April 9 – ATHENS – Sixty years ago, Mary Frances Early led the way as the first black graduate of the University of Georgia.
Robert J. Jones, Chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, followed this lead years later and shared his experiences at the Mary Frances Early Lecture 2022, held in Mahler Hall at the Georgia Center for Continuing Education & Hotel.
“This lecture is an important reminder of the progress we have made as an institution as we honor a true pioneer, educator, dear friend of the University of Georgia – Mary Frances Early,” said the president of the University of Georgia. ‘UGA, Jere W. Morehead, mentioned. “Your legacy, along with Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes, in desegregating the University of Georgia has had a lasting impact on generations of students who have followed in your footsteps, and we will be eternally grateful for your many contributions to the University of Georgia.”
The lecture series honors Early’s legacy and recognizes his dedication to making UGA an institution of higher learning for all. It also strives to demonstrate the progress that has been made towards achieving its vision as well as identifying the work that remains to be done.
The Mary Frances Early Conference, also referred to as the Signature Conference, is sponsored by the Graduate School, graduate and professional scholars, the Mary Frances Early College of Education, and the Office of Institutional Diversity.
Jones grew up in Dawson City and earned a bachelor’s degree in agronomy from Fort Valley State University, a master’s degree in crop physiology from the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, and a doctorate in crop physiology from the University of Missouri, Columbia. His parents were sharecroppers and he developed an interest in learning peanuts and cotton from an early age.
It was his vocational agriculture instructor in high school who inspired Jones to continue his education by calling him “professor”, telling Jones he would go to college, and making sure Jones had the necessary credits. .
He met another mentor at Fort Valley State University, who made sure Jones got a summer research internship. He encouraged Jones to pursue a master’s degree at UGA and eventually sent him and two classmates so they could rely on each other to stay on track.
Jones pointed out that not all of his experiences at UGA were comfortable in the early 1970s and added that those experiences likely paled in comparison to what Early faced while earning his master’s degree in music education in 1962 and his specialist diploma in education in 1967.
“I shook off those experiences, wrapped them under my feet, and used them to focus on the positive aspects of studying at this great university,” he said. “I think it’s important for everyone to understand the cycle of inequity and false opportunity that occurs when we fail to recognize the lessons of the past and, worse, fail to take the steps within our power to ensure that the mistakes of history do not become the burden of the generations that follow us.”
Jones also spoke about two areas he sees as key to the future of higher education. The first focuses on affordability and accessibility for anyone wishing to pursue higher education. The second is to focus on building a larger population of college-ready students long before they begin the application process.
“I believe universities are becoming an engine of social change,” he said.
Also during the event, graduate and professional fellows presented Sha’Mira Covington, doctoral candidate and graduate teaching assistant in the Department of Textiles, Merchandising and Interiors at the College of Family and consumption, the Mary Frances Early Scholarship. The Mary Frances Early Scholarship is awarded annually to a graduate or professional student who exemplifies Early courage and leadership.
“This 22nd year of the Mary Frances Early Lecture reminds us that a committed individual who chooses to do a difficult thing for the good of society as a whole can do just that,” said Michelle Cook, Vice Provost for Diversity and inclusion and strategic university initiatives. “It is important for us to learn from those who have come before us who have succeeded in bringing about lasting, impactful and substantial change – change that matters; change that brings us closer to a more just, fair and equitable society; changes that push us all to do better and be better.”