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.