The first time Harold Black ever spoke to a white person, it was an admissions officer at UGA in 1962.
For Black, an Atlanta native and high school senior inspired by the Civil Rights Movement in general and UGA’s first two black students (Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter-Gault) in particular, the talk did not go well.
Black and his father left the meeting believing that he wouldn’t be in Athens for the start of his college career. So when a big envelope sporting a red and black sash and the word “CONGRATULATIONS” across it arrived in the mail, it made for a surprise. It also made history.
Now an emeritus professor of finance at the University of Tennessee, Black (BBA ’65), was the first African-American student admitted to the Terry College of Business, then called the College of Business Administration.
“I knew the university didn’t want me, but guess what. Who cares?” Black told a packed house in Sanford Hall. “I was having a great time, socially and as a student.”
Although his attitude remained upbeat (“Hamilton Holmes said that I saw the experience as an adventure, that I thought I was a regular student. And he was right!” Black said.), he found that Southern hospitality didn’t apply to everyone.
Students broke the windows on his Reed Hall dorm room nearly every night. They lit his room on fire three times. They drained the pool when he tried to go swimming.
But he also made friends, both white and black.
“There was one person here, Dean Tate (Dean of Men at UGA), whose son ended up being in our friend group, who said, ‘If you have any trouble at all on this campus, you call me and I’ll take care of it,’” Black said. “We weren’t sure if Dean Tate was in our corner because he wanted us here or because he loved the university and didn’t want to see its reputation besmirched.”
Black chose to come to UGA for the challenge. He could’ve gone to a historically black college, but he wanted to be a part of the civil rights movement.
“Why did they take me? Why did that person who was so racist decide to take me? Here’s the reason: The university had said in its argument before the courts that the reason they cannot take black students is because they cannot guarantee our safety. So it turned out that somebody’s plan was to put me in Reed Hall, let some harm become me, and the say, ‘See? We can’t admit them.’”
But Black had other ideas. He felt responsible for his life. He used his inquisitive nature to learn everything he could – and he learned it well. After his undergraduate work here, he earned a master’s degree and a PhD from Ohio State, and, in 1986, he received the Terry Distinguished Alumni Award.
“I have had the most successful career and the best life I could ever imagine. I would not trade my vita for anybody else’s in finance. And I wouldn’t change my life,” he said. “People have asked me, ‘How did you overcome racism?’ My answer is very simple. I guess I was fortunate to be born into a family that did not believe in victims and did not believe in excuses.
“Back in those days, they sent your grades home to your parents. So when my grades from University of Georgia were sent home, they went to my dad. And I knew that when he opened that envelope, he’d better see As. I knew I couldn’t say, ‘Dad, I couldn’t study because they were breaking my windows out every night.’ He’d say, ‘Well you better find a place where you can study.’ You know he never said, in all those four years, one sympathetic thing about what was going on. He just said, ‘Make it right.’ And so I did.”