Georgia Impact

Mary Frances Early: A life of courage and accomplishment

Mary Frances Early directs the band at Coan Middle School in Atlanta in the early 1970s.

She helped to integrate UGA and had an enduring impact on music education across the nation.

This story is part of a series, called Georgia Groundbreakers, that celebrates innovative and visionary faculty, students, alumni and leaders throughout the history of the University of Georgia – and their profound, enduring impact on our state, our nation and the world.

Editor’s note: On Feb. 25, 2020, the University of Georgia’s College of Education was named in Mary Frances Early’s honor.

Growing up in Atlanta, Mary Frances Early gathered around the radio with her family and listened to classical music. Her father was an amateur singer – at church and social events – and loved music, but he wasn’t able to go to the symphony because it was segregated. So the family made do with “The Bell Telephone Hour.”

Early inherited her enthusiasm for music from her father, who died when she was only 12. She went on to pursue degrees in music education – and make history.

Early – who became the first African American to graduate from the University of Georgia in 1962 – is being honored by UGA as a courageous trailblazer. But her influence extends far beyond Athens.

For more than five decades, Early, who is now 82 and living in Decatur, has been a passionate advocate for music education in Georgia and the nation.

Mary Frances Early at the John Hope Elementary School (now Hope-Hill) annual band banquet, which she planned each year to recognize outstanding students. Circa late 1950s.

The Atlanta Public Schools began desegregating in 1961. After Early earned her master’s degree, she went to work for the school system and was on the front lines of Atlanta’s educational transformation – teaching music at segregated schools before eventually being promoted to music director of the entire school system. Early worked with teachers in the system’s 100-plus schools, and was in charge of the music curriculum, budget, textbooks and more.

In 1981, Early became the first African American elected president of the Georgia Music Educators Association. In that role, she crisscrossed the state supporting music organizations in other cities and promoting 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.

After she retired from working in public schools in 1994, Early taught at Morehouse College and Spelman College and served as chair of the music department at Clark Atlanta University.

“My career was dedicated to music because I felt that all students deserved a first-quality music education experience,” Early said in a recent interview. “Music is not a frill, but a necessary component of a well-rounded education. As a universal language, music will follow students throughout their lifetime because it defines all cultures.”

On Sept. 11, the documentary “Mary Frances Early: The Quiet Trailblazer” will premiere at a special event in Atlanta. The executive producer and senior researcher of the documentary is Maurice Daniels, dean emeritus and professor emeritus at the UGA School of Social Work. Georgia Public Broadcasting also will air the documentary beginning Sept. 18. The documentary is one of a series of tributes recognizing Early’s life and accomplishments.

In January 2018, Early received one of UGA’s highest honors, the President’s Medal.

At the ceremony, UGA President Jere W. Morehead said, “Ms. Early has lived a full life of service and has made a remarkable impact on the University of Georgia and in the classrooms around the state of Georgia.”

On Oct. 10, the university will unveil a portrait of Early in the Administration Building.

Dale Monson, director of UGA’s Hugh Hodgson School of Music and a close friend of Early, said she “is celebrated frequently as a pioneer crossing racial barriers, but aside from that, her impact on music in Georgia is really quite profound.”

Growing up in Georgia

There were two constants in Early’s young life: music and books.

Mary Frances Early with a friend from Washington High School circa 1950.

She started piano lessons at age 9, but stopped when she was 10 because the teacher rapped her on the knuckles when she made a mistake. She resumed piano in 10th grade and played clarinet in the high school band. “My band teacher at Washington High wanted me to play the tuba,” recalled Early, “but it was too big. When I was transferred to Turner High, I really liked my teacher. He allowed me to play the clarinet and I decided I wanted to become a band director. That’s not something women did at that time, but I eventually ended up teaching band, chorus and general music.”

While Early’s father inspired a love of music, her mother instilled in her a passion for books and reading. “I was a nerd,” Early said with a laugh. “I loved reading because of my mom. She read newspapers, magazines and books and we always had those in our home.”

Early’s father owned a restaurant on Auburn Avenue, and after school, Early was sent across the street to the Auburn Branch of the Carnegie Library of Atlanta; at the time it was the only library for black citizens. “I got an allowance to stay out of the way,” she recalled. “Dad didn’t want me around beer, so I did homework and read books.”

Jeanette Reynolds and Mary Frances Early at Clark College: “We were being recognized as the most outstanding students at Clark College for that year. I was a sophomore and she was a junior. We both graduated as valedictorian of our respective classes.”

From a young age, Early’s intelligence was evident. Her mother, who had been at the top of her high school class, taught in a one-room schoolhouse in Monroe until she met and married Early’s father. Then she taught Mary Frances and her brother. Her work paid off: Mary Frances entered first grade at the age of 5 because she could already read. At age 16, she was the valedictorian at Henry McNeal Turner High School.

She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in music education from Clark College (now Clark Atlanta University) in 1957, again as valedictorian. She began graduate study in music at the National Music Camp, now known as the Interlochen Center for the Arts, in Interlochen, Michigan.

“That was a magical summer,” she recalled. “I heard and participated in more music than I had at any other time in my life.” The next summer, she continued her studies at the University of Michigan to pursue a master’s degree in music education.

Integrating UGA

Although Early was thriving at the University of Michigan, she decided to transfer to the University of Georgia in 1961 after seeing a disturbing image of two fellow Turner high school alumni on the news.

Charlayne Hunter (now Hunter-Gault) and Hamilton Holmes had graduated from the same high school as Early. One night, while watching the little black-and-white television at her mother’s house, Early saw them caught up in a riot. They had recently been admitted to UGA, and protests had turned ugly.

Mary Frances Early sits on a suitcase in the room she shared with Charlayne Hunter at UGA. This was taken right before Early returned home after graduation in 1962.

Although Early was five years ahead of Hunter and Holmes in school, she knew them both. Charlayne had interviewed Early for the Turner high school newspaper when Early was student teaching, and everyone knew Hamilton because he was a top student and star football player.

Those television images inspired Early to make a major life decision: That night she decided to transfer to UGA and help her friends integrate the university.

Mary Frances Early holds up a photo of herself at John Hope Elementary School where she was teaching when she decided to transfer to UGA. (Photo by Nancy Evelyn/UGA)

“That same week, I applied to UGA,” said Early. “My mom wasn’t very happy about it, but she supported me. I felt I needed to open the doors of the grad school. I wanted to do something instead of just stand on the sidelines. You have to be an activist if you want to see change made. I was a very quiet person – an unlikely person to integrate UGA. But having grown up during a time when everything was separate but not equal – I was tired of that.”

It took some time to be admitted, but Early made it to campus where she faced many obstacles. Students threw lemons at her in the dining hall. Once at the post office some male students threw rocks at her, “And one landed under my eye,” recalled Early, adding, “I threw one back but didn’t hit anyone.”

One night at the library, male students stretched themselves across the steps when they saw her coming and made cruel remarks. “I wanted to be the Bulldog I was supposed to be,” said Early, “so I kept going. At the last minute, they broke ranks.”

Mary Frances Early departs a plane for her post-graduate study at Interlochen. The woman in front of her is Mildred Burse, who decided to go with her. “We were the only blacks in the university division at Interlochen in 1958. I am carrying my clarinet; Mrs. Burse is carrying her violin.”

At UGA, Early also found pockets of support and kindness. She said that all of her music education professors were kind and fair and didn’t treat her any differently than the other students. The minister of the Presbyterian Student Center, Hardin “Corky” King, and his wife threw a birthday party for Early. And fellow grad student May March became a friend of Early’s after May volunteered to accompany Early to registration. Despite these bright spots, Early recalled, “The worst thing that first summer was the loneliness. I was the only black student on campus.”

Academically, she displayed her usual brilliance and did well in her classes. When Early took a leave of absence from her teaching job, the state’s black teachers association contributed more than $1,000. Their help, along with contributions from others, allowed her to complete her degree.

Learn more about the outstanding UGA men and women in the Georgia Groundbreakers series.

Early returned to UGA in 1964 to continue her education, earning a Specialist in Education degree in 1967.

Inspiration to others

Dominique Holloman

Dominique Holloman earned four degrees from UGA and is on UGA’s Board of Visitors as well as the Alumni Association Board of Directors. She recently met Hunter-Gault and has seen and spoken with Early several times.

“Being from Atlanta and having parents who are in the same age range as Mary Frances Early, Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter-Gault, I had heard of their stories generally,” Holloman said. “However, I did not understand the full extent of the desegregation effort, the level of sacrifice of all involved beyond those three, and the sheer will it took to withstand the negative experiences they had on campus. The courage and grace Ms. Early displayed, the barriers she broke, and the legacy she left as the first black graduate of the University of Georgia is more than inspiration. It is everything to me and the 15,000-plus UGA black alumni.”

Maurice Daniels

Daniels – dean emeritus and professor emeritus at UGA’s School of Social Work and executive producer and senior researcher of the Early documentary – remembers meeting her for the first time.

“My impression is that she was quiet, but determined and dignified,” Daniels said. “Quiet, but courageous. Quiet, but a person with tremendous tenacity. You could see the resolve she had even though she was not someone who was engaged in direct civil rights action and protests in the streets. But in her own way she was a very determined civil rights activist in terms of what she was doing to advance the cause of social justice.

“Also, it was very clear that she is brilliant.”

Early, who is almost finished writing her autobiography, is excited about the upcoming documentary. “It’s an honor to have something left as a legacy and to inform people what was going on at that time. Our young people don’t know. They don’t understand the price that was paid, and I’m happy to have had a small part to play in it.”

Mary Frances Early at a UGA ceremony in 2012 celebrating the 50th anniversary of her graduation as the first African American to receive a degree from the university. (Photo by Peter Frey/UGA)

Ties to UGA

  • Early has served on the UGA Alumni Association Board of Directors, the Graduate School Advancement Board, and the College of Education Board of Visitors.
  • In the College of Education, an endowed professorship has been established in her name.
  • The Graduate and Professional Scholars, UGA’s Graduate School and Office of Institutional Diversity sponsor an annual lecture series in her name.
  • She served as the speaker for the university’s spring 2007 graduate Commencement ceremony.
  • In 2013, she was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree by the University of Georgia.
  • In 2018, she received the President’s Medal at UGA.
  • Her portrait, painted by artist Richard Wilson, will be unveiled Oct. 10 in the Administration Building.
  • In 2012, the 50-year celebration of Early’s graduation, the Hodgson School of Music established a music scholarship in her name.