Charlayne Hunter-Gault

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Before she could learn journalism, she had to integrate the University of Georgia

Charlayne Hunter Gault had never known any black reporters, especially any working for a mainstream newspaper. Yet it never occurred to her growing up in a segregated Georgia town that she couldn't rise to that position. Perhaps it was her confidence -- the same confidence that helped her endure the angry taunts and insults from white students who opposed her integrating the University of Georgia -- that buoyed her dreams and the possibilities of crossing territory that had yet been charted by only a few African Americans.

She said it was because she viewed herself as a queen, capable and deserving of the best, that she never felt daunted by the notion of challenging convention.

As a child, she watched her grandmother -- who subscribed to three daily papers -- read each one carefully: the black paper Atlanta Daily World and the mainstream papers Atlanta Constitution and Atlanta Journal.

Her grandmother, who had taught herself to read, went through each publication meticulously. As her grandmother read them, Hunter Gault sat beside her reading the comic strips. Hunter Gault's favorite character was Brenda Starr, a take-charge journalist who stopped at nothing to get a story. As she followed the character's adventures each day, Hunter Gault knew that was what she would be, it didn't matter that Brenda Starr was a white red-head and Charlayne was a colored girl from Due West, SC. Unlike some parents who told their children to be realistic about their future, Hunter Gault's mother never discouraged her from pursuing her dream.

"My mother knew instinctively that dreams propel ambition," she says.

Hunter Gault worked on her school paper in ninth grade and through her high school years. She decided that to get the training she needed to become a journalist she'd have to go to the best school. University of Georgia had an excellent journalism program, but in 1959 it was a school designated for whites. She applied that year and fought a legal battle along with her classmate Hamilton Holmes, who wanted to become a physician. The fight took three years, but by 1961 they had won the right to enroll.

During the summer she interned at the Louisville Courier-Journal. Interns were expected to do gopher work, but Hunter Gault had other ideas. She told them she was there to write. During her tenure she improved her craft and learned a few lessons about professionalism. She got into a confrontation with an editor whom she accused of being racist when he cut one of her prized pieces, only to learn later that the piece just wasn't that good.

When she graduated from the University of Georgia, she started working for the New Yorker under the editorship of William Shawn. She and a few other young interns, spent the mornings doing clerical work and the afternoons working on their own pieces. One of the first pieces she submitted for publication was a personal memoir about her summers in Harlem called "115th between Lenox and 5th." Her friend Calvin Trillin read the piece and told her it was too positive. Harlem had too many problems to romanticize the area, he told her. When Shawn accepted the piece, Hunter Gault learned to trust her instincts and write from her black perspective.