Charlayne Hunter-Gault Remembers a Great Teacher

When she faced a wall of hostility as the first black female student at the University of Georgia, a white teacher reached out to her.

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When the young Charlayne Hunter arrived at the University of Georgia in 1960, there were riots to protest the desegregation of the university. But she was offered an oasis by a member of the English department, who defied convention and custom to welcome her into her home. 

When I got the sad news that Francis Wallis had passed on, even though she hadn't taught for years, my first thoughts were about how she had been such a gifted teacher, in and out of the classroom, such a gift to humanity and a role model for all time. And while she didn't want an obituary, I didn't want her homegoing to be "of little note," rather that her life's example might be "long remembered," if I can borrow from Abraham Lincoln (and cite him as Miss Wallis would have insisted).

For almost as quick as I thought about her extraordinary classroom teaching, my mind flashed back to the night I spent my first few hours on campus as the University of Georgia's first black woman student. Hundreds of white students and outside agitators rioted outside my dormitory window in Center Myers Hall, shouting ugly racial epithets as they demanded I "go home," Francis Wallis watched from her apartment on a high floor in a building across the street. I was to learn not long after that she was appalled by the behavior of those whose skin color was the same as hers and she made up her mind to do something about it.

Not long after the rioting, if not the hostility, ended, Miss Wallis invited me over to her apartment for tea in what was to become an ongoing ritual that would last throughout my time as a student. Sometimes we were joined by another of her colleagues from the English department, Dorothy McCullough. And while I never took a formal class from either of them, I delighted in their loving disdain for many of their less-than-serious English students and I could see their passion for teaching in the discussions we had in that apartment -- not about racism and intolerance, but about topics that relieved me ever so briefly from that burden, ranging from the works of J.D. Salinger to Yevgeny Yevtushenko to William Shakespeare, the poems of Robert Frost, including the one he wrote for JFK's historic inaugural -- "Ours was the land before we were the land's" -- to the inspiring language in John F. Kennedy's inaugural -- "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country -- and Catholicism, which we both embraced but about which I sometimes had doubts -- were far more enriching than any class I could have taken there. And if I recall, the tea was pretty good, too, as well as the cookies.

Read the entire article in the Athens Banner-Herald.