building says that Holmes and Hunter were “the first two African American students to enroll at the University of Georgia as they walked past the historic Arch and into this building to register for classes.” It continues by noting that the marker was erected 40 years after their enrollment and that the university salutes “the courage and fortitude displayed by these students and their families in paving the way for others to follow.” That’s it. That’s all that the marker says.
One does not expect the marker to provide the entire history of Holmes’ and Hunter’s enrollment. There just isn’t enough space for that. However, when positioned in such close proximity, really feet or yards away from the marker claiming students left UGA to fight in “the War for Southern Independence,” more needs to appear. How does this juxtaposition work? It reminds me of Montgomery, Alabama, where a marker sits in front of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church discussing Martin Luther King, Jr. and right across the street, looking towards the state capital, a United Daughters of the Confederacy marker rests pointing out that Jefferson Davis’ inaugural parade marched down Dexter Avenue on its way to the capital for Davis to take the oath of office as president of the Confederate States of America.
It is one thing to have “an open book, up under the sky,” as Seck points out, but how what that books has to say is important as well. It must tell the story. It must not trivialize what happened. It must not whitewash it. It must reckon, in some way, with the brutal truths of the past. If it doesn’t, then it allows the myth to linger and the appearance of progress to infiltrate our psyche, pushing individuals to think that progress has occurred so nothing is left to do. When this happens, we fail to see the continued impacts of the past upon our present. We fail to see the long arch of history that continues to reach out its tentacles to grab a hold of us, pulling us backwards into the dirt. We repeat. We repeat. We repeat.
We need to provide “an open book,” not just under the sky but everywhere. We need to lay bare the past, in all of its gory details. We need to not falter in our fight to state the truth. We need to show the connections between what has happened and what is happening. In this manner, we present the “open book, up under the sky.”