Few of the millions of people who have followed her career as a television reporter are aware that Charlayne Hunter-Gault was one of the pioneers who risked her life to desegregate the colleges and universities of the South. In January of 1961, Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes became the first two African-Americans to attend the University of Georgia, following two years of efforts by the state of Georgia to deny them admittance.
The future journalist started life modestly in the small South Carolina town of Due West, where she was born on February 27, 1942, the first of three children of Charles and Althea Hunter. In her autobiography, In My Place, Hunter-Gault explains that her mother had hoped to have a boy, who would be named for her husband, Charles. Undaunted, Althea created a feminine version of Charles, Charlayne.
Charlayne's father was a chaplain in the U.S. Army and was stationed across the country in California when Charlayne was born. His military career led to long absences, and Charlayne's mother had to assume most of the responsibility for raising the children over the years. When Charlayne was small, her mother moved them to Covington, Georgia, where she had relatives and where they shared a house with her own mother. There were a number of moves during Charlayne's childhood, first to Indiana when Charles Hunter returned from overseas in 1945. Although her father was popular with the soldiers, societal attitudes were changing slowly. Hunter-Gault recalls the negative comments of some white men encountered on a street in Indianapolis shortly after her father was promoted to captain. Her father showed no visible reaction to the comments.
When Charles received his next assignment, Korea, the family returned once again to Covington. There Charlayne lived the typical life of a child growing up in a small southern town, going to school, church and the movies, playing with friends, and visiting with relatives. At the age of five she began her formal education at Covington's only black school, where classes were large, and where there was no lunchroom or science equipment. Sometimes the students would be given orange juice or apples to take home when the white schools had more than they could use. Despite the lack of government support, there was an active PTA and the families worked hard to raise money for the school, competing to see who could raise the most.
In 1951 the family moved to Atlanta, where they were joined by Charles after he returned from a second tour in Korea. The Hunters moved into a neighborhood that was changing from white to black, and by her second year there, Charlayne was attending a segregated black school that had once been white. During her last year of elementary school, the Supreme Court handed down the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision. It had no immediate impact on Charlayne or her classmates.
In the fall shortly after Charlayne began high school, her mother informed her that the family was moving to Alaska, where her father had been stationed since the previous spring. A typical teenager, Charlayne was dismayed at the idea of leaving her friends, her new school, and her comfortable home. The plane trip was long and the house on the army base was small for a family of five. There were other adjustments to be made--to cold weather and to the enchantments of snow, and to attending an integrated school. Charlayne was the only black student and even military children were not free of the prejudice pervasive in society. At the first dance, no one except her teacher asked her to dance. On another occasion, she was denied admission to a club for teens until her father intervened. She was behind the other students academically, and had to work hard to catch up. Wrapped up in herself and her problems, Charlayne failed to notice that her parents were also unhappy. In the spring after school was out, Charlayne, her mother and her two brothers moved back to Atlanta. Her father stayed behind. Her parents would eventually divorce.
Charlayne completed her high school years in Atlanta, attending a school she describes as "an idyllic island in a sea of segregation" (In My Place, 114). In the Atlanta of that day, blacks knew they would be treated differently from whites by salesclerks and that they wouldn't be served in restaurants. Certain things were just taken for granted, but some brave people were beginning to challenge the status quo. It was the late 50s, and the civil rights movement was now underway. However, it had little impact on the popular high school student as yet.
Charlayne was beginning to think about college and a career in journalism. She had heard that Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan had a good journalism school, and she applied there. Georgia had journalism programs at the traditionally white schools, but the state did not want blacks even to apply. Therefore, the state would allow her to use state scholarship money out of state for a program that was not offered at the black colleges in Georgia.
At the same time, black leaders were beginning the push to desegregate Georgia's colleges. Previous efforts had been derailed by the state, and the activists were looking for "squeaky-clean" candidates who would be hard to challenge. Alfred Holmes persuaded his son Hamp, a top-notch student, to be one of those candidates. The activists approached Charlayne, who was an honor student at her high-school. The two young people were interested, but somewhat naive about what awaited them. The adults took them over to Georgia State, where they were greeted pleasantly in the registrar's office. But the course offerings were limited, and neither student was interested. First Hamp, and then Charlayne, said they wanted to apply to the University of Georgia. The adults agreed to get the application materials. Charlayne recounts that it was much later when she learned how worried the adults were at the prospect of sending the two young people seventy-five miles away to a college in small-town Georgia where it would be difficult to protect them. But, in her words, "no one, throughout the long-drawn-out process, ever spoke of fear" (In My Place, 127).
Although the two would eventually be admitted, the state of Georgia put as many obstacles in their way as possible. Initially, the university declared that the dorms were full. So Hamp went off to begin his college career at Morehouse, and Charlayne began hers at Wayne State. Charlayne initially found adjusting to life at a northern, urban campus difficult. Most students at the college were commuters, and the dorm rooms were allocated according to the high schools students had attended. Although Charlayne had two white roommates, most of the students were segregated by race. Charlayne soon settled in, got a part-time job, and began to enjoy the intellectual atmosphere of the school. She prepared to pledge a black sorority, and joined in the campus life.
In the meantime, her friends at home in Atlanta were becoming involved in the civil rights movement, boycotting stores like Rich's, marching and engaging in sit-ins. When Charlayne came home on spring break, she was amazed at the changes she saw in her friends. She returned to finish her freshman year at Wayne, still more an observer than a participant in the civil rights movement. Back in Atlanta that summer, Charlayne and Hamp went to court for a hearing concerning their applications for admission to the University of Georgia. The university had continued to turn them down, claiming there was no space. The judge refused to order their admission, but scheduled a trial for the fall. Although Charlayne sympathized with and supported the students who were involved in the civil rights struggle, she did not become active in the movement that summer. Her lawyer had warned that an arrest would provide the University of Georgia an excuse to deny her admission. In the fall, Charlayne went back to Detroit for what would be her last semester at Wayne.
Shortly before Christmas in 1960, Charlayne was called home for a hearing in her case. The university was now claiming that admitting her in mid-year would not be in her best interest because she might lose credits. It was the biggest story in the state, and the courtroom was full. The lawyers for Charlayne and Hamp provided evidence that in a similar case, the university had admitted a white girl. In early January, Charlayne was back at Wayne when she learned that the judge had ordered their admission. Her days as a "normal" college student were over.
Charlayne, her mother, her lawyer, and Hamp and his father headed for Athens on a cold Monday morning. Going down the night before had not been an option--no hotels accepted blacks, and any black family who offered them hospitality would be put at risk. A noisy white crowd awaited them, some shouting insults, but making no physical threats. In the midst of registering, the phone rang and they learned that the judge had stayed their admission at the state's request. The Appeals Court lifted the stay later that same day. Back to the campus they went, followed everywhere by the crowds. At the end of the day, they returned home to Atlanta. Meanwhile, the state had asked the Supreme Court to reinstate the stay. The Court declined to do so. In Athens, students wandered the streets, setting off firecrackers, raising Confederate flags, and blowing horns.
If their first experience on the campus had been intimidating, the truly difficult period for the two new students was about to begin. Hamp was living off-campus with a black family, but Charlayne would be living in a dorm. She was assigned a large room with a kitchenette--isolated from her fellow students. That first night she could hear the crowds outside chanting. The next day, she attended her first classes at Georgia. There were no disruptions in her classes, but the campus swarmed with reporters and student protests. That night, the crowds grew outside of her room. The mood had turned ugly, fueled in part by the basketball team's defeat by Georgia Tech. Suddenly there was first one, then another loud crash, as a brick and a coke bottle were thrown through her window, shattering glass everywhere. Some of the girls in the dorm began to scream at Charlayne and another student who had befriended her. Soon the university officials decided to send Charlayne to Atlanta for safety and a little after midnight, the state patrol arrived. They stopped to pick up Hamp and the convoy headed to Atlanta. The university had suspended Charlayne and Hamp.
It took two trips to court to get the two students readmitted. The following Monday, they were back on campus, accompanied by plainclothes police. The campus had quieted down--student leaders had called for restraint, the university had announced that rioters would be expelled, and the FBI and a grand jury were conducting investigations. Many faculty had signed petitions calling for Hamp and Charlayne to return, despite concerns about their own job security. However, Charlayne's ordeal was not over. For the next week, the girls in her dorm took turns pounding on the floor above her ceiling at night so she could not sleep. Later, some of the students complained of discrimination because Charlayne had a nicer room! But gradually the crowds on campus grew smaller, and some students showed signs of friendliness. During this period, the state of Georgia reluctantly began to move toward court-ordered desegregation of its public schools.
Hamp and Charlayne returned home to Atlanta every weekend. Charlayne's weekends were full--she was in demand as a speaker and often traveled up and down the east coast. The NAACP had provided the financial support and the lawyers for the court battle, and sometimes she was asked to speak at local meetings. Unlike Hamp, Charlayne enjoyed the public speaking, later describing it as a "lifeline" during a period when she was often alone by necessity rather than by choice.
Although there was now no question that Charlayne would be able to stay at Georgia, problems still remained. Charlayne wanted to be able to eat in the school cafeteria. The stress she was living under was causing some stomach problems. She hoped she would feel better if she ate better. It took another court order to declare all university facilities desegregated. The university had a physical education requirement, but Charlayne had been excused from modern dance because some of the other students didn't want her in the class. Because she didn't want to take phys ed, she tried to use the prejudice of the white students to her advantage. She listed swimming and bowling as her first two choices. She knew some of the students would object to being in the pool with her, and the university used the town bowling facilities, which were not desegregated. She did get excused from phys ed that quarter, although afterwards she took archery and tennis! Later when she brought a car on campus, she would sometimes return to find a flat tire. Once someone scratched an obscenity on the side, requiring a paint job. But Charlayne survived the first year.
That summer she was offered an internship with the Louisville Times, the first black person to hold a job there. Some of the paper's staff opposed her being hired--one editor was fired as a result. But some of the reporters played a mentoring role to Charlayne and her fellow intern. It was a positive experience overall. After two months, Charlayne returned to Atlanta and began to write for the black paper, the Inquirer, using what she had learned in Louisville.
Charlayne and Hamp returned to the University of Georgia in the fall, still the only black students there. Gradually, Charlayne began to stay on campus on the weekends and to make friends. In the spring semester, a black graduate student was assigned as Charlayne's roommate. Charlayne resented the university's approach, but the two were compatible. In the fall of Charlayne's senior year, two black freshmen were assigned as her roommates. Although Charlayne tried to be a "big sister" to them, she still resented the university's attitude, and its refusal to place her in a senior dorm. Things were changing, but very slowly.
After receiving her B.A. in journalism in1963, Charlayne went to work at the New Yorker, once again as the first black on the staff. She became a staff writer there the following year. Remembering the barriers as well as the doors opened by her race and gender, Charlayne comments in an interview that she was able to get ahead there because she had ability and worked hard. "...like everybody else, when I wasn't licking envelopes and typing schedules, I was working on some little piece at lunchtime at my desk..." (I Dream a World, 62). In 1967 she left the magazine to study social science at Washington University of St. Louis supported by a Russell Sage Fellowship. In St. Louis, she continued to expand her horizons as a journalist, editing articles for Trans-Action magazine and covering the Poor People's Campaign in Washington, D.C. for them. Soon she was offered a position as reporter and anchor of a local evening news broadcast, and the following year, 1968, she went to work for the New York Times, eventually becoming Harlem Bureau Chief. She remained with the New York Times for nine years, with some time out in the 1970s to direct a Columbia University minority journalism program. In 1978 she joined the staff of PBS' MacNeil/Lehrer Report, becoming their national correspondent in 1983. She was to remain with the program for nineteen years.
Hunter-Gault has been the recipient of numerous awards and honors. In addition to a number of honorary degrees awarded by colleges and universities, she has received Good Housekeeping's Broadcaster of the Year Award, the George Foster Peabody Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism, Journalist of the Year from the National Association of Black Journalists, Distinguished Urban Reporting Award from the National Urban Coalition, the American Women in Radio and Television Award, National News and Documentary Emmy Awards, and awards for excellence in local programming from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. She has also written articles for such magazines as Essence, Ms., Life, and Saturday Review. She has reported on and received awards for her stories on topics as diverse as the life of a twelve year old heroin addict, the invasion of Grenada, and the impact of apartheid in South Africa.
On a personal level, during her senior year in college, Charlayne fell in love with a fellow student and friend, Walter Stovall. Charlayne later said that this relationship gave her "a window into small-town white public education" and life (In My Place, 237). With this young white man, who saw segregation as "unfair," she attended her first college football game, something that he described to her as virtually a "religion" among small-town, southern whites. The two married after graduation in 1963 and had a daughter, Susan. The marriage ended in divorce, with the couple remaining on good terms. In 1971, Charlayne married African-American investment banker Ron Gault, and had a son, Chuma.
In May of 1997, Hunter-Gault announced that she would be leaving The News Hour With Jim Lehrer at the end of June. She wanted to join her husband, Ron Gault, in South Africa, where he had been transferred in 1996. She now works as a reporter for National Public Radio in the country she had described during the era of apartheid as "one of the greatest challenges that we in the media face" (I Dream a World, 62), reporting on the transition to black majority rule.
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Olendorf, Donna (ed). "Hunter-Gault, Charlayne," Contemporary Authors. Detroit: Gale Research, Inc., 1994.
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last updated 12/21/97
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