Hunter-Gault recalls integration, says young African-Americans have reason for hope
Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter, the first two African-American students at the University of Georgia
ATHENS, Georgia (CNNSB) -- At the height of the civil rights movement, a young Charlayne Hunter-Gault was stunned by the racism she saw and experienced at the University of Georgia and elsewhere. But now those days are just history to her.
In January of 1961, Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes became the first two African-Americans to attend the University of Georgia, overcoming two years of efforts by state officials to deny them admission.
"They (the media) did a good job of reporting the situation," said Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who has gone from being UGA's first female African-American student to CNN's South African Bureau Chief. "There was a lot of attention from it and some reviews."
In the early 1950s, racial segregation in public schools was common across the United States, especially in the South. While the law said all the schools in a given district must be equal, most "black schools" were inferior to their white counterparts in terms of facilities, student-faculty ratios and more.
African-American students frequently had to walk miles to attend school, even if there was an all-white school blocks away from their home. For young African-Americans in the 1950s and '60s, school integration was a long time coming.
Determined to reach her goals
With her father in the military, Hunter-Gault traveled extensively during her childhood, with the small town of Covington, Georgia, the closest she came to home. In her youth and in her high school days in Atlanta, Hunter-Gault became well aware of the problems of segregation and racism plaguing the country.
But Hunter-Gault didn't let any of this stop her. In high school, she became passionate about her schoolwork and was introduced to the school newspaper.
"I worked on the school newspaper that inspired a lot of curiosity," she said. "I enjoyed talking to people and relating to people."
Hunter-Gault's interest in writing and reporting led her to the University of Georgia, where she was determined to get a bachelor's degree in journalism. It took a court challenge, a single dorm room and nearly a race riot, but she did it -- in spite of the difficulties her race presented to some classmates.
Friends of all colors
Hunter-Gault said she graduated having established genuine friendships with both black and white students.
"When I graduated from UGA, I had some white friends who experienced discrimination by their own peers," she said. "I had several friendships that were truly genuine. We shared common interests, values and lifestyles."
CNN South African Bureau Chief Charlayne Hunter-Gault, 40 years after her college days
In her 1992 autobiography, "In My Place," Hunter-Gault chronicled the treacherous but ultimately successful integration of Georgia's flagship state university. Today she believes that African-Americans can enter any field and become successful.
"I would hope that not every person of color has to be engaged in the personal struggle over advancement because of race or color," she said. "I think today students can go anywhere they choose to go."
A seasoned journalist
Remembering the times when she was the only black person in newsrooms, Hunter-Gault said she is pleased to know that African-Americans interested in journalism today are having a much easier time finding a job than they had when she was growing up.
"It is a lot easier than it was when I was coming along," she said. "They (the media) recognized that they needed to hire more people of color. They needed to find out what was going on in the black community."
Hunter-Gault began her professional career as the first black reporter for The New Yorker. She then worked as a local news anchor for WRC-TV in Washington, D.C., and later worked 10 years at the New York Times, including two years as the paper's Harlem bureau chief.
Hunter-Gault joined the staff of National Public Radio (NPR) in 1997 after 20 years with PBS, where she was a national correspondent for "The News Hour" with Jim Lehrer. During that time she also anchored the award-winning "Rights and Wrongs," a show focused on human rights. In April 1999, Hunter-Gault joined CNN as the network's chief correspondent in Africa, later becoming the bureau chief in Johannesburg.
"I am thrilled about my own professional career," she said. "I have managed to realize a dream. I have worked in every medium in the media by putting one foot in front of the other."
She says her goals in South Africa are to make the western world more aware of the events going on in the African continent.
"Where on the one hand the world can pass Africa by, what I am trying to do is bring Africa in the mainstream coverage of the western world," she said.
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