Charlayne Hunter-Gault – New Georgia Encyclopedia
Charlayne Hunter-Gault holds a place in Georgia’s civil rights history as one of the first two African-American female students admitted to the University of Georgia. Also known for her award-winning journalism career, Hunter-Gault is respected for her work on television and in print.
Childhood and family
Charlayne Hunter was born on February 27, 1942 in Due West, South Carolina. The eldest daughter of Althea Ruth Brown and Charles SH Hunter Jr., Hunter moved around often during her childhood when her father, an army chaplain, was transferred from one base to another. Although his family lived together briefly during his father’s postings in California, Ohio, and Indiana, Hunter spent most of his childhood in Covington and Atlanta. She and her brothers, Henry and Franklyn, were raised primarily by their mother and maternal grandmother, an avid reader and an early influence on Hunter’s interest in newspapers. In 1954, Hunter began eighth grade at Atlanta’s most prestigious black public high school, Henry McNeal Turner High. She left in the middle of the year, when her family moved to Alaska with her father. After nine months in Alaska, her parents separated and Hunter returned to Atlanta with her mother and brothers.
Back at Turner High School, Hunter was active in many student clubs and organizations, including the school newspaper, student council, and honor society. In her first year, she surprised her Methodist family by converting to Roman Catholicism. Voted homecoming queen her senior year, Hunter graduated in 1959, third in her class.
University of Georgia Desegregation
Interested in journalism since she was a teenager, Hunter wanted to attend college with a strong journalism program. In Georgia, that meant the University of Georgia (UGA) in Athens, which did not admit African Americans, so Hunter applied to several schools in the Midwest. During her senior year at Turner, however, Hunter was approached by a group of black civic leaders from Atlanta who were looking for talented students to challenge segregation at Georgia colleges and universities. After visiting the Georgia State College of Business Administration (later Georgia State University) in Atlanta for the first time, Hunter and his classmate Hamilton Holmes, majoring at Turner High School, decided to apply to UGA. Hunter and Holmes were denied admission, and in the fall of 1959 Hunter enrolled at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan.
As Hunter began her studies in Michigan, she and Holmes continued to submit applications to UGA each term, and their attorneys, Constance Baker Motley of the National Association for the Advancement of Legal Defense Fund and Colored Education and Atlanta attorneys Donald Hollowell, Vernon Jordan, and Horace Ward, challenged the admissions decision. After two years of legal battles, Judge William Bootle, a United States District Court judge, issued his decision on the matter on January 6, 1961, stating that “the plaintiffs are qualified and entitled to immediate registration at the University of Georgia. Thus Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes became the first African-American students in the school’s history.
Hunter and Holmes arrived on the UGA campus on January 9, 1961, to register for classes. New students were greeted with taunts and racial epithets. Two days later, after a basketball game, a mob gathered outside Hunter’s dorm, smashing the windows with bottles and bricks. The crowd was eventually dispersed by Athens police armed with tear gas. That night, the Georgia State Patrol escorted the students to their home in Atlanta, and the University of Georgia suspended Hunter and Holmes, supposedly for their own safety.
A few days later, after a new court order was issued, the students returned to campus and resumed their classes. As writer Calvin Trillin noted in his account of their experience, Hunter “got a lot more attention than Hamilton”, who lived off campus and went home on weekends. Hunter occasionally encountered animosity from students who mocked her as she walked across campus, but she struck up several friendships, including one with fellow journalism student Walter Stovall. They married in 1963, had a daughter and divorced a few years later.
Hunter graduated from UGA in 1963 and took her first job as an editorial assistant at the New Yorker magazine in New York. After rising to the post of editor, she left the magazine to accept a Russell Sage fellowship for a year, then worked as a reporter and evening presenter for WRC-TV in Washington, DC, for another year. Hunter returned to print journalism in 1968, joining the Metropolitan staff of the New York Times and the establishment of the newspaper’s office in Harlem. While working at the newspaper, Hunter married Ronald Gault, a banker, and had a son.
Hunter-Gault left the New York Times in 1978 to join PBS MacNeil/Lehrer Reportbecoming national correspondent and serving as an anchor as the program expanded to become MacNeil/Lehrer news hour (later News Hour with Jim Lehrer). Hunter-Gault left public television in 1997 to join her husband, who had been transferred to South Africa; she became the chief Africa correspondent for National Public Radio (NPR). She left NPR in 1999 to join CNN, where she served as the network’s bureau chief and correspondent in Johannesburg, South Africa, until 2005.
As a journalist, Hunter-Gault has received numerous awards, including two National News and Documentary Emmy Awards as well as two Peabody Awards.
Hunter-Gault and the University of Georgia today
Despite its difficulties as a student at UGA, Hunter-Gault maintained close ties to the university. In 1985, to celebrate the school’s bicentennial, UGA established the annual Holmes-Hunter Lecture. Hunter-Gault returned to campus to deliver the commencement address in 1988; she was the school’s first black graduation speaker. In 1992, Hunter-Gault published a memoir about his childhood and his years at UGA, In my place, and with Holmes, established a college scholarship for African-American students.
In 2001, the academic building where Hunter-Gault and Holmes first enrolled in UGA classes was named the Holmes-Hunter Academic Building to mark the fortieth anniversary of the school’s desegregation. Ten years later, as part of UGA’s fiftieth anniversary celebration of the event, Hunter-Gault donated her papers to the Richard B. Russell Library for Research and Policy Studies.