Written By: Bill Syken

Go to the University of Georgia campus today and you will see an impressive building with white columns called the Hunter-Holmes Academic Building. It is named for Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes, the first Black students to attend the school. That building is where they registered for classes in 1961, and it now contains not only the registrar’s office but the Office of Institutional Diversity, the Institute of African American Studies and the African Studies Institute.

The renaming of the building is a tribute, and perhaps also an apology for the resistance, official and otherwise, that Hunter and Holmes met when they first tried to enroll in the school. Georgia admitted Hunter and Holmes as transfers only after a legal battle (the school argued they did not have dorm space for the two students) When they arrived on campus, pro-segregation protestors were there to meet them, and that night a riot broke out. The images by LIFE photographer Joe Scherschel capture the ugliness, including one particularly sickening image of a young man gleefully displaying a black doll with a noose around its neck.

In its Jan, 20, 1961 issue heres how LIFE reported on a day that began with hope but ended in chaos:

Their admission had been ordered by a federal court. Governor S. Ernest Vandiver made only a token protest against the decree. Many at the University were ready to accept the Negroes. In class their first day passed calmly.

But on the campus, jeering and joking students stirred trouble. That night the impact of student bigots and the influx of Klansmen into the campus brought an eruption. A student mob threw bricks at Charlayne’s dormitory and yelled vulgarities up at her window. Dean of Men William Tate worked heroically to restrain the rioters, and town police, acting chiefly in self-defense, dispersed them with tear gas. State police arrived two hours and 20 minutes after they were called. Then they drove Charlayne and Hamilton home to Atlanta. Governor Vandiver’s secretary commended the rioters on their “character and courage.”

The university suspended the two Negroes “for their own safety.” A majority of the faculty petitioned for their return and a federal court promptly ordered their reinstatement.

(Note that Georgia was not alone in these kinds of incidents. At the University of Mississippi the admission of the first Black student brought another riot.)

Hunter and Holmes did return to campus, and eventually graduated and went on to distinguished careers. Holmes became the first Black student at the medical school of Emory University and then worked as an orthopedic surgeon. Hunter, who would later be known as Charlayne Hunter-Gault, became as journalist for such outlets as the New York Times and PBS.

And today at the University of Georgia, Black students now comprise 6.6% of the student body.

Charlayne Hunter (center), one of the first two Black students at the University of Georgia, was escorted on her first day of class, 1961.

Joe Scherschel/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Charlayne Hunter (center), one of the the first two Black students to enroll at the University of Georgia, on her first day of classes in 1961..

Hamilton Holmes, one of the first two Black students at the University of Georgia, on his first day of classes in 1961.

Joe Scherschel/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Hamilton Holmes was one of the first two Black students at the University of Georgia, 1961.

Joe Scherschel/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Hamilton Holmes (center), one of the first two Black students at the University of Georgia, was welcomed to campus by the psychology professor, 1961.

Joe Scherschel/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Hamilton Holmes was one of the first two Black students at the University of Georgia, 1961.

Joe Scherschel/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

A pro-segregation protester at the University of Georgia on the day the first two Black students arrived on campus, 1961.

Joe Scherschel/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

A pro-segregration protest at the University of Georgia on the day the first two Black students arrived on campus, 1961.

Joe Scherschel/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Tear gas was used to disperse rioters in front of Charlayne Hunter’s dormitory at the University of Georgia, 1961.

Joe Scherschel/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

A window was broken at the University of Georgia’s Meyers Hall during protests against the school’s integration, 1961.

Joe Scherschel/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Charlayne Hunter, one of the first two Black students at the University of Georgia, was taken from campus after pro-segregation protests turned violent, 1961.

Joe Scherschel/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Charlayne Hunter leaving campus after her enrollment at the University of Georgia set off pro-segregration protests, 1961.

Joe Scherschel/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Hamilton Holmes, one of the first two Black students to enroll at the University of Georgia, 1961.

Joe Scherschel/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

More Like This

history

Joseph Pilates: When the Fitness Guru Trained an Opera Legend

history

For Some, Dry January Was Never Enough

history

Primary Focus: Eisenstaedt’s Images of New Hampshire

history

Bob Marley: A Legendary Life

history

The Coldest Front: LIFE’s Coverage of the Winter War

history

An Instagram Moment, Pre-Instagram: The Tri-Delt Pansy Breakfast