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Rearview Mirror: The Integration of Georgia Tech

In which we take a look at perhaps the most divisive issue Tech has ever grappled with.

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The three pioneers, Sept. 1961.
Georgia Tech Archives/Georgia Tech Photograph Collection (

If we’re being quite honest, the reason it’s taken the better part of two months to get to this subject from the hiring of Edwin Harrison as the permanent replacement for the late Blake Van Leer is because this particular edition of this particular column deserves more time than I had available to give it - though, in a perfect world, I’d be able to churn out thousands of words about history every week. I’ve hinted at a couple things in the works for Rearview, Yellow Jacket Roundup, and other parts of From the Rumble Seat, but those, too, have had to take a back burner to the realities of being back on campus and the bumpy and twisting roads life has each one of us on. But no matter. With the transition from Bud Peterson to Ángel Cabrera rather inconveniently taking place around the same time as the unveiling of the newest statue in Harrison Square, one we’ll dive more into shortly, it was fitting to editorialize on Cabrera and Peterson, and save the story of the integration of Georgia Tech for when I had the time to dedicate to doing the story justice. Three weeks later, here we go.

The three men, now preserved in bronze, walked swiftly into the student infirmary on the morning of September 18th, 1961. Ford Greene, Ralph A. Long Jr., and Lawrence Michael Williams were their names. They were local, from two different Atlanta high schools. All had other options available to them, ranging from other engineering schools like MIT, to historically black colleges, to opportunities in sports, like tennis. And yet, when the chance came knocking, they felt led to Georgia Tech.

That early fall morning, relatively quiet and unassuming, changed Tech forever. But, as the story goes, you’d hardly have noticed it to be different from any other day.

Part of the reason Paul Weber retained that title he didn’t want - interim Institute President - far longer than we had ever planned - well past a year - is because the social sands were shifting in the South. Georgia Tech wouldn’t be the first school to integrate, no, but there would be a time looming when that issue would have to be reckoned with. Fair or not, that scared a lot of milder, more unassuming academics, no matter how strong their personal principles on the matter might be, into not coming within a ten foot pole of the vacant office in the Administration Building. After a length search, Tech found Edwin Harrison, a military man, and a trained engineer no less, the sitting dean of engineering at Toledo. He had experience in administration. He was willing, and demonstrated considerable personal tact. He would do, in the eyes of the Powers That Be at Georgia Tech.

Of course, the changes in Southern attitude weren’t passing unnoticed. In one particular example, Atlanta mayor William Hartsfield - he of airport-related notoriety - repeated his famous line dubbing Atlanta a “city too busy to hate” in a WSB response to a pro-integration advertisement circling the daily newspapers. As a counterpoint, Ernest Vandiver, the sitting governor - the final one elected under the county-unit system - had harsh and differing opinions. Hartsfield, like many prominent Atlanta businessmen, was not so much a proponent of integration, per se, than a strident force eager to keep Atlanta’s ridiculous growth trajectory continuing post haste. For every group rallying moderates to support integration in Atlanta Public Schools, there were state-wide opinions in favor of the unacceptable racist status quo. Now long past 1954 and Brown vs. Board of Education, it was high time for the state of Georgia to integrate its public spaces. In a generally under-mentioned detail, for all the celebration of progressive Atlantans, in particular the students of Georgia Tech, concurrently, future governor Lester Maddox was running his segregated Pickrick Restaurant - until he made a massive display of closing rather than desegregate - on a property not just in the city of Atlanta or in close proximity to its premier institution of higher education, but in the very same building that would go on to serve as said school’s placement office. But for a small marker, there would be no trace of the now-demolished Ajax Building left.

In the meantime, the powerful interests supporting segregation managed to pass a law to immediately cut-off of state funds to any all-white institution that admitted a black student. On January 6th, a federal judge struck down the law and ordered the integration of the school in Athens, admitting Hamilton Holmes* and Charlayne Hunter. Things were calm for five days, despite the looming possibility of shutting the school down.

Riots ensued. Things were, to understate, not great.

Imagine what the state would look like if the state’s flagship land grant university had been shut down over segregation. This may be a sports blog, but it’s imperative to recognize the entire character of Georgia higher education would be unimaginably different. That was the extent legislators were willing to go to protect the established system. But the segregationist laws were repealed. Less than a week after the events in Athens turned into violent riots, on January 17th, 1961, there was a meeting in the Heisman Gymnasium.

2,741 students swarmed the old Works Progress Administration building, a massive number for the space. As recently as January 1959, the “moderate” Tech student body, presented with three pro-integration options - temporary closure, operating a felonious, integrated school, or becoming a prohibitively expensive private school - chose continued operation, rather than test the will of the state government. Again, imagine the consequences of a private Georgia Tech - let alone a closed one. Tech had drafted an “Emergency Plan” aiming to limit the fallout of Athens-like violence - several students were expelled, two arrested, along with a member of the Ku Klux Klan - and prepare the school for integration. With the Athenian faculty petitioning the state government for change - which did eventually come, despite the raspy censure they received, too - Tech was going to integrate. And it would do so, methodically, as perhaps befits a body of engineers.

Harrison begun the meeting by reminding the populace that Tech was “the only technological school in the southeastern United States with a national reputation...any actions...will affect the future of our institution.” No black students had yet applied to the Georgia Institute of Technology, so the scenario, and the accompanying warnings, were still hypothetical. The student body voted overwhelmingly to integrate.

On May 11, 1961, after a spring of meetings and preparation of the community, Harrison announced that three of the thirteen young black men who applied to Tech would be admitted. Those men Greene, Long, and Williams, would begin classes in the fall quarter. The approach was praised. The students, Atlanta community, and halls of power - including a couple notable segregationists - were publicly supportive. And the Technique advised dissenters that they best get used to it, or leave.

On August 30, 1961, four Atlanta high schools were finally fully integrated, one day shy of the deadline. Hartsfield was pleased at what was dubbed by the papers as “the silence heard ‘round the world.” Atlanta would be his beacon to the rest of the region and nation. Ralph McGill, longtime editor of the Atlanta Constitution, ergo an prominent opinion-shaper, contrasted Atlantans to the bloody events shaking neighboring states.

Less than a month later, Georgia Tech would join Atlanta Public Schools in integration. Press was barred from campus, as the administration would not permit any disruption to the usual daily operations of the Institute. And, that first week, nothing much happened. On September 27th, exactly fifty eight years ago come tomorrow, they went to their first classes. Williams got into a scuffle after he was tripped. Other than that, they noted their biggest issue seemed to be generally being ignored. Tech had become the first school in the Southeast to integrate peacefully, without a court order. “Tech made it very well known that they would not have any problems with their student body, and everyone pretty much respected that,” Long noted. (AJC)

It’s worth pointing out that none of these three men would be the first African Americans to graduate from Georgia Tech, nor did any of them finish their degrees here. Long, the tennis player, would transfer across town to Clark College, and would go on to graduate with degrees in mathematics and physics and become a legendary figure - again a pioneer - at IBM. Greene, who would transfer to Morgan State, double-majoring in computer science and mathematics, and later gaining accolades from the University of Virginia and Johns Hopkins, is a successful consultant. Williams was drafted into the Air Force and served the nation in the Vietnam War, and became a noteworthy aviation specialist. The title of first graduate, then, would fall to Ronald Yancey. When interviewed for the fiftieth anniversary of integration, he noted that “they carried themselves with great dignity. They were well-dressed. They were well-mannered. They were well-spoken. And they did an excellent job in lowering the expectations of problems people expected from them,” said Yancey, who became massively successful in his own right, including a lengthy stint on the Tech Alumni Association Board.

In Hartsfield and McGill’s would words, Atlanta was finally the unquestionable leader of the New South.

Tech nowadays is ranked number one in the nation for bachelor’s degrees in Engineering awarded to African Americans. Of course, the flip side of that coin is Tech is number one in essentially every ranking related to engineering - women, individual degree programs, doctorates - because it is an excellent producer of engineers. Similarly, it took a long time for enrollment numbers of African Americans to inch upwards. They’re still relatively underrepresented. And the defeat of segregation - and, importantly, but less well known, the county-unit system - didn’t spell the final blow for racism in state politics. Just five years later, and two years after becoming infamous for his restaurant’s dealings, Maddox would be elected governor, running absolutely contrary to the prevailing winds of national party politics. His opponent in the vastly-more-important Democratic primary was Ellis Arnall, who was famously elected governor during the last time the state government’s illogical decisions almost shut down its higher education system, best known as the Cocking Affair. The death of county-unit politics was not enough to dull the influence of downstate voices.

In Atlanta, though, times were changing. Ivan Allen, Jr. won the mayoral race after splitting the white vote, but winning all of the black vote. Unlike Hartsfield, he actively fought segregation, believing it a lead weight holding back the city of Atlanta from achieving true success. On his first day in office, the story goes, he removed the “white” and “colored” signs from city hall facilities. He forged alliances with Martin Luther King, Jr. and other prominent civil rights activists. Despite grave danger, he was the sole notable Southern politician to testify in support of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He was the man necessary to calmly pilot the ship of government through rocky seas - one to truly set an example “to all the world.”

Ivan Allen Jr. was a proud Georgia Tech alumnus. His first elected position was that of student body president. He remains a historical oddity and outlier as a member of the last graduating class of the Georgia Tech School of Commerce before it was wrenched from the school, given to Athens for supposed fear of replicating programs between Georgia Tech and the school out East, ironically never being fully integrated into its new home, and moved back to Atlanta to become what is now Georgia State University. Today, Tech’s College of Liberal Arts is named in his honor.

It’s fitting that Georgia Tech was the catalyst for Atlanta taking its place as the emblematic leader of the New South. That Scion of the Southland, as the Alma Mater so clearly dubs it, was supposed to be the heartbeat of industrial growth for the city and state. And yet, the social change that it was able to help shepherd was just as important, and probably more so, than the ensuing growth - which was certainly beyond Henry Grady and even Ralph McGill’s wildest dreams. Atlanta in 1888 was nothing more than a rebuilding commerce outpost, tied to its improbable and poor geography by a vital iron triangle junction of railroad tracks. Tech was a single brick building, almost certainly the tallest in town, at the time, sitting on a hill overlooking the recently burnt-out city - former Confederate ramparts, no less - with a smoldering pile of rubble next to it where its infant shops had been consumed by an inferno in the middle of the night, not long after opening up. Tech was a very different place back then, but rooted in the notion of hard, hands on work - shop culture - that some might call service and the call to advance itself, its state and nation, and humanity at large. Some might call that progress.

Progress comes in fits and starts. Service can wax and wane. Clear vision keeps that trending in the right direction.

It is fitting that it took a second building-consuming blaze for the administration to tire of rebuilding shops and declare the space a park. It is even more fitting that they would name it Harrison Square, after the mild mannered shepherd of Tech’s ultimate maturation into the diverse research institute it is today. One cannot be great without growth. It is a journey Tech is still on today - I would argue that complacency is the enemy of greatness. We, as men and women associated with Tech, are called upon to assist in that call. And to recognize our past. And to help lead it to its best possible future.

Ultimately, I am thrilled by these statues. It is heartening that Bo Godbold, an Industrial Engineer of the Class of 1965, saw the same thing it seems a lot of us notice. It’s excellent to honor great men and women of science, society, and the like, say, for example Albert Einstein and Rosa Parks. But it takes someone with more power than my humble column and student-related budget to point out that it’s egregious to build statues of other pioneers and not include the ones that walked in our midst. Greene, Long, Williams, and Yancey’s contributions to this school are unparalleled, in their own rights. That it took one of their similarly well-heeled peers to make change happen is a side effect of an administration that, to be honest, might not know who and what to properly honor. We see that with the ludicrous proposal to uproot the Campanile, most prominently. We also see it more subtly when designs that don’t fit campus aesthetic - like things with yellow brick or ill-fitting adornments - get constructed seemingly out of nowhere. It’s not hard to read things like the Landscape Master Plan. Even I, random fourth year mechanical engineer, can find and investigate stuff like that. Honestly, it’s fascinating. But that is yet another example of a reason to be excited by the accession of Dr. Cabrera to the office of president. More than anything, he knows how Georgia Tech ticks. There’s a long arc of visionary presidents leading the Institute to do some pretty tremendous things. The courage, tenacity, and foresight of Edwin Harrison is chief among them.

There’s others that deserve statues on campus, or some more prominent form of recognition. William Alexander’s Memorial Coliseum is now Hank McCamish’s Pavilion, name on Rose Bowl Field be [Duran Duran]ed. The last ruins of John Heisman’s Gymnasium and Pool were excavated for the new football locker room, and his statue hides in a corner of Calloway Plaza. Gary Beringhause’s memorial police station will soon join its former neighbor, Fred Ajax’s placement center - the old Pickrick - as ghosts of buildings that used to line Hemphill Avenue. I say this not to distract from the still-new statues we already have. Georgia Tech is proudly honoring its history, something it is wont to do, and that culture of celebrating the past is something that makes it all the more special. Greene, Long, Williams, and Yancey are a step - and almost certainly the most important one - in honoring Georgia Tech pioneers. They changed Tech in tangible, important ways. Their legacies will now live on in bronze forever.

Why stop here?

A special thanks to Dress Her in White and Gold, Engineering the New South, and the Georgia Tech Archives for the background information and images used in writing this column.

If you have any events or ideas you would like to see investigated, leave a comment below and I will be sure to look into adding it to the schedule, as the column is only planned out through this very column. What is old is new again, or at least liable to be featured in the future. Thank you for reading the latest edition of From the Rumble Seat’s Rearview Mirror.