Editor’s note: As part of the University of Georgia’s observance of Black History Month, June Gary Hopps, a faculty member in the School of Social Work, reflects on her life and career.
The career of June Gary Hopps includes several notable firsts.
The Thomas M. “Jim” Parham Professor of Family and Children Studies at the UGA School of Social Work, Hopps was the first African-American dean of the School of Social Work at Boston College and the youngest in its history. Under her leadership, the school transitioned from a small regional program to one of national prominence, rising to 14th in the U.S. News & World Report’s graduate school rankings.
Hopps also was the first African-American editor-in-chief of Social Work, the flagship journal of the National Association of Social Workers. During her editorship, she launched initiatives to bring more women and people of color into research publications.
The foundation for Hopps’ career in academia was laid during her childhood in central Florida. She is the great-granddaughter of slaves and the daughter of a schoolteacher and an independent businessman who had operations in cattle, farming and real estate.
Education was important to her family.
Her grandfather taught her to read before she entered school and saw to it that his five grandchildren had new books at the start of each school year instead of the second-hand primers that were then standard for black students. Hopps and her three sisters all earned doctoral degrees. Her brother graduated from college and took over management of the family business, Gary Farms.
At home, Hopps and her four siblings were exposed to the writings of W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, as well as lively political conversations. She had her first clashes with authority in grade school when she was reprimanded for questioning the status quo.
“I had heard a discussion at home that the words ‘liberty and justice for all’ were not quite true,” she said. “I was raised in a family that just didn’t give in to racism.”
Other influences included historian Howard Zinn, her advisor at Spelman College. Zinn is best known for his 1980 book A People’s History of the United States, which examines history from the perspective of vulnerable populations.
Hopps got her opportunity to make a difference while attending Spelman. In March 1960, she helped recruit volunteers from the college to participate in lunch counter sit-ins aimed at ending segregation in Atlanta. The decision to participate was not without consequences, Hopps said. Students who participated risked more than a beating or jail time; their families could suffer backlash.
“Fellow students were concerned their parents might face job restrictions and other push backs of great cost for survival,” said Hopps, who joined the first wave of students at the nonviolent protests.
“I was arrested and taken and put in a paddy wagon and put in jail,” she said. “When my folks found out about it on the news that night, they were very proud, because I had grown up in a family that taught all of us to stand up for human rights.”
They were bailed out of jail by civil rights lawyer Donald L. Hollowell. The next year, Hollowell would secure desegregation for black students at the University of Georgia.
After 24 years as dean of the Boston College, Hopps stepped down. It was the turn of the century and the timing felt right for a major professional change. She joined her husband in Atlanta and accepted a part-time teaching position at the UGA School of Social Work. The work gave her more time for scholarly pursuits and allowed her to continue her affiliation with the board of trustees at her alma mater. In 2002, she accepted an appointment to the School of Social Work’s first endowed chair.
Since joining the UGA faculty, Hopps has been involved in several initiatives at the School of Social Work. She played a pivotal role in the establishment of the Donald L. Hollowell Professorship, which honors the late civil rights lawyer, and in the establishment of the university’s Center for Social Justice, Human and Civil Rights.
In addition to teaching courses and guiding research, Hopps is an authority in the area of public policy as it relates to families and children. She also initiated Parham Policy Day, an annual student-run event at which leading national and state figures discuss best practices for creating good public policy.
Hopps also immerses her students in history as it unfolds. On Sunday, March 8, 2015, she led a group of five faculty members and more than 40 students to Selma, Alabama, to mark the anniversary of an event known today as “Bloody Sunday.” The trip was funded by the Office of the President, the Office of Institutional Diversity and the School of Social Work.
“Selma was a turning point for massive social change and social progress,” said Hopps, who teaches a graduate class on social problems and public policy. “Fifty years ago, we could not have made this trip with such a racially diverse group of students and faculty.”
After returning to campus, the students had class discussions on the implications of the 50th anniversary and its relevance to social work and marginalized populations. Students also prepared a report for the President’s Office about the impact of the trip on their learning and professional development.
Hopps’ endeavors galvanized graduate students in the social work school to establish the Dr. June Gary Hopps Bridge Award, which they presented to her in 2017 at the inaugural student-run Social Justice Symposium. At this year’s second symposium in January, the Bridge Award was presented to Athens-area activist Humberto “Beto” Mendoza.
Hopps said one lesson she wants her students to learn is that developing tolerance and respect for differences is difficult but is of key importance for the professional growth of social workers.
“I hope they learn that change is not easy. It is hard, (but) social workers have skills that can help create change,” she said. “They have skills in organization, communication and negotiation—all essential for strong leadership.”