From the Springfield News-Leader, June 28, 2010:
First Black Applicant Gets Degree from MSU: Son’s Curiosity Uncovers Walls’ Place in MSU History and Prompts Honorary Degree
by Didi Tang
On July 30, Mary Price Walls, 78, will get an honorary degree from Missouri State University, 60 years after her hometown college refused to allow her on its campus.
In 1950, Walls (then Mary Jean Price) the salutatorian of her class at Lincoln High, sought admission to the white-only college.
“My plan was to go to college,” said Walls. “I worked really, really hard. And, of course, I loved school.”
That was four years before the landmark decision of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, and the college — not ready to accept a black student — denied her request.
“I honestly thought people were crazy,” Walls said.
The denial was so painful that Walls completely buried it, not even discussing it with her own children.
It only came to light after her son, Terry Walls — curious to know if his mother was indeed the first black student to apply at the Springfield college, as his aunt had said — dug out correspondence between then President Roy Ellis and other college presidents in 1950.
“She was 18 years old. She loved to learn, but she was denied the opportunity to learn. It’s horrifying,” said Terry Walls, 54, who now studies criminology at Missouri State.
TV station KSPR did a story on Walls’ research. So did campus newspaper The Standard. An article ran in Unite. of Southwest Missouri’s newspaper, and the word spread.
“One of the faculty members (English instructor Carolyn Hembree) had suggested my mom be given an honorary degree,” Terry Walls said. “It just snowballed from there “This story touched a lot of people’s lives, and, as a result of that, Mike Nietzel decided it was time to acknowledge it.”
MSU officials plan to award Walls an honorary degree at the summer commencement.
Walls called the degree a nice gesture.
“It’ll be an inspiration for my children,” said Walls, who went on to become a mother of eight but never the schoolteacher she had aspired to be. “They have been raised into a better world.”
Walls was born in 1932 in Nogo, a town on U.S. Route 66 that has since become part of Strafford.
She began school around age 3 to 4 and moved to Springfield when the black school in Nogo was closed, Walls said.
She recalled the black students used hand-me-down books from white schools, but she didn’t feel she was different from anyone else.
“Prejudice was not taught in my school, and it was not taught in my home,” she said. “We have white friends and we have white neighbors.”
In May 1950, Walls graduated from Lincoln High, then a black school, as the salutatorian of her class, and delivered a speech titled, “My Privileges and Duties as an American” at the graduation ceremony.
That summer, she applied to Southwest Missouri State College, hoping to become a teacher.
“That was my only desire,” Walls said.
She had a scholarship to attend Lincoln University in Jefferson City, a black college, but her parents could not afford to send her.
Hoping to stay closer to home, Walls applied to the local college.
“My parents are not well-to-do and the opportunity to pursue supervised study here would mean much by enabling me to continue the advantage of family environment and avoiding the incurring of additional financial expenses, which we cannot afford,” Walls wrote in an Oct. 2, 1950, letter to Guy H. Thompson, the school’s administrative registrar.
The original letter is nowhere to be found at the university, but a transcription of that letter was attached to a letter by Ellis and is kept in the university archives.
This Oct. 2 letter was at least the second Walls sent to the university, but her original application letter also cannot be found. She had gotten no response and was getting frustrated.
A couple she worked for, Jerry and Tac Caplan of Springfield, got Walls a lawyer. Walls was helping them with house chores and looking after their baby daughter, Paula.
“She was smart, feeling, compassionate,” said Tac Caplan. “She had character. She was industrious and honest.”
Walls said Jerry Caplan suggested she apply to study library science at the local college, because Lincoln University was not offering library science courses then, to augment her case to attend the local college.
“We found a loophole,” Walls said. “You know, Jerry was smart.”
But the tactic would be of little help.
In July 1950, the University of Missouri board of curators decided to admit black students desiring to study courses not available at Lincoln University, after a decision by Circuit Judge Sam C. Blair of Jefferson City.
Blair’s decision came after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a black student who sought admission to the University of Texas Law School, arguing a law school hastily established for black students would not provide an equal education.
The events apparently were of great concern to the presidents of the state’s teachers colleges, including Southwest Missouri State College.
“What are we going to do about this matter?” wrote J. W. Jones, then president of Northwest Missouri State College in Maryville, on July 5, 1950. “… What are you going to do if a negro student presents himself for registration in the fall quarter?”
W.W. Parker, then president of Southeast Missouri State College in Cape Girardeau, wrote he was prepared to publicly state its board of regents “has not considered the matter of admitting Negroes.”
“In so far as undergraduate liberal arts education and training to teachers are concerned, Lincoln University at Jefferson City provides facilities equal in scope and richness to facilities provided by the State Teachers Colleges of Missouri,” Parker wrote on July 6, 1950.
In a July 14, 1950, letter, Parker commented that the University of Missouri took the only action it could because “Lincoln does not offer certain courses such as engineering.”
Walter H. Ryle, then president of Northeast Missouri State Teachers College in Kirksville, wrote on July 24, 1950, that he believed integration would happen.
“The day is not far distant when there shall be no color line on the campus of any of our colleges, should I have said, on the campuses of any of the colleges and universities of the United States?
“… I am convinced of one thing, we should establish a common policy, that is, what are we going to do if a Negro asks admission to one of our colleges this fall? We should be prepared to give the same answer regardless what institution he attempts to enter,” Ryle wrote.
Back in Springfield, Walls had applied for admission, and the local college’s board of regents had to answer.
The earliest mention of Walls appeared in the board’s meeting minutes from Oct. 3, 1950, when they decided Frank C. Mann, the college attorney, should prepare an opinion.
In the official minutes, Walls was described as “a colored lady.”
On Oct. 11, 1950, Ellis shared Walls’ Oct. 2 letter with his fellow presidents.
“As you know, Lincoln University has no courses in Library Science. It is obviously a test case. This we had anticipated!” Ellis wrote. “I should appreciate any words of wisdom you may have on the subject.
On Oct. 14, 1950, Jones of Maryville wrote it was likely each of the teachers colleges had a course that Lincoln did not offer.
Impressed with Walls’ writing, Jones suggested the Springfield college seriously consider her case.
“… I should like to suggest to President Ellis that if the students in his freshman class who have graduated from the high schools of Southwest Missouri can write as good a letter as Miss Price did he has an outstanding freshman class, but if they are like a good many freshmen that I have known they cannot write as well organized a letter and as convincing a letter as Miss Price has written,” Jones wrote.
“Therefore, it might be to the quality advantage to seriously consider her application,” he wrote.
On Nov. 8, 1950, the board of regents of the Springfield school met again.
Official minutes stated the matter was discussed with Mann and would be continued at a special meeting on Nov. 20.
In a Nov. 13, 1950, letter, Ellis provided some insight into the thoughts of the college leaders.
“The drift of opinion in the Board at its recent meeting, was that the College should ask a local Circuit Court for a declaratory judgment …,” he wrote. “There was some discussion as to carrying the matter on to the Supreme Court in case the local Court decided the girl could be admitted.
“… From our standpoint, it is an uncomfortable situation for this College to be made the guinea pig in this matter,” Ellis wrote. “… I have felt all along that this College was probably the chosen spot because of the number of Negroes living in Springfield, and also because of some of their leadership here.
“We do not wish to take action which may determine the policy for the other colleges, unless obligated to do so,” Ellis wrote.
In that letter, Ellis also said Mann, the college attorney, “is of the opinion that the requirements for library training (at Lincoln University), … constitute a curriculum in a legal sense.”
On Nov. 20, 1950, the 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 minutes.
In a news article published in Missouri papers the following day, Ellis told the board the local college had one library science course but “not every term,” and that Lincoln was setting up a library science course.
Serving on the board of regents were:
• Roger H. Taylor of Springfield;
• Ben F. Weir of Nevada;
• R.W. Anderson of Neosho;
• T.H. Douglas of Bolivar;
• Ralph E. Burley of Lebanon; and
• Seth V. Conrad of Marshfield.
Douglas made the motion to deny Walls admission, and Anderson seconded it.
Today, Missouri State says the Nov. 20 decision was based on a Greene County Circuit Court’s decision, as the college then sought a declaratory judgment from the local court on Walls’ petition.
The court denied her petition, according to “Daring to Excel, The First 100 Years of Southwest Missouri State University.”
Greene County Archives and Records Center, however, has found no such decision, and the Nov. 20 minutes mentioned no court decision.
Walls said she gave up the fight and did not take her case to court because of her father’s health.
“My father was more important than going to school,” Walls said. “So I took a job.”
Walls said she was never notified of the board’s decision to deny her admission.
“They never gave me a formal letter,” Walls said, her voice calm but with a hint of disapproval. “They didn’t give me any response.”
With her college dream dashed, Walls said she began to take odd jobs and was once an elevator operator.
In 1954, when the racial barrier came down, Walls was already married and had young children to look after.
She moved out of the Ozarks but returned to Springfield in 1976 when her mother became ill.
Last year, Walls retired from the Discovery Center of Springfield after eight years, where she worked as a custodian.
Last summer, Terry Walls became curious about his mother’s past.
He had heard from an aunt that his mother was the first black to apply at the local college, and he wanted to know more. He went from the Greene County Archives to the local history museum, but it was in the Special Collections and Archives at MSU’s Meyer Library where Terry Walls found the transcription of his mother’s application letter on tissue-thin paper.
“When I saw the letter, it allowed me to see my mother in a whole different perspective,” Terry Walls said. “It’s my history. It’s part of our history.”
On the day of the discovery, Terry Walls asked his mother about it. Walls was almost nonchalant.
“I knew it was there,” she said, months later. “It was sort of amusing.”
Mary Price Walls said an apology from the school’s administration is not necessary. Those in charge now are not responsible for what happened six decades ago.
“She (Walls) is a very humble lady,” said Earle Doman, vice president for student affairs and dean of students at Missouri State. “But she said she would do this, accept this honor, for her children and for the community.”
And the college has progressed.
In fall 1954, Rose Payton, Betty Thompson, Elizabeth Payton and Freda Thompson — all graduates of Lincoln High — became the first black students to enroll at the college.
Today, Missouri State has 616 black students with a total enrollment of about 21,000.
Paula Caplan, the baby girl Walls once looked after, would become a Harvard University professor who returned to Springfield last year to give Missouri State high marks for its diversity efforts.
At her Springfield home, Walls, a petite woman with curly silver hair, joked about her honorary degree.
“What am I going to do with it? I’m 78 years old. Maybe I will use it to stop the oil there,” Walls said, referring to the disastrous oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico.
But it would surely please her late parents, Oscar and Ethel, Walls said.
“A smile on their face,” Walls said.