Georgia Cheatham with her daughter Kimberley Cheatham-Fuller

In 1963, Georgia Cheatham opened a door. Forty years later, her daughter walked through it. Georgia Cheatham was Georgia Hoodye in 1963, and she was one of a group of four young women who became the first A frican-Americans to enroll at Southwest Texas. On Aug. 9, Kimberley Cheatham-Fuller, Cheatham’s daughter, walked across the stage at Strahan Coliseum and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.

Before 1963, the university’s charter required students to be “white Americans.” But a lawsuit filed by Dana Jean Smith overturned that stipulation, and Smith, Hoodye, Gloria Odoms and M abeleen Washington enrolled for the 1963 spring semester. A day later, Helen Jackson also enrolled and became the university’s fifth African-American student.

Cheatham says now that on that registration day 40 years ago she probably did not realize the full historical significance of the moment. Almost as certainly, she had no idea that on that day she was helping her daughter through college – a daughter whose birth was still more than a decade away.

“ Being young at the time, maybe we didn’t really take it all in,” said Cheatham. “I think we did realize it was a moment in history, but probably not to the depth that it was.”

The university had taken pre-cautions that day. The administration wanted the registration to go smoothly and quietly.

“ I don ’t think we felt a lot of fear, maybe some apprehension because we didn’t know what to expect. And DPS troopers were there and Texas Rangers and the San Marcos Police Department. It was kind of scary thinking that something might happen,” said Cheatham. But nothing did.

The registration was as orderly as school officials hoped, and Cheatham remembers the only negative part of the day was a less than warm welcome by President John Garland Flowers. Others, though, still stand out in her memory more favorably, most notably longtime Dean of Students Martin Juel.

“ Dr. Juel was a jewel,” she said. “We were very well welcomed by him and he was always helpful.”

We got into studying
about racial
discriminatio n and
then I felt a part of it,
a part of history.
I realized the
importance of what
my mother did.

Cheatham says her college years were largely positive and that most of the students and faculty treated her and her four fellow pioneers well. But some forms of discrimination persisted. The five coeds were not allowed to eat in the cafeteria, nor were they permitted to live in university residence halls. And certain recreational opportunities were deemed off limits.

Still, there is not a trace of bi tterness in her voice when she discusses the school today.

“ I remember the statue of the stallions. It has always stayed in my mind. And I loved being able to lookup the hill and see Old Main. And I am very proud of all the university’s academic accomplishments. It’s a wonderful school and a beautiful place to be. I like it. I really do. I’d recommen it to anyone.” Including her daughter.

Cheatham-Fuller plans to enroll in the university’s graduate program in criminal justice now that she’s finished with her bachelor’s, but she also has an eye toward law school and hopes to become a criminal defense attorney someday.

“ She’ll make a good one. She loves to argue,” says Cheatham, and she and her daughter erupt in laughter. Smiling and laughter seem to come easily whe n these two are together. There is mother-daughter love present, certainly, but also a mutual respect not always so apparent between generations.

“ My mother has been very inspirational and very loving,” said Cheatham-Fuller. “She has always encouraged me to do whatever I think is possible.”

And Cheatham has similar praise for her daughter. “I’m very proud of her. She’s got a drive to succeed, a drive to continue. She’s been pursuing this goal off and on for eight years now. She’s been a student, a wife, a mother (to 4-year-old Lauryn) and a caretaker for my 98-year-old mother,” said Cheatham.

Cheatham-Fuller is also a strong advocate of her alma mater. She says she believes racial tensions will always exist, but that they are nowhere nearly as prevalent as they were in her mother’s era. “I’ll remember all my professors because I have a good relationship with all of them. They have all been very helpful, and they all know me by name,” she said.

Cheatham-Fuller says that she didn’t always fully understand her mother’s important link to the university’s history and the significance of her enrollment in 1963.

“ At first I really didn’t understand the importance of it. Then in one of my criminal justice classes, we got into studying about racial discrimination and then I felt a part of it, a part of history, I guess. I realized the impor tance of what my mother did,” she said.

“ I’m glad we did what we did,” said Cheatham. “I’m glad for Kimberley’s sake and for all the others who followed.”

To this day, the five former coeds remain dear friends. In fact, Helen Jackson Franks lives on the same street as Cheatham.

“ We did go through a lot together, and we kind of depended on each other,” said Cheatham. “Going through what we went through was strengthening, and I wouldn’t change anything about it. Things that are worth going through aren’t always pleasant. But they can build character and strength.”

Georgia Cheatham with her daughter Kimberley Cheatham-Fuller

Unlike her daughter, Cheatham never walked the stage at graduation. She went to college “off and on until 1965, and then got married.”

In 1966 she went to work at the Gary Job Corps Center in San Marcos, and she’s been there ever s ince. She is a transition coordinator for the Job Corps. That means she helps students make the transition to the working world after they complete their course of study. She helps young students make the transition to their futures.

Georgia Cheatham, it seems, is still opening doors.