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Holmes, Hamiltonlocked

(08 July 1941–24 October 1995)
  • Mary Jessica Hammes

Holmes, Hamilton (08 July 1941–24 October 1995), orthopedic surgeon and one of the first two black students to desegregate the University of Georgia, was born Hamilton Earl Holmes in Atlanta, Georgia, the son of Alfred “Tup” Holmes, a businessman, and Isabella Holmes, a grade school teacher. His influences in civil rights were strong; his father, grandfather Hamilton Mayo Holmes, and uncle Oliver Wendell Holmes filed suit to desegregate Atlanta's public golf courses in 1955. (The 1956 Supreme Court decision on their cases made the golf courses the first integrated public facilities in Atlanta.) His mother had been part of a program that integrated blind or partially sighted children into mainstream classrooms.

Holmes, nicknamed “Hamp,” was a successful student at Henry McNeal Turner High School in Atlanta. Though shy, occasionally stuttering when he spoke (see Hunter-Gault, p. 111), he was president of his junior and senior class, co-captain of the football team, captain of the basketball team, and valedictorian of his senior class. When the Turner Wolves football team won the homecoming game, Holmes presented the game ball to Charlayne Hunter, Turner's Homecoming Queen of 1958–1959, who would later integrate the University of Georgia with Holmes and become noted journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault.

In 1958, Jesse Hill, Jr., an Atlanta civil rights leader, began compiling a list of accomplished high school seniors in Atlanta's black high schools as potential college integrators. He found Holmes and Hunter in 1959. Holmes suggested that they apply for admission to the University of Georgia. While readying his application papers, Holmes attended Morehouse College in Atlanta. For a year and a half, UGA's registrar office denied admission to Holmes and Hunter for a variety of reasons, including that the dormitories were full. During admissions interviews, Holmes was asked if he had ever visited a house of prostitution, a “tea parlor,” or “beatnik places” (quoted in Trillin, p. 23).

On 2 Sept. 1960, attorney Donald Hollowell filed suit with the federal district court in Athens, claiming that they had been denied admission to UGA on account of their race, in violation of the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision that declared racial segregation unconstitutional. Just before the December 1960 trial, UGA registrar Walter Danner wrote that Hunter would be admitted the following fall, while Holmes had been rejected for being “evasive” during the interview, and that there had been “some doubt as to his truthfulness” (quoted in Trillin, p. 37). (A similar reason had been given eight years before in Horace Ward's rejection from UGA's law school. Ward assisted in Holmes's and Hunter's trial, as did Donald Hollowell, Vernon Jordan, Gerald Taylor, and Constance Baker Motley.)

On 6 January 1961, while Georgia's then-governor Ernest Vandiver was promising that “no, not one” black student would attend UGA under his authority, federal judge William A. Bootle declared that Holmes and Hunter were “fully qualified for immediate admission.”

On 7 January 1961, escorted by Ward, Holmes registered at UGA. At the entrance to campus some students burned crosses and hanged a black effigy named “Hamilton Holmes.” Hunter also enrolled. During their first week tension culminated in a riot on campus, which had been so well planned that students vied for dates to the event. Following the riot, Holmes and Hunter were temporarily suspended. Yet no subsequent acts of violence ensued. Once, when Holmes had parked his car near the Kappa Alpha fraternity house, he returned to find it blocked by another car and by a crowd of fraternity brothers. Holmes found a flashlight in his car and held it in his pocket, pretending it was a gun. The students moved the blocking car.

While Hunter received considerable media attention, Holmes retreated into solitude, studying, playing basketball at an all-black YMCA, eating his meals at Killian's Four Seasons—the small restaurant operated by the family with whom he boarded in Athens—and faithfully returning to Atlanta every weekend to visit a steady girlfriend, his friends, and his family. “I haven't actually cultivated any close friendships,” Holmes told Calvin Trillin (see p. 85). Holmes excelled scholastically at UGA, making the Phi Kappa Phi honor society. Yet his morale reached a particularly low point his junior year. “I'm just counting the days” until graduation, he told Trillin his senior year (quoted in Trillin, p. 89).

In 1963, Holmes graduated with a bachelor of science degree cum laude and became the first black medical student at Emory University in Atlanta. In 1967 he received his medical degree. That same year he married Marilyn Elaine Vincent; they had two children. In 1969 he became a major in the U.S. Army, serving in Germany. After his discharge from the army in 1973, he became assistant professor of orthopedics and associate dean at Emory University School of Medicine. At Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, he served as senior vice president of medical affairs, medical director, and head of orthopedic surgery for the Grady Health System. Though his years at UGA seem dismal, he later became a supporter of his alma mater. In 1981, he helped plan UGA's bicentennial celebration, and two years later he became the first black trustee to the University of Georgia Foundation. In 1985, as part of UGA's bicentennial, the Holmes-Hunter lectureship was established, and Holmes attended each year, joined by Hunter-Gault in 1992. He died in his sleep in Atlanta, two weeks after having quadruple bypass surgery.


A comprehensive study of the desegregation at the University of Georgia, complete with candid, thorough interviews with Holmes, Hunter, and their families, is Calvin Trillin, An Education in Georgia: Charlayne Hunter, Hamilton Holmes, and the Integration of the University of Georgia (1964; repr. with new introduction, 1991). A particularly intimate view of the experience and her friend “Hamp” is Charlayne Hunter-Gault, In My Place (1992). An obituary appears in the New York Times, 28 Oct. 1995.