University of Georgia trailblazer Charlayne Hunter-Gault joined New Yorker columnist Calvin Trillin over Zoom on Thursday, where the two discussed the origins of their decades-long friendship, Hunter-Gault and Hamilton Holmes’ integration process and the book Trillin wrote about their experience.
Amid the laughter and playful engagement between two old friends was a conversation of hardship, hatred and prejudice. The conversation was moderated by journalism professor and Charlayne Hunter-Gault distinguished writer in residence Valerie Boyd.
Trillin’s book, “An Education in Georgia,” was originally published as multiple articles in the New Yorker. It breaks down the integration process at the university and contains exclusive interviews with Holmes, Hunter and their close family members and friends detailing their experiences. The New Yorker released its first entry of the book in 1963, the year Holmes and Hunter-Gault graduated from the university.
Hunter-Gault, now a veteran journalist, remembered being swarmed by shouting reporters during her initial days at UGA. She said she didn’t like the yelling of the crowd because it seemed like the reporters were more interested in their questions than her answers.
Trillin, or “Bud,” as Hunter-Gault refers to him, stood out among the crowds, not because he verbally demanded her attention, but because he actively observed his surroundings.
“His eyes were one of the things that got me,” Hunter-Gault said, “because he was watching. He was always looking.”
The two talked about Holmes in great detail, the Atlanta student who integrated the campus with Hunter-Gault in 1961. Hunter-Gault said she and Holmes had different personalities.
“He thought I was kind of silly, and I thought he was kind of stuck-up,” she said with a laugh. She described herself as outgoing, whereas Holmes, according to his family, never made any friends during his time on campus.
While Holmes wasn’t as social, he was strong academically. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa honor society as a pre-med student. He tutored Hunter-Gault when she struggled in a biology class.
“When we needed one another, we were there for one another,” Hunter-Gault said.
Trillin said he was inspired to tell Holmes and Hunter-Gault’s story because he thought it hadn’t been told before. He said the moment of integration was well-covered by the media, but what happened after was not. He was also impressed by the bravery both Holmes and Hunter-Gault displayed in the years they were alone on campus.
“They wanted to go [to UGA] for the same reason the white kids wanted to go,” Trillin said. “That was the bellwether institution.”
As Holmes and Hunter-Gault fought to integrate UGA, Athens was still segregated. When Trillin asked Hunter-Gault about her experiences in Athens, she simply responded, “I didn’t have any.”
She tried to cover Athens events for The Red & Black, but she couldn’t because those events were segregated. She instead gained reporting experience back home in Atlanta, writing for a Black-owned and operated newspaper, the Atlanta Inquirer, which covered the city’s student movement.
Hunter-Gault credits religion for her ability to cope in the midst of racism and isolation. She said finding humor during times of struggle was also a useful tactic.
“I don’t remember feeling afraid ever,” Hunter-Gault said. “And I think part of that may have been my training [as a preacher’s kid].”
Toward the end of the discussion, Hunter-Gault encouraged current UGA students to not fear the blatant displays of racism dominating the news, mentioning last year’s increased tensions between the Black community and law enforcement and the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
Trillin recalled an instance of police brutality from that time similar to those from recent years past.
“Some things just haven’t changed,” Trillin said. “[We] definitely have a long way to go.”
Despite the hardships and hatred she encountered, Charlayne Hunter-Gault still considers her time at UGA a “wonderful experience.”
“It hasn’t been difficult for me to come back [to campus],” she said. “It’s been a real pleasure for me.”