In My Place, by Charlayne Hunter-Gault.
In My Place, by Charlayne Hunter-Gault. Vintage (1993).
GLOBAL WOMEN OF COLOR
An informative autobiography by a African American woman about growing up in the Jim Crow South and taking a leading role in the desegregation of the University of Georgia.
Born in 1942, Charlayne Hunter grew up in a small town in Georgia, raised primarily by her mother and grandmother. She was very close to both of them and wanted to grow up to have her mother’s charm and strength. Her mother’s family had long lived in the area and went to its segregated grade school ( pictured on the cover). Her ancestors included some whites and Native Americans, and she and her mother were light-skinned but chose to affirm their African American identity. Her father was a black chaplain and one of the first black officers when the army desegregated after World War II. She was proud of his role in the torturous process of change the military atmosphere to include blacks. He spent most of her childhood, however, stationed in places like Africa and Korea. When she in the seventh grade, his family joined him for a year in Alaska where Hunter-Galt gained experience in living and going to school in an almost exclusively white community. After their return, her parents separated. With her grandmother, mother, and siblings, Hunter-Gault moved to Atlanta. She attended one of the best “colored” high schools in the state where she was a popular leader.
When she graduated in 1958, Hunter-Gault was already determined to become a journalist. She and Hamilton Holmes applied to attend the University of Georgia, which had been segregated its entire 186-year-long history. While they waited for the court to decide if they could attend UGA, she attended Wayne State University in Detroit and her friends organized the first of the civil rights protests in Atlanta. Finally in January 1961, she and Holmes received permission to attend, but their entry to campus led to racist riots. The two were suspended “for their own safety,” but eventually allowed to return. Their story was national news and an early part of the larger African American Civil Rights Movement that would follow. Both graduated in 1963. Her book ends with their graduation and with a speech she made at the University twenty-five years later honoring what they did.
Hunter-Gault did not want to be known only for being a person who forced integration at the University of Georgia. She went on to a successful career as a journalist. She was a regular part of McNeil-Lehrer news program on public television and later became their African correspondent. She still appears as an expert on Africa.
In My Place is interesting and very accessable. Predictably, it is somewhat more journalistic in style than literary or psychologically probing. Hunter-Gault emphasizes the networks of support that she knew all her life from her African American family, church, and friends, and later from some whites. The later part of the book is full of the names of people who would go to become civil rights leaders.
Like other memoirs of the Jim Crow era and the Civil Rights Movement, Hunter-Gault provides us with a look back and helps us to remember that our nation has become a fairer and more just place in the last 50 years. Young people who did not live that history need to understand what has changed. Those of us who are part of Hunter-Gault’s generation need to remember as well. It we don’t, we will all give in to despair over how racism has persisted in our society.
I recommend this book gladly because we all need to remember this nation denied the rights of many of its citizens and the difficult fight that was waged to gain them.