In a recent writing class, we discussed the power that invoking the senses has to aid in memory recall. The instructor said the sense of smell gives our memory the biggest jolt and asked us to share some vivid smells from our past. Folks brought in Jergen’s Lotion, Old Spice aftershave, rosewater cologne, cinnamon buns and coffee. And then someone mentioned tear gas and Boom! I was immediately jerked back to January 1961 when I was a second quarter freshman at the University of Georgia, living in South Myers dormitory with my best friend from high school. We had just returned from the Christmas holidays when we heard it… UGA was going to be “integrated.” As impossible as it seems now, we did not believe it.
The Georgia legislature had passed legislation several years earlier mandating an immediate cut-off of state funds to any white institution that admitted a black student. UGA administrators urged students to remain calm and observe their usual routines despite the feeling that a showdown was imminent.
Sure enough on January 6, 1961, federal district court Judge W. A. Bootle ordered the immediate admission of Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter to the University of Georgia, ending 160 years of segregation at the school. Three days later on January 9th Hamilton and Charlayne, accompanied by their families and lawyers, arrived on campus to register for classes.
Rumors flew all over the campus, spreading like wildfire. We heard the communist party was behind it all, giving large sums of money to integrate UGA and cause trouble. We also heard UGA would shut down before it allowed people of color to attend, Martial law would be imposed, and the military would take over the campus. Unbelievable!
The three phones on the first floor where I lived were in constant use with parents calling to check on the situation and kids calling parents to relay the latest news from the rumor mill. Some parents showed up and took their children home.
Reporters and photographers were everywhere, waiting for the crisis to accelerate. In fact they even created situations by fanning the flames. They encouraged students to carry posters and yell racial slurs. Some of the students obliged but others were outraged at the requests and finally began to fight back at the reporters—yelling at them and knocking them down and smashing their expensive cameras.
The administration imposed a curfew and everyone tried to attend class as if nothing unusual was happening, but you could feel the tension building everywhere. Many outsiders arrived in Athens. Some came to observe, but most intended to cause trouble by throwing fuel on an already explosive situation.
Every night, we’d gather in the dorm living room to watch the national news on the only television in the building. We stared in disbelief and were horrified at what we saw and heard. Chants of “Two, four, six, eight…we don’t want to integrate” rang out over and over and over. Fights appeared to be breaking out all over the campus. Reporters said things like, “Today on the University of Georgia campus, students demonstrated, protested and fought to keep black students from attending classes.” And the pictures showed fights and hatred and violence—people making racial slurs and throwing firecrackers and bricks.
Where is all this happening? I wondered. None of us had seen any of the violent behavior that we watched on television. We felt the news people tried to make our school look like a bad place, filled with ignorant and intolerant people. And most of us were not like that at all. These newscasts started many of the rumors that made staying calm difficult. My parents called, offering to come get me and urging me to come home. I assured my mother that things were not as bad as they looked on the news and promised to be careful. I was not about to let these idiots control me.
On the evening of January 11, I had planned to go to the library with a guy one of my friends wanted me to meet. He picked me up after supper and we headed out, observing the police and huge crowds of people all along the way. When we returned to the dorm a little before the 9 PM curfew, the atmosphere had exploded. While we studied and flirted at the library an angry mob gathered outside the Myers dormitories and someone heaved a large rock through the window of Charlayne’s room.
People dressed in white sheets marched all around the Myers dorms. North, Central and South Myers were all contained in one building and our rooms were close together, so that much of the action was just behind our building. A few fires burned on the lawns. Rocks and bricks and bottles flew through the air like missiles. Police with bull horns shouted, “All non-students must leave immediately.” But more and more people seemed to arrive out of nowhere.
“I can’t believe this. What are we going to do?” I asked as we pulled into the parking lot next to my dorm.
My date yelled, “You’ve got to get inside. We’ll have to make a run for it.” He ran around to my side of the car and opened the door. I was frozen to the seat. He reached in and yanked me out, and we headed for the front door.
Once inside I thanked him. He said he’d call and then he disappeared back out into the darkness. I immediately started crying and realized how badly I was shaking. Panic filled the air. Someone shouted, “Go to your room, turn off the lights, close the shade and stay away from the window!”
I ran through the hall toward Central Myers and then turned down the wing to my room on the ground floor of South Myers. When I got inside, I grabbed my roommate and we were both crying. Our eyes and throats burned like we had swallowed gasoline. “Tear gas,” I screamed.
The noise outside sounded like a war zone. Helicopters hovered overhead, people shouted, and sirens and flashing lights blasted the darkness. The night seemed to drag on forever and we never closed our eyes to sleep. Glass shattered and people screamed for a long time.
The Athens police armed with tear gas finally dispersed the crowd after hauling off a lot of people in handcuffs and other restraints. The Georgia State Patrol eventually arrived and escorted the two black students back to their homes in Atlanta, and the University of Georgia suspended both Hunter and Holmes, supposedly for their own safety.
When daylight finally broke through the darkness, we peaked out of our window with red streaked eyes. The damaged building and surrounding lawn looked like a disaster area. A lot of the campus had been trashed. UGA and the state of Georgia received terrible publicity for allowing the situation to develop and for failing to control it.
Faculty members at UGA created a resolution that condemned the riot and the slow response by law and university officials. Over 300 faculty members signed the resolution that demanded the immediate return of the two suspended black students. Many felt they risked losing their jobs because of the attention received by powerful segregationists in the state.
But state officials eventually condemned the rioters and many people, both students and outsiders, were arrested. Ultimately the laws barring state support of integrated schools were repealed.
Days later, after a new court order was issued, the students returned to campus and resumed their classes. As the writer Calvin Trillin noted in his account of their experience, Hunter “attracted much more attention than Hamilton,” who lived off campus and went home on weekends. Some student gave them a hard time as they walked around the campus, but eventually campus life returned to normal. Every time I saw Charlayne, she looked so sad and lonesome.
Near the end of the quarter, my parents announced that they couldn’t afford for me to continue to attend school in Athens. They wanted me to live at home and attend Georgia State in Atlanta. Why are they trying to ruin my life again? How can they do this to me? But there was no changing their minds and the life I knew at UGA was over, although I was allowed to visit my friends several times during spring quarter.
But life went on and “times they were a’changin.” I thought about Charlayne a lot and wondered what it must have been like on campus for her.
In 1978 I returned to college to finish my degree after my children were in school since I had dropped out of school to get married at age 19. A year later I was invited to attend a minority organization at Georgia State University to tell them about the psychology honor society. When I walked into the large, crowded room, I immediately noticed I was the only white person present. Everyone turned around and stared at me and my breathing stopped. I stood there not knowing what to do until finally the friend who had asked me to speak to the group ran over and put her arm around me. With a big smile on her face, she said, “Come on in, Diane. We’re glad you’re here.” And then everybody turned around and continued what they were doing. A few even came up to welcome me.
Later that afternoon I realized I had gotten a small glimpse of how Charlayne must have felt back in 1961, but she didn’t have a friend to welcome her. Looking back I believe the experience that happened over 50 years ago helped to shape who I am today. I know it made me more sensitive to anyone who feels different or uncomfortable because of their race, gender, illness, or any other isolating reason. I’m drawn to reach out to them. And when I find myself in a situation where someone feels unwanted or out of place, I always yearn to put my arm around them and say, “Come on in. We’re glad you’re here.”
And sometimes I even do it.