The culturally diverse campus of Georgia State that many students have come to know and love has not always been so accepting.
Georgia State held its first-ever Groundbreaker Lecture Thursday to honor the achievements of Myra Payne Elliot, Barbara Pace Hunt and Iris Mae Welch, the lead plaintiffs who sued for the right of African American students to attend Georgia State.
Elliot, her family and Hunt’s family attended the lecture. Hunt and Welch are now deceased, but their legacies live on through their families.
The lecture allowed Maurice C. Daniels to discuss his book, “Ground Crew: The Fight to End Segregation at Georgia State,” released in 2019, which highlights the battle of the NAACP civil rights lawyers and the journey of the three women.
“This is a story of great inspiration for young people, for middle-aged people, for older people because it’s a story about courage, it’s a story about hope, it’s a story about encouragement, it’s a story about sacrifice. It’s also, sadly, a story about pain,” Daniels said. “These women and others who were involved in this case experienced a great deal of sacrifice as well as pain, and as we go forward, I believe we have a lot to learn from these women and others who were involved in this case in terms of how to persevere in order that you can achieve your goal.”
The actions of Elliot, Hunt and Welch and their civil rights lawyers are the reason why so many African American students can attend schools in the University System of Georgia today.
“Even though it was difficult, they hung in there, they persisted, they persevered and ultimately won this important case,” Daniels said.
The state of Georgia, along with many other Southern states, refused to desegregate following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.
The Georgia State College of Business Administration (now known as Georgia State) denied nine African American applicants from attending the school in 1956, a time when the South was still full of overt racism and hate.
The 1959 Hunt v. Arnold decision was the first federal victory for the NAACP against segregated education in Georgia and eventually led to the desegregation of public colleges and universities in Georgia and Mississippi.
Elliot, Hunt and Welch were never actually able to pursue their education at Georgia State after the court decision.
“Although none of them were ever able to attend Georgia State University, tens of thousands of black students have matriculated through the University System of Georgia as a result of the courage and sacrifice that they exhibit,” Daniels said.
In the late 1990s, Daniels was able to speak to the two main lawyers in the Hunt v. Arnold case, Donald Hollowell and federal judge Constance Baker Motley.
“They told me about this case and how it had not been chronicled in the historical record,” Daniels said.
His conversations with both lawyers sparked his interest in their work in the case, and it led to him researching it and the people involved in it.
“These three women, as well as the six other applicants, black applicants who made an application to Georgia State University in 1956 … were denied admission, so I went about the process of trying to learn more about their struggle and their sacrifice that ultimately led to this court victory, this historic court victory in 1959,” Daniels said.
Alyce Pruitt, Hunt’s first daughter, attended the Groundbreaker Lecture in her mother’s honor.
“My mother was a strong woman, and I feel I gathered that strength from her, seeing the things that she was involved in,” Pruitt said. “As far as the case, after the case, she was involved in a lot of civil rights [activism]. In the civil rights movement, she actually worked at [the Southern Christian Leadership Conference] with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I saw her as well as them strive for equality for minorities. So, it has instilled in me a strength of never giving up.”
Pruitt also took after her mother’s push for equality.
“I was around twelve years old, so I would actually go with her on a lot of those marches here in Atlanta and every day after school, I would ride the bus down to SCLC. We’d go down there and help out,” she said.
Although her mother was involved in the civil rights movement, Pruitt felt as though Hunt never saw the completion of her own situation.
“Even though she won the case, she didn’t feel the completion of it because she never got to go to the school,” Pruitt said. “We saw Charlayne Hunter[-Gault] and Hamilton Holmes benefit from it because they actually got to go to [the University of Georgia], but she never got to go [to Georgia State]. I wish she was alive now to see that it really was a completion.”
The case brought a lot of fear to Hunt and her family, so much that Hunt decided to leave Georgia entirely before the case was decided.
“The case began in 1956, [but] she actually left Atlanta in 1958 because she was frightened for her life and the life for her kids, and she took us to my grandmother’s house in Pennsylvania, and she went on to live in Washington, D.C.,” Pruitt said. “My grandmother wanted her to bring us to them because they feared for our lives as well as hers. They wanted her to leave here.”
Hunt found out later through the attorneys that they won the case.
Elliot also attended the lecture with her three daughters and her granddaughter. Elliot doesn’t visit Atlanta often because the city she remembers no longer exists, so it’s harder for her to get around in the always-changing city.
She recalls Davidson’s of Atlanta and H. L. Green, two department stores that were in Atlanta in 1959, but closed in 1989 and the 1990s, respectively. Nevertheless, Elliot is still proud of what Atlanta has become.
“I am proud of the progress that we have made in a calm and civilized way,” Elliot said. “I hope that continues from now on.”
Zakiya Merrill, Elliot’s granddaughter, had no clue about the impact her grandmother made in the history of Atlanta and the University System of Georgia.
“When you think of a legacy, when you think of people that we celebrate during Black History Month or just people that we celebrate for being pioneers … I did not know the role that she had played in Atlanta,” Merrill said. “We’re from here, so it’s a big deal that she was a part of integrating Georgia State, that’s a big deal, and I had no clue, I didn’t know.”
Merrill was one of the readers of “Ground Crew” because the book helped her grasp a better understanding of Elliot’s role in history.
June Harland, Elliot’s first daughter and Merrill’s mother, didn’t know about her mother’s fight against segregation either until she was 37. Elliot didn’t often reminisce about her past with Georgia State.
“She said she didn’t like the way that it made her feel. She said when they walked out of that courthouse that day, her and my daddy, she said they never said another word about it,” Harland said. “It was a scary time, and she didn’t want to relive all of that hatred, all of that venom.”
According to Harland, family has always been the most important thing in Elliot’s life. Elliot encouraged her children to further their education. Elliot also encourages others to go to college if they can, if they can’t, she encourages them to find something they are good at and make a living doing that.
“Learn how to bake chocolate cakes and sell them, have what you want. Do something that you do well, and it’ll happen,” Elliot said. “Live so that young people will want to admire you for what you’re doing.”