Early, who went on to become one of the state’s top music educators, got her master’s degree in music education Aug. 16, 1962. She became the first black president of the Georgia Music Educators Association in 1981 and went on to become head of the music department at Clarke Atlanta University.
Early, 76, was not the first black student to attend UGA. Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes were the first to break the color barrier on Jan. 6, 1961. But Early soon joined them as a graduate student, transferring to the Athens school from the University of Michigan.
Early wanted to give Holmes and Hunter some support after she saw news accounts of the young students’ terrible reception at the state’s flagship university and realized how isolated they were, she said.
Other students called her foul names and even threw rocks at her during her time as a student on the UGA campus.
But Wednesday’s commemoration, attended by more than 200 people in UGA’s Fine Arts Auditorium, was on the other end of the scale.
“I feel like I’ve died and gone to heaven. It’s a glorious day and a wonderful celebration,” Early told the crowd. “I had no idea that this commemoration ceremony would be so wonderful.”
The speakers who paid tribute to Early included Atlanta civil rights pioneer Lonnie King, who gave the keynote speech.
“You cannot judge a book by its beautiful cover, but you cannot underestimate her courage,” said King, who was actually a fifth-grade classmate of Early’s.
A large group of Early’s family and friends came from Atlanta to her graduation that August day in 1962, and friends, family, and even a van-load of people from her Atlanta church came Wednesday.
Three people who were at her graduation in 1962 were also among Wednesday’s crowd — friends Mary Phillips and Ann Jackson, and sister-in-law Jacquelyn Early.
That graduation day in 1962 was happy but quiet, Early recalled.
“It was an understated day” but an important day, she said.
“It was the start of something big,” Early said. “I don’t mean me.”
Early’s graduation day paved the way for later generations of students, she said, reeling off a list of names that included football great Herschel Walker and federal District Court Judge Steve Jones, now president of the UGA Alumni Association.
“The inclusion of African-American students at the university has truly enriched our university,” she said.
Early also took time to thank a long list of people, including Maurice Daniel, dean of UGA’s School of Social Work, who was the first to realize that Early, not Holmes or Hunter, was actually the university’s first black graduate.
Early also thanked outgoing UGA President Michael Adams.
“I have a lot of admiration for him,” she said.