It was the summer of 1950, and Mary Jean Price, the salutatorian of Lincoln High School in Springfield, Mo., hoped to enroll at a hometown college and become a teacher.
But this was four years before Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision that declared denying black children equal educational opportunities was unconstitutional.
At 18, Price was, school records show, the first black student ever to apply to Southwest Missouri State College (now Missouri State University) in Springfield, was denied admission.
“I did the best I could in high school to get to college, but as soon as I got to the front door, they didn’t let me inside,” she says.
Price, now Mary Price Walls, never went to college. The denial dashed her dream of becoming a school teacher.
Now — 60 years later — she will receive an honorary degree from the school July 30 at the university’s summer commencement.
The mother of eight, three of whom have passed away, has 12 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren. She says she isn’t sure how she feels about the recognition, but plans to accept it for them.
“What am I going to do with it? I’m 78 years old,” says Walls, who retired last year as a janitor from a local science center. “To me, it would be an inspiration to my children,” she says. “They have been raised into a better world.”
‘The pain was so deep’
Walls says she decided not to pursue her rejection from the school in court because of her father’s poor health. By 1954, she was married and had children to look after.
So she buried the story.
“I didn’t even discuss with my children,” she says, “because the pain was so deep.”
For the next six decades, her story was largely forgotten. Then this year, her son, Terry Walls, 54, grew curious about whether his mother was indeed the first black applicant to the local college, as his aunt had suggested.
He began searching for the answer. In the university archives, he unearthed old correspondence among college presidents about his mother. The letters showed his aunt had been right.
When word spread of Terry Walls’ findings, he says a faculty member suggested his mother receive an honorary degree.
“It just snowballed from there,” he says.
Once the school decided it was time to acknowledge its first black applicant, school leaders made plans to present Walls with an honorary degree at the commencement, says Earle Doman, vice president of student affairs and dean of students.
“I certainly don’t know why (she was denied), but that was wrong,” Doman says. “Looking back 60 years, it’s hard for many of us to understand the thinking that led to Ms. Walls being denied admission. But that was a very different period in our nation’s history.”
‘Obviously a test case’
In the summer of 1950, Missouri, like the rest of the country, was steeped in racial controversies.
The U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of Sweatt v. Painter, had just ruled in favor of a black student who sought admission to the University of Texas Law School.
The University of Missouri board of curators decided to admit black students who wanted to study courses not available at Lincoln University, the state’s black college in Jefferson City. The decision touched off anxious discussions among the presidents of the state’s teachers colleges, including Southwest Missouri State College.
“What are you going to do if a negro student presents himself for registration in the fall quarter?” wrote J. W. Jones, then president of Northwest Missouri State College (now University) in Maryville, Mo., to other state college presidents.
The test came when Walls applied to Southwest Missouri State.
In her application letter, Walls said her family could not afford to send her 120 miles away to Jefferson City to attend Lincoln. As a tactic to augment her chances of admission, Walls applied to study library science.
“As you know, Lincoln University has no courses in Library Science. It is obviously a test case,” wrote Roy Ellis, then president of Southwest Missouri State, to fellow college presidents.
On Nov. 13, 1950, Ellis told them: “From our standpoint, it is an uncomfortable situation for this College to be made the guinea pig in this matter.”
One week later, the college’s board of regents turned down Walls’ application, “because we are advised that comparable courses in Library Science, as offered by this institution, are also offered by Lincoln University,” according to official meeting minutes.
An article in the next day’s newspapers reported that Ellis told the board Lincoln was setting up a library science course.
Now, 60 years later, Terry Walls is glad he and others are getting to know his mother’s story.
“It allowed me to see my mother in a whole different perspective,” he says. “It’s my history. It’s part of our history.”