The University of Georgia held a ceremony Tuesday to celebrate the naming of its College of Education in honor of Mary Frances Early, UGA’s first African American graduate and a pioneering music educator. The event, held in Hugh Hodgson Concert Hall, was attended by a near-capacity crowd.
“With her historic legacy at the University of Georgia, it is fitting that Ms. Early is making history once again as the first African American to have a college or school named in their honor at this institution,” President Jere W. Morehead said at the ceremony.
“I think about the poem by Robert Frost, ‘The Road Not Taken,’” Ms. Early said in her remarks. “We all have choices to make, and my choice was not the easy road or the well-known road. … I chose to take ‘the road less traveled by’ because I saw the need to do something. When I chose to come to the University of Georgia, I wanted to open the doors for graduate students. I had to make a contribution to help make our state better, and the thing I knew I could do was go to school, so that’s what I did.”
The naming ceremony was held in conjunction with the 20th annual Mary Frances Early Lecture. Albany State University President Marion Ross Fedrick delivered this year’s lecture. Fedrick earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Georgia and is currently pursuing a doctorate in UGA’s Institute of Higher Education.
Fedrick said that she was a direct beneficiary of Early’s actions and that Early’s story served as a personal motivator for her. “She led like a hero as a servant leader with grace and persistence,” Fedrick said. Fedrick was moved by Early’s “willingness to place herself in the eye of the storm” to improve the lives of others. She encouraged audience members to likewise place the needs of others ahead of their own and to do what they could to help students overcome obstacles to their success.
Other speakers at the event included Chancellor of the University System of Georgia Steve Wrigley, College of Education Dean Denise Spangler and Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion and Strategic University Initiatives Michelle Cook. Gov. Brian Kemp and first lady Marty Kemp, both alumni of UGA, also were in attendance.
“You’ve changed many, many lives, and not many people can say that. In naming this college the Mary Frances Early College of Education, we attempt to honor all that you have done for this state,” said Wrigley. “Ms. Early is a role model for everyone from President Fedrick to a little girl somewhere in Georgia who is learning to play an instrument.”
“Having her name on her college will remind us and all who follow us of the standards we uphold. I am honored that our college bears her name,” said Spangler.
One of the ceremony’s highlights was a Bach violin solo by Zoe Willingham, a fellow in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s Talent Development Program, which Early helped found.
Early arrived at the University of Georgia in 1961 after transferring from a graduate program at the University of Michigan with the mission of helping Charlayne Hunter (now Hunter-Gault) and Hamilton Holmes integrate UGA.
She became the first African American to earn a degree from the University of Georgia when she graduated on Aug. 16, 1962, with a master’s degree in music education. She later returned to UGA to earn a Specialist in Education degree.
Early was class valedictorian at Henry McNeal Turner High School and earned a bachelor’s degree in music education from Clark College (now Clark Atlanta University) in 1957, also as valedictorian. She later became a music teacher in Atlanta Public Schools and was eventually promoted to music director of the entire school system.
In 1981, she became the first African American elected president of the Georgia Music Educators Association. In that role, she crisscrossed the state to support music organizations in other cities and promote music education to leaders in the state Capitol.
As a panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts, Early determined grants for musical organizations across the country for 11 years. She also helped write the Macmillan/McGraw-Hill music textbook series, leaving a lasting imprint of her ideas in the classroom.
Early retired in 1994 after working for 37 years in public schools. She later taught at Morehouse College, Spelman College and Clark Atlanta University as head of the music department.
“We will always need good educators,” said Early. “And to have the College of Education named in my honor, I can’t even describe how wonderful that is. Even after I’m gone it will still be there. I want to thank all of the people who made this happen.”
For more information about Early’s life and accomplishments, visit: https://news.uga.edu/mary-frances-early-georgia-groundbreaker/