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50 years ago, trying times at university

POSTED: October 16, 2011 1:00 a.m.

Probably at no time in the history of the University of Georgia had there been more change than in January 1961.

The university's athletic board agonized for two hours who would be the new football coach succeeding revered Wally Butts, who had been the Bulldogs' coach for more than three decades. One of his assistants, Johnny Griffith, followed him, and he seemed to be the natural heir to continue the rich gridiron tradition. Alas, he suffered through three losing seasons, managing only 10 victories during that time.

But that transition seems minor compared to what else was happening in Athens that fateful month. After years of resistance, it seemed black students finally would integrate the university.

As winter quarter began, Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes registered to enroll for classes. Crosses were burned, effigies hung and politicians threatened to close the university. Legislation had passed in the 1950s to cut funding to UGA if a federal court ever ordered the admission of black students. That would effectively close it.

But a federal court indeed ordered Hunter and Holmes to be admitted. They showed up in Athens accompanied by federal marshals, but rioting followed that night. Dean William Tate had to throw himself into the crowds of rowdy students to restore order.

The two black students then were suspended "for their own safety" while the Legislature, then in session, and courts sorted things out. Gov. Ernest Vandiver called an emergency meeting of Regents, university officials and legislative leaders. University faculty, other campus groups and organizations in Athens urged the students to be allowed to return to class.

Rep. Howard Overby of Hall County criticized the courts for meddling in Georgia's affairs, but at the same time urged his constituents and colleagues "to face the cold reality" of desegregation. Other legislators attempted to craft legislation that would deny the blacks admission to state colleges.

Another federal court granted a stay to admit Holmes and Hunter, but yet another court ordered the school to stay open, allowing them to return to classes a few days later without incident. The campus settled down, and as time passed, more blacks enrolled.

Looking back on it 50 years later, it seems almost far-fetched to believe Georgians put up so much resistance to allowing blacks to attend school wherever they wanted to. That was the same year the new E.E. Butler High School was built in Gainesville to accommodate blacks. It later closed in a plan to satisfy federal desegregation orders. Those city black students were assigned to Gainesville High School.

The Gainesville Board of Education had named the black high school in honor and memory of Dr. E.E. Butler, who opened his physician's practice in Gainesville in 1936 and was much involved in community activities, including the board of education. The Minnie H. Butler School in Macon was named in his mother's honor.

Other changes started in 1961 in Hall County. Byron Turk became the new tax commissioner and was preparing to introduce modern accounting equipment to the tax office. Much of the work had been done by hand. That probably compares to installation of computer equipment in today's tax operation.

Ray McRae became president of First National Bank, succeeding longtime president Roy Moore, and Rafe Banks Sr. retired as chairman of the board. Paul Seals and Richard Shockley were among bank employees receiving promotions.

Julian Bloodworth retired as manager of JCPenney, which had anchored the corner of Main and Spring streets on Gainesville's downtown square for so many years. Bloodworth was its manager for 30 years, coming from Athens, where he was an assistant to A.W. Haynes. Haynes rose to become president of the entire Penney organization and came to Gainesville to honor Bloodworth on his retirement.

That same month, Gainesville passed its infamous fried chicken ordinance, mostly in good humor. The law supposedly requires people to eat fried chicken with their fingers instead of a fork. Before the vote, Edd Travis and Moffett Kendrick of the Chamber of Commerce lobbied city commissioners with a plate of hot fried chicken, biscuits and coffee.

January 1961 also saw the inauguration of the nation's 35th president, John F. Kennedy, and the naming of Bob Fowler as Hall County's Young Man of the Year.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilltimes.com/johnny.



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