Defining Moments


Illustration by Alex Nabaum

Sometimes we need a jolt to put things into perspective.

For me, it started with a phone call from the principal of my eight-year-old daughter’s school, telling me she had been in an accident on the playground and had broken her arm in several places, with the bone jutting out from the skin. She had been taken to the Emory University Hospital emergency room. I dashed out of the office and drove to the hospital as fast as I could, running into the emergency room and searching frantically for her. I found her in an examination room, waiting for me to arrive. She seemed so small and helpless, and I wanted to make everything right for her then and there.

The ER physician came in and explained that the dislocated, not broken, elbow had cut off circulation in the arm for the better part of an hour. He had relocated it just in time to save the arm. She would need extensive physical therapy under the care of an orthopedic surgeon, and he recommended Hamilton Holmes 67M 76MR. Holmes, he said, was one of the best orthopedic surgeons on staff; he also was one of two African Americans chosen to integrate the University of Georgia, and the first black student accepted at Emory Medical School.

I made an appointment.

Young Hamilton Holmes entered the University of Georgia shortly after a federal district judge ordered Atlanta schools to integrate, six years following the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education. Holmes had attended an all-black high school in Atlanta, was valedictorian of his class and cocaptain of the football team. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chose him to be one of two African Americans to apply for admission to the all-white university, providing legal and financial resources to insure success.

About the same time Holmes entered the University of Georgia, I attended an all-white high school in Atlanta, and, as a sophomore, enjoyed football, sock hops, and cheerleading. The mandate to integrate schools disturbed my parents, who listened to reports of schools closing in lieu of integration in Arkansas and Virginia. They talked to other parents and decided to send me, along with three of my friends, to Emory at Oxford, which had opened its doors to high school juniors and seniors. I felt their decision deprived me of certain rights of passage: the junior-senior prom, my senior year, and graduation. At age 16, I had no choice.

Hamilton Holmes faced a far more daunting challenge as he entered the University of Georgia. My mother escorted me to Emory at Oxford; his lawyer escorted him. I went with three close friends; he went virtually alone. Emory at Oxford greeted me with a tea; he was greeted with jeers, bricks, firecrackers, and a riot severe enough to require tear gas to stop it. I finished Emory at Oxford without interruption; he and his African American classmate found their educations halted for a time until authorities declared it safe enough for them to continue. I worried about social events; he worried about survival.

By the time Holmes entered the Emory School of Medicine as its first black student, our educational experiences began to look more alike. At Emory at Oxford, though I and my friends were “babies” to the college freshmen and sophomores, they and the faculty treated us as if we belonged—little siblings who needed some polishing and mentors, but who were, after all, part of the family. Faculty hired to teach college students found themselves out of their element as courses such as high school geometry were added to the curriculum. They rose to the occasion. To my surprise, I adapted to my new “high school” quickly and came to like it better than the one I left behind, even though I had to find something other than football to entertain me on Friday nights. The snack bar in the basement of the girls’ dorm—where we gathered to dance, talk, play cards, and eat—filled the void.

Holmes had made it known publicly that he wanted to go to Emory medical school. He applied and was admitted to Emory in the fall of 1963. In an interview published in 1964 in an Episcopal diocesan newsletter, Holmes said that at Emory, he felt accepted by his teachers and fellow students as “just another person and another student and especially as a Negro student. Things are better at Emory all the way around. There is less tension. More cordiality, friendship, and companionship.”

We had both found our places at Emory: for him, the opportunity to get the best medical education available, and, for me, a place to continue my education even if public high schools closed, as my overly protective parents feared. Though we were both nontraditional Emory students at that point in time, we found a welcoming place, friendships, and a sense of belonging in our respective Emory domains. Despite my initial resistance to being shipped off to boarding school as a high school junior, I came to realize what an advantage I had been given. My Emory at Oxford classmates became lifetime friends, transcending fraternities, sororities, and other college organizations. With no intention of my own, I found myself adopted into a close-knit family that would care about me for years after graduation.

I knew my daughter’s new physician was exceptional as we met for the first time in his office at The Emory Clinic. He patiently explained to her and to me that failure to follow his instructions would result in some sort of permanent atrophy in her elbow. The therapy was excruciating; she screamed and cried as we worked the hand, stretched the elbow with pulleys and followed the prescribed regimen. At each visit he acted as a stern, but supportive, cheerleader, continuing to remind us of the stakes, and measuring the extension of her arm. Finally, he declared her healed.

I held out my hand to say goodbye and to shake his. I thought of all the things I wanted to say to this legend who had coached my child back to health, but didn’t know how. We had both lived through a time of social turbulence. He had endured threats, abuse, and ridicule to get the education he wanted. I had been snatched out of my comfortable high school career and thrown into a college environment two years early. I thought of the gift I never would have otherwise received. I hoped he had found his treasure in the turmoil as well.

I smiled and said, “Thank you,” hoping he knew what I meant.

Zoe Hicks 63Ox 65C 76L 83LLM is an attorney as well as chair of the Board of Counselors of Oxford College and cochair of the Science Center Building Committee. She is the 2011 recipient of the Emory Alumna Unsung Heroine Award.

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