Originally created 04/09/04

First black grad tells experience

ATHENS, Ga. - Chester Davenport entered University of Georgia's law school in 1963, the first black student to attend. Three years later, he graduated. He was still the only black student.

Mr. Davenport, an Athens native, delivered the university's 97th Sibley Lecture on Wednesday afternoon, blending personal accounts of his law school years with recollections of the civil rights movement's impact on the South.

The lecture commemorated the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, a May 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that declared separate schools for black students inherently unequal and in violation of the 14th Amendment.

Gazing out on the crowd packed inside UGA's Chapel, Mr. Davenport said the most visible difference at the law school since he graduated is the number of black and female students. Many of the faces peering back at the speaker were black.

Of the law school's 700 students, 40 are black. Of the university's nearly 34,000 undergraduates, about 86.5 percent are white.

When he was in fourth grade, Mr. Davenport said, teachers told him UGA did not want black people on campus unless they were cooks or waiters.

At the time, he had heard of Horace Ward, the first black person to seek admission to UGA's School of Law.

"I told my parents then that if they didn't let (Mr. Ward) in by the time I was old enough to go to law school, I'd be the first," Mr. Davenport said.

In September 1963, Mr. Davenport prepared for law school amid what he dubbed an era of turmoil and resistance. A month earlier, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had made his famous march on Washington, D.C. Two weeks later, several young girls were killed in a bombing at a black Baptist church in Alabama.

At Mr. Davenport's first class, nobody sat within 10 seats of him. The next class, the professor had a pre-made seating chart.

"I knew at that moment the law school and the administration had taken a stance on desegregation," he said.

Mr. Davenport said that in his second year, he expected to see at least one other black student.

He didn't.

His third year was the same. He again looked forward to meeting incoming black students.

"What I found out was: it was me, like it or not," he said.

Mr. Davenport graduated, and a few days later, every man in his class became draft-eligible.

War was escalating in Vietnam and, as a law student, Mr. Davenport had been exempt from military service.

The graduates were bused to Atlanta, where Army officials evaluated them as potential recruits.

"And believe it or not," Mr. Davenport said, "not one of us was deemed physically fit to go to Vietnam."


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