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Mary Early was born in Atlanta, Georgia, attended Atlanta's Turner High School and went on to graduate from Clark College (later Clark Atlanta University) with a bachelor's degree in Music Education in 1957. She began her postgraduate work at the University of Michigan then enrolled at the University of Georgia in 1961 receiving her master’s degree (MMEd) in music education in 1962. She also earned an Ed.S. degree in music education in 1967 from Georgia.
During Early's career she spent time as a music teacher, a planning and development coordinator, an elementary division curriculum specialist, and a music resource teacher at various schools, including John Hope Elementary, Wesley Avenue Elementary Schools and Coan Middle School. In addition, she worked as an adjunct professor at Morehouse and Spelman colleges and as a music coordinator and supervisor of Atlanta Public Schools. She became the first African-American president of the Georgia Music Educators Association in 1981. As of 2003, Early was the head of the music department at Clark Atlanta University.
Early's awards include the STAR Teacher Award, Coan Middle School, 1972; Benjamin E. Mays Black Music Heritage Award, 1995; University of Georgia Outstanding Alumna Award, 2000; and the Foot Soldier for Equal Justice (University of Georgia) Award. In light of this attention, she said, "It wasn't in our vocabulary to think that people were good or bad because of their skin color, so I was just sort of taken aback that it became a big issue later in my life." On May 10, 2013 at the Spring Commencement Ceremony, Early was honored by the University of Georgia when President Michael F. Adams presented her with an honorary doctorate of laws degree. Early's honorary doctorate is only the 79th honorary doctoral degree conferred in UGA's history.
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