Mary Frances Early

Betty and mary francis

My Aunt Betty had a best friend named Mary Frances.  She was spoken of at every family gathering as if she was sitting in the room. We met many times because often she was at a concert we attended or at Betty’s house when we were there. Betty told us all about Mary Frances, and it seems that she told Mary Frances all about us as well.  We are family by story.

The way I heard their friendship story was that my Aunt Betty approached Mary Frances when they were students at UGA and asked, “Are you Mary Frances Early?”

To which Mary Frances replied, “Yes, I am.”

Betty said, “I’ve heard about you. I’ve read about you in the papers. I want to be your friend.”

Mary Frances told me from that day forward, they were friends.  When all the world was coming against her as one of the first African Americans to enroll in the University, Betty stood by her.  Until Betty died, I had no idea of the details of their history. I only knew their friendship was a treasure to them both.

I knew they taught music together in Atlanta for decades.  I knew they went to grad school together and that they were kindred spirits.  I knew Betty was extremely proud of her friend’s accomplishment of being the first black woman to graduate from the University of Georgia.  I knew they went through the desegregation of Atlanta schools and that there was some connection to the Civil Rights Movement, but that was before my time so I knew nothing of the specific details.  Now, I have heard the whole story, not only of their decades-long friendship, but of the struggles that tested its strength and I am amazed.   

My whole life Mary Frances was simply my aunt’s best friend. What I learned later is that she was on the front lines of that era and she became a Civil Rights icon. No one was prouder when a lecture series was named for her, or when her portrait was hung in the office of the UGA president than my Aunt Betty. If she were alive today she would be sitting in the audience on February 24th when the Mary Frances Early School of Education is born.

This birth took decades.  The labor was intense. The transition was full of danger and peril for Mary Frances and the seed she carried. Yet, she never quit.  She pushed through with unparalleled courage, until the system that once called Mary Frances illegitimate, made her a full daughter, and with that action, has welcomed all daughters into its arms. All the work of this one woman has come to fruition and the seed she carried, education for all, is finally a viable option which will bear her name.

I am aware there will be articles, speeches, and news reports about her accomplishments as there should be.  I can’t tell you that whole part of the story and as I take it all in, I am sure I will learn more amazing things about her.  The part of the story I do know is the heart of this woman.  She is quiet and soft spoken but do not let that fool you, she is fierce. A quiet determination resides within her. She never gave up on her education, even when being threatened.  She stood for herself, and in so doing, she stood for us all. She was undeterred from her path despite opposition on every side. She never sought the spotlight then, and she does not seek it now.

For decades her story was lost, but when it emerged from the closet in which it had been hidden, she graciously came forward.  She could have refused, having been treated so poorly, but she knew light overcomes darkness. Grace triumphs over hatred. So, she chose forgiveness and stepped into her destiny.

She determined to use her power for good.  She knew, even in that era, she had power even when those around her told her she didn’t.   She unashamedly believed they were wrong.  For decades, she knew she did the right thing. She’s brave like that. I am sure I could not be that brave in the face of such opposition, yet Mary Frances inspires me to try.  Though she is soft-spoken, her voice speaks loudly through her actions.  She has a humble boldness, a staunch determination, and a sacred faith.

Her vision for future generations is clear…has always been clear.  She had 2020 vision long before 2020.  This woman has the heart of a lion. Honest and true.  Passionate and persevering.  What she has accomplished in her lifetime is truly amazing.  She is as steady as they come. She makes me want to do something bold.  Something that matters to more than just me.

As an educator, I am excited to see the seed she planted so long ago, birthed into offspring who will graduate from the Mary Frances School of Education and change the world.  I can’t think of a better way to celebrate Black History Month than to celebrate Mary Frances and her belief that education is for everyone.

And I know my Aunt Betty is beaming, telling the cloud of witnesses that her best friend is being honored in this way.  If I incline my ear, I think I can hear the Hallelujah Chorus being sung by the heavenly chorus and accompanied by the organ, of course.

To learn more about the upcoming ceremony click https://maryfrancesearly.coe.uga.edu/

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