Ms. Early earned her undergraduate degree in Music Education from Clark College, later Clark Atlanta University, in 1957. After teaching music, band, and choir in the Atlanta public schools, she went to the University of Michigan to pursue a Master's degree in Music Education. Three days after seeing newsreel of the riot outside Charlayne Hunter's dormitory in January, 1961, she decided to apply to UGA to finish her degree.
The process to enter UGA took extra effort by Ms. Early, who overcame barriers not typically encountered by most students. To certify her residence, the school sent her a form that required not just the signature of a Superior Court Justice, but also two University alumni. Though the school is usually responsible for scheduling entrance interviews, no one at the University would call her, so she had to set up interview times herself. At the interview, she was asked a variety of inappropriate questions, including if she had ever been a prostitute. Years later, she learned that her entire family had been investigated for criminal or deviant behavior in hope of finding an excuse to deny her admission to UGA, and that Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes had similar investigative files.
Ms. Early insisted on transferring to UGA despite her treatment during the application process and the threat that she could lose all her UM credits, and was accepted for Summer Quarter, 1961, one month before classes began. Her Michigan credits were accepted by the University. When she arrived on campus, both Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter had gone home for the summer term, so she was the only African-American student on campus. She was assigned to live in Ms. Hunter's room in a freshman dormitory, and was thus isolated both by her race and her age difference from those around her. She joined the chorus, becoming the first African-American student involved in extracurricular activities at UGA, but always had to have her own music because none of the other chorus members would share a sheet with her, as was customary. Her family was not permitted to come to campus to see choral concerts because, her dean told her, UGA was only integrated for students.
During her time at UGA, student harrassment took the form of having lemons thrown at her back by the football team in the dining hall, name calling, vandalism to her car, and students linking arms in front of the entry to the library to keep her from entering the building. Staff harrassment included being asked, daily, to show her UGA ID to prove she was a University student before being served in places like the dining hall or campus snack bar. Even years later, Ms. Early told an interviewer, "It's still hard for me to understand how people could be so cruel to another human being."
In her last terms at UGA, Ms. Early lived with Ms. Hunter in the freshman dormitory, in a room with a kitchenette and private bathroom that was intended for a counselor . Though she often ate alone in the dining hall, she had a general sense that many of the other students did not dislike her so much as were concerned about what being seen with her could do to their social standing. Several of the freshmen in her dormitory had said the sororities they were rushing had warned them about socializing with Ms. Hunter and her.
After her graduation in 1962, Ms. Early received a letter of congratulations from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. telling her, "You have done a superb job, and brought the State of Georgia closer to the American dream." Over the years, she has taught music and planned curricula for the Atlanta Public School System, advised the Macmillan textbook company, and worked with the National Endowment of the Arts. In 1980, she became the first African-American president of the Georgia Music Educators Association. After she retired from the Atlanta Public Schools in 1994, she taught music courses at Spelman and Morehouse Colleges, and later spent several years as the Chair of the Music Department at her alma mater, Clark Atlanta University. She retired in 2005.
Ms. Early returned to UGA for a Specialist degree in Music Education in 1967, but was not involved with the University as an alumna until after she was interviewed in 1997 for Dr. Maurice C. Daniels' 2001 documentary and biography of Horace T. Ward and the desegregation of UGA. In 2000, the Georgia Graduate and Professional Scholars asked Ms. Early to give a speech about her time at UGA, and the following year established the Mary Frances Early Annual Lecture Series, which brings distinguished scholars to the University to "speak on awareness and issues affecting African-Americans in current society." She also has served on the Graduate Education Advancement Board. In 2004, Georgia Power established an endowment to fund the Mary Frances Early Teacher Education Professorship in the College of Education at UGA.
Ms. Early was the commencement speaker for the graduate school's 2007 spring exercises, where she told the graduates that "Education also embraces the understanding and acceptance of, and respect for, all people," and how through "time and the tremendous efforts by many people here ... I now feel a part of UGA, and am happy to count myself among the many thousand active alumni."
- We Shall Not Be Moved: The Desegregation of the University of Georgia by Robert Pratt in the Heritage and general collections.
- Horace T. Ward: Desegregation of the University of Georgia, Civil Rights Advocacy, and Jurisprudence by Maurice C. Daniels in the biography collection.
- The Struggle for Equal Education by Clarence Lusane in the general collection.
- An Education in Georgia: Charlayne Hunter, Hamilton Holmes, and the Integration of the University of Georgia by Calvin Trillin in the Heritage and general collections.
- The University of Georgia: A Bicentennial History, 1785-1985 by Thomas G. Dyer in the Heritage and general collections.
- 2007 video interview with Mary Frances Early on the Goin' Back: Remembering UGA oral history project website.
- Mary Frances Early page on the Unsung Foot Soldiers Project website.
- 2005 feature about Mary Frances Early in UGA's Graduate School Magazine.