A Nineteenth-Century Black Student at the University of Georgia

In 1963 Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter became the first African Americans to earn bachelor’s degrees at the University of Georgia. But now there is an effort to award a posthumous bachelor’s degree to Samuel F. Harris, the grandson of a slave. A musical prodigy, in the late 1800s Harris played organ at many churches in the Athens area. He befriended several faculty members at the University of Georgia. In order that he could sit in on classes at the university, the faculty arranged to have Harris hired to operate a projector during lectures.

Harris excelled and began to tutor white students who were enrolled in the classes that he sat in on. Over the years Harris audited enough classes to have earned him a degree.

A librarian at the university recently found a document that included the minutes of a 1935 meeting of the Athens Board of Education. It commended Harris for the work he had done in public education. The document included a passage that said Harris had taken “private teaching on the part of the members of the faculty of the University of Georgia” and was given a degree by Morris Brown College “in recognition of the college work he had done.”

A group of students is now petitioning the university to award Harris the degree they believe he rightfully deserves.