In January 1961 Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes walked through the Arch, the iconic cast iron entryway to the University of Georgia campus, to enroll in classes, thus ending (per court order) 176 years of whites-only education at the self-proclaimed birthplace of public higher education in the United States. Two days later, both students were suspended and escorted from campus by UGA “for their own safety” after a violent riot planned in large part by UGA law students took place outside Hunter’s residence hall. Another court order led to Holmes and Hunter’s return and eventual graduation in 1963. Holmes went on to become the first Black graduate of Emory University School of Medicine and a respected orthopedic surgeon before his death in 1995. Hunter (later Charlayne Hunter-Gault) enjoyed a luminous, award-winning career in journalism, from her first job at the New Yorker to the New York Times and broadcast stints at PBS, NPR, and CNN—all detailed in her 1992 memoir In My Place. Calvin “Bud” Trillin, then a twenty-five-year-old reporter for Time magazine based in Atlanta, covered the integration of UGA from 1961 to 1963, getting to know Hunter and Holmes, their families and supporters, other Black students who followed, and the UGA administration. His book An Education in Georgia was serialized in the New Yorker and originally published by Viking in 1964, then by the UGA Press in 1991. To mark the sixtieth anniversary of UGA’s desegregation, the Press sponsored a campus-wide read of Trillin’s book that included a virtual conversation on February 4, 2021, between Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Calvin Trillin, moderated by Valerie Boyd, who is Charlayne Hunter-Gault Distinguished Writer in Residence and associate professor of journalism in UGA’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. The highlights included here have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Director, UGA Press
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Valerie Boyd: Charlayne, talk a little bit about that isolation that you felt [when you came to UGA] and the relief that talking about your story with Bud gave you.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault: I’m feeling a little of that now with the COVID crisis. But I think I got used to it, actually, many years ago. I was, of course, an only child—for eight years that is—and so some of that isolation was not that unusual, except that I was surrounded by so much hostility. At the same time, I did have friends. And I think it’s important for me to say that there were some wonderful teachers, professors, as well as students. Might have been only a handful. Some were journalism students, some were in other disciplines, who befriended me from jump street.
And of course Hamilton, regrettably, is no longer with us. But I’ve learned from his family, up close, that Hamilton never made a single friend at the University of Georgia. His son has said that when we’ve been down for the Holmes-Hunter lectures, once a year. And I found it hard to believe, given that I had friends. But the other thing about Hamilton, which was different from me, because my grades were all over the place—I just found one of my report cards, and I don’t want anybody to see that—Hamilton, with all of that isolation and ugliness, finished Phi Beta Kappa in a very challenging field, pre-med. But he never gained, as he and his family have reiterated, a single friend. What he would do at the end of a class, at the end of school day—he would go back to the Black family who housed him. Girls in those days had to live on campus. I’m not sure that’s the case anymore. But I lived on campus and Hamilton lived with a Black family, I would say maybe six minutes from the campus.
And he would leave school, go home to this Black family’s place where he stayed, change clothes, and go play football with the boys in the hood. Because he wanted to play. He played football at Turner High School, where we attended, and he wanted to play football at Georgia. But they wouldn’t let him. They said either some of your teammates might want to hurt you, or some of the other football players from other Southern schools, who have no Blacks. Because we were the first two Blacks to desegregate an institution of higher learning in Georgia, if not the South. And so they wouldn’t let him. In order to play, he would go and play ball with the boys in the hood. He never made a single friend. And that still is very painful to me.
Trillin: Well, I think there are several reasons for the way Hamilton approached the University of Georgia experience as opposed to Charlayne. One of them is that I think he came from a family that was very active at desegregating some things itself, including golf courses, because they loved to play golf. And there was a great expectation for him. I think he had the idea that, to put it crudely, to show the crackers, that he was going to go there and be an outstanding student. But his life was in Atlanta. He drove home every weekend.
He was very contained when I talked to him then. He seemed like sort of an introvert. Unlike Charlayne, who I remember when I told her that I was coming down there, she said, “This week is brotherhood week. I think I’ll go stand out in the corner and see if anybody invites me to lunch.” But Hamilton seemed quite introverted, a very interior sort of person. Then some years later, I gave a speech in Atlanta, and a college friend of mine said he wanted to have some people over the evening before the speech and was there anybody I wanted to invite? I said, “Yeah, see if you can get Hamilton to come. I haven’t seen him since he graduated.”
Hamilton was from a family that was a very jolly, funny, animated family. His grandfather, who was a doctor, kept trying to shoot his age in golf. His father, Tup Holmes, who just greeted everybody on the street as he walked by. So anyway, Hamilton came to the party. I sat and talked to him for quite a while. I realized he’s like the rest of his family in a different setting. In a familiar setting, he was jolly and funny, and I enjoyed talking to him.
I think part of it was the way he looked at the experience in Georgia. Part of it was that even though this sounds odd, since they threw bricks at Charlayne’s dormitory, that he was more likely to get physically hurt than Charlayne. We thought that a boy was more likely to get hurt than a girl. So I think he was sort of in this defensive crouch when he was at the University of Georgia. There were a couple of incidents that almost ended up in some kind of violence, but they didn’t. I think when he was freed—when he had shown the crackers—then he was a different sort of person.
Hunter-Gault: The other thing that probably gained him more enmity—I mentioned a few minutes ago that my grades were all over the place, because there were things that I was interested in, and when I was interested, I would really pursue them. And when I wasn’t: well, comme ci, comme ça. But I think that before Hamp got there, especially in the biological sciences, grades were made on the grade point. So if you got 60 on a test, if that was the highest mark, that was the A.
But Hamp would start, almost every test he took, he would get 97, 98, 99, if not 100. And there came a time when I wasn’t doing well in biology. And I don’t remember who it was, one of the good professors said, “Well, maybe you should get Hamp to help you, because that’s his field.”
We would sit there, and he would say—and he stuttered a little bit—“Okay, now it’s time for you to focus.” And he would say, “Okay, now, what’s the answer to this?” And he’d read the question, and I said, “Hamp, it’s multiple choice. I can’t deal with multiple choice. There are always exceptions.” He said, “Do you want to pass this course or not?” So we had that kind of relationship. He thought I was kind of silly, and I thought he was kind of stuck up. I could be silly, which partly helped me get through all of that, and finding some humor in things.
But if anything happened to me, and I used to get a lot of stomach trouble—the first and only person who would come to the infirmary would be Hamilton. Now we might have fallen out about me not paying attention to my biology lessons or whatever. But if I was sick, he was the first person to come. And if he needed me, like the night that we were suspended, quote, unquote, for our own safety.
On the night of the riot, I guess this was about the third night of us being there, they brought me out of the dorm and drove me over to the house where he was staying, the [Archibald] Killian house. Hamp’s grandfather, who Bud just referred to as the great golfer, had given him a car when we graduated from high school and were getting ready to go to Georgia, so he could drive back and forth to Atlanta, seventy-some miles it was then. And Hamp wanted to take the car. There was the state patrol there, that were going to whisk us to Atlanta and to safety.
Well, I did not know what lay ahead of us along that road that had a reputation for having some not-good characters there. Let’s put it that way. And Hamp was determined to drive that car. Now, as I told you, Hamp thought that I could veer towards the silly. And I thought, “Okay, the only way I’m going to encourage him not to drive that car is to go a little bit crazy.”
So I started jumping up and down and shouting, “You can’t drive the car, you can’t!” He was embarrassed, because I was doing this in front of these white people, and in front of these policemen, and all of these officials at UGA. And he didn’t want them to see me like that. So he said, “Okay, okay, I won’t drive over.” He left the car, and we got spirited back to Atlanta safely. But when we needed one another, we were there for one another. I will always believe that one of the reasons he left us so early—we only now know about PTSD. I don’t know enough about it to know, but I have speculated that that was a traumatic time for him more than for me.
But we were there for one another when we needed to be. And I think that was—I mean, we were like that in high school, too. He went his way and I went mine, and yet, when it was important, we came together, and I’ll never ever forget that friendship.
Boyd: Charlayne, you’ve talked about PTSD, and you’ve talked about your having stomach problems. Calvin mentioned the defensive crouch; that was his phrase for Hamp. Did you ever feel that defensive crouch? Did you ever feel in physical danger when you were on campus, and how important was your sense of humor for you to cope with those stressful times?
Hunter-Gault: You know, honestly, I cannot remember ever feeling in danger, not even when that rock came. I was rereading my book the other night, and Bud’s. A rock and then a Coca-Cola bottle, I think, were thrown through my window. I don’t remember feeling afraid, ever. I think part of that may have been my training. I’m a “PK,” a preacher’s kid. My parents made sure I went to Sunday school and learned all the Bible verses.
I remember coming out of the dorm after the riot had been broken up with tear gas. The next day, there were pictures of me holding this Madonna in the car with the dean. People said, “It must have been really scary.” And I said, “Scary? No.” And they said, “Why not?” And I focused then. I hadn’t focused on what was conscious. But what was unconscious was, one of the things my Florida grandmother who was the—my grandfather was the minister, preacher—but she was the saint.
And starting when I was five, six years old, she used to make me learn Bible verses, and one of them was “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” Now, you know, who wants to be bothered with that when you’d rather be climbing the mango tree outside of the house or playing games with friends? But she insisted, and I think that . . . I call that armor. And I think that both Hamilton and I in different ways—I don’t remember Hamilton, Bud, you might remember him being religious—but I remember, I was very religious at the time and always had been one way or another. And so that was the kind of thing that helped me get through all of that.
Trillin: It was really relatively scary, I guess, outside. The frat boys—because, oddly enough, I think the whole thing was organized mainly in the law school, of all places—but they had a lot of fraternity boys. And everybody kept saying that the Klan was coming. That’s when things would really start, the Ku Klux Klan would be there. The frat boys called the Ku Klux Klan “Tri Kappa.” And I think the tear gas, I think that the police weren’t doing a lot. But the change in the riot, if that’s what it was, was when Dean [William] Tate showed up. And Dean Tate could almost singlehandedly stop something like that, which I think he did. Which shows that they weren’t really . . . It wasn’t like the crowd that just went into the Capitol [on January 6, 2021]. They wanted to show some resentment, but I don’t think that they were really murderous.
Hunter-Gault: But we’re talking about something that happened sixty years ago. I am so grateful that there are people who are tuned into this discussion, maybe not because I have anything specifically wonderful to say, or insightful, but because I think we all need to sort of focus on where we are now, where we’ve been, some of the challenges we had and how we overcame them. Bud alluded to what went on in the Capitol. And while we never expected to see anything like that in this country, we have seen evil people do evil things. And we’ve seen good people work against that. I think that when you read Bud’s book, it’s important to focus on what relevance it has for today, as well as what lessons it has for today.
Trillin: I think we’ve obviously come a long way in the sense that you actually would have broken the law to go to the University of Georgia without the federal court and caused Georgia to abandon what was then called “massive resistance,” with that wonderfully named law that the governor put in called the “child-protection freedom-of-association defense package.” That was its surrender. So we don’t have laws like that now. But in the book that collected stories I’d done on race [Jackson, 1964: And Other Dispatches from Fifty Years of Reporting on Race in America], there was a piece from 1975 about a white cop shooting a Black suspect. And when I reread it, I realized it could have happened last week.
I remember when we were driving back from Athens once something hit my windshield. It was a pebble. It didn’t break the windshield, but the first thing I thought was, “Oh, my god, they’re shooting at us.” Because the idea then, if you were hungry on the way, that you could stop and get a hamburger—that would have been an act of not just bravery, but a kind of a foolhardy act, even if you were just hungry and didn’t want to cause any trouble or anything like that. So that’s changed a lot. But we have a very long way to go.
Hunter-Gault: The other thing was that while Hamilton never made a single friend at Georgia, over the years, he and I came back many times to remember, in the best possible way, our experience, what we thought we might have contributed to the institution, opening it up for other students who look like us. I keep coming across little pictures of us. And one I came across the other day with my young children and Governor Vandiver. The governor who has said, “No, not one.” Meaning of us.
Trillin: “Not one. No, not one.” That was his motto.
Hunter-Gault: “Not one. No, not one.” And forty years later, I remember that was our fortieth anniversary. And it wasn’t the first one that Hamilton and I had come to, but Governor Vandiver was there, and he apologized. And while I think it’s going to be difficult to accept some apologies these days, and I’m not going to go into who I’m talking about at the moment (I’ll let Bud do that if he wants to), but I think that you can get a sense of when people are being earnest.
Boyd: I think it’s important to, like you’re saying, Charlayne, to acknowledge that people can change over time, and they can change their views. But before we move into the present, I wanted to ask you both about Athens. UGA was being desegregated. And there was resistance to that. But there was also the town of Athens, which was still a town in Georgia. And so, Bud, what was it like for you to be staying in a hotel in Athens, being around town interacting with citizens, some of whom were not in support of desegregation? What did that feel like to you? And then, Charlayne, you can also speak about, did you ever step into Athens away from campus? Or did you pretty much keep your sphere limited to Athens?
Trillin: In those days your views on race in the popular imagination were tied to your geography. So if you were from the North, you were, I won’t use the phrase, a [pauses] lover. And also, most, I think a large number of white people in the South, including fairly decent people, I don’t mean just Klansmen or something, believed that the Black people in the South were actually pretty happy. That the whole thing was caused by agitators from the North, and reporters were the worst sorts of agitators. So I was used to handing my copy in to the Western Union guy and getting a baleful stare, wondering whether it was going to show up. But Athens, Athens was just a regular town. I don’t know what your experiences were in Athens, Charlayne?
Hunter-Gault: [Laughs.] I didn’t have any. I mean, here’s the thing. And again, I said earlier, I’m a preacher’s kid. So I’m going to go back to a biblical saying: “The Lord works in mysterious ways.” Because I wanted to get started as a reporter. And so I went to the college newspaper, the Red & Black.
So this is a semicolon, not a but. So I go to work hoping to get an assignment so I can start practicing reporting. And there were no assignments, because so much of what was going on was going on in Athens, and Athens was still segregated. I mean, there were even bowling classes that I couldn’t take. I didn’t want to take physical education anyway. So when they said, “Well, what do you want to take?” I said bowling, because I knew I couldn’t take it, because bowling was in the town, but the town was still very segregated.
And so for a little while, I would do little errands around the office, little filings and stuff like that. But that wasn’t getting me anywhere. Then what happened was the Atlanta Student Movement burst into fruition. So I would go home on the weekends and get assignments from Carl Holman and Julian Bond and the people who had started a newspaper to cover the activities of the students. And so I don’t know what kind of reporting experience I might have gotten had I stayed at the Red & Black, probably none. But some of the best pieces that I have ever written, I think I wrote during those weekends home, going to Carl Holman’s basement and working with Julian Bond.
The students would get to go picket in the morning, they get arrested in the afternoon, they were getting arrested so they could make a case. And then they’d come to Carl Holman’s basement at night and tell their stories, and Julian and I would write them up. So in a real sense, as I said, the Lord works in mysterious ways, because I don’t have anything that I could show that I wrote while working for the Red & Black, because I never wrote anything. But I’ve got all these things that I wrote for the Atlanta Inquirer because of Athens.
Boyd: Going back to what you said earlier about people having the ability to change, and your having the ability to accept apologies, and to forgive, I guess I want to ask you two questions. How does it feel to be treated with so much respect now by UGA, which in the past did not treat you well? And related to that, how are you able to come back year after year, and be such a devoted Bulldog? How do you come back to UGA with that lack of bitterness?
Hunter-Gault: You know, I had a wonderful experience when I was at the University of Georgia. There, there might have been things that I wasn’t able to do, like the first term, we couldn’t go to the cafeteria. I also had a young white friend from the North who would come and see me, and try to be nice. At some point, the guys in his dorm said, “It’s either her or us.” And he actually came and told me. He was practically in tears and said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t come back anymore, because I’ve got to be here three more years.” And so it hasn’t been difficult for me to come back.
Also from the very beginning there were professors. I had some good professors. I had some who didn’t talk to any of us students. And then I had one, Dr. Best, and I’ll never forget this. We had to do an assignment once to, we had read the Iliad or the Odyssey, one of those two by Homer, and he had asked us to write a description of the sword that one of the goddesses had made for her son. It was Achilles, or one of those. I can’t remember now. So I had read it. And Homer has spent page after page after page describing this shield. So I said, “Well, what am I going to say that Homer hasn’t already said?” Well, two years before, a year and a half before I was admitted to UGA, I went to Wayne State in Detroit. And I used to go to the museum there, and I fell in love with Hieronymus Bosch.
And so I got back to my solitary dorm room. I was sitting there, and I started writing about how this shield reminded me of the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. And I went on to talk about Hieronymus Bosch. Now meanwhile, not a single student in that room has said a word to me the whole term, and neither had the professor. One day he comes in, maybe two weeks or so after the papers had all been turned in, and he came in with the papers.
He said, “So Miss Hunter”—that’s the first thing he said, and students are all, “Oh, he’s going to get her now.” And he said, “So you think the shield of”—whoever it was, Agamemnon or whoever. I have to go look it up. But anyway, he says, “reminds you of the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch?” Now not a single one of those Georgia girls and boys in there knew who the hell Hieronymus Bosch was. And I thought, “Oh, god, he’s really going to come down on me now.” And I said, “Yes, sir.” He said, “Well,” and he put the papers on his desk, and he said, “It’s one of the most brilliant papers I’ve ever read.”
The room was hushed. When the class ended, I can’t remember now how many students, but I was surrounded by those white students who had acted like I wasn’t there the whole time, up to that point. “Can we see your paper?” “Who . . . ?” It’s amazing the kinds of things that lead to breakthroughs. And that was one. There were times when I would get back to my room and look in the mirror and realize I hadn’t uttered a word the entire day. And you might have thought I was losing my mind, but I would say, “Hey, girl, how you doing?”
Watch the virtual event “An Education in Georgia: Then and Now” to hear the full conversation at www.youtube.com/watch?v=wY8t8prnpik.