Making Opportunity from Adversity
The College of Veterinary Medicine celebrates first black graduates
In January 2021, the University of Georgia celebrated 60 years of desegregation. Two students took the first step to break down barriers and pave the way for those who followed. In 1969, Drs. Hall and McKelvin became the first black students at the College of Veterinary Medicine, opening doors for generations of students who have followed in their footsteps. This month and every month, we celebrate those who blaze new trails and fight for diversity and inclusion here and around the world.
The College of Veterinary Medicine accepted its first black students in 1969. Esco Hall, Jr. and Henry McKelvin were already acquainted, as they had completed their undergraduate degrees together at what is now Fort Valley University. Hailing from small towns in South Georgia (Alamo and Sylvester, respectively), the men were well aware of the sentiments of the era regarding race, but both maintained a solemn dignity regarding prejudice. On the topic, Dr. McKelvin explained, “I never had a problem with people, and I never understood the problems with race. I’m easy to get along with myself, and if you’re not, I just won’t deal with you.” Both men agreed that they saw improvements during their time at UGA. In a past interview, Dr. Hall put it simply: “there was still evidence of segregation even though UGA was integrated, but you really didn’t have time to notice because the curriculum was so intense.”
This is not to say that times were easy on campus as Athens and Clarke County still coped with the aftershocks of integration. The city, like many in the South, was still geographically segregated with defined borders around historically black and white neighborhoods, and many establishments in the area forbade black patrons. Institutionally, the university did its best to be inclusive and open for all, but it would take time to adjust and grow into the changing times.
But the social climate did not hinder the burgeoning veterinarians. Both graduates immediately jumped into private practice in 1973. Dr. Hall traveled to Baxley, Georgia, and purchased the Appling Animal Hospital only one week after graduation, which he operated for 46 years until his death in November 2019. Dr. McKelvin traveled to Richmond, Virginia, before finding his home in Hampton, Virginia, at Mercury Animal Hospital just three years later. He has since owned and operated the practice alongside his daughter, Dr. Nicole McKelvin, a graduate of the NC State College of Veterinary Medicine.
We thank Dr. Hall’s daughter (and family historian) Cassandra Carter for her assistance with this story. Dr. McKelvin still resides in Hampton, Virginia with his family. He has no current plans to retire but would like to shift his focus to surgery and has plans to see the rest of the United States. Both men, in their own words, imparted the following advice for current veterinary students, “Work hard and do what you came here to do.” In the words of Dr. McKelvin: “Seek out those people you feel comfortable with and enjoy the experience—but remember you are here for a purpose.”