DAVID GREENE, HOST:
A man named Terry Walls will graduate from college in Missouri today. And his diploma holds a lot of meaning for his family and really for this country. Walls is graduating from a university that denied his mother admission because of the color of her skin. From member station KSMU, Jennifer Moore has the story.
JENNIFER MOORE, BYLINE: When Terry Walls decided to go back to college at age 52, he wanted to put to rest a family rumor.
TERRY WALLS: I had heard that my mother had applied for and was denied admission to Missouri State University through my aunt. When I started researching, I initially went to the Greene County archives.
MOORE: But they sent him to Meyer Library on the MSU campus. There he discovered an eloquent letter typed on fragile onion skin paper and signed with his mother's maiden name: Mary Jean Price. It was dated October 2, 1950, and it was addressed to the university registrar.
WALLS: My dear Mr. Thompson, I desire at this time to explain why I want to enter the college and why I believe my application should be granted. If denied admission, I must either abandon my ambition or go elsewhere to obtain the same advantages which could be made available to me at home. My parents are not well to do.
MOORE: Southwest Missouri State College - its name at the time - was an all-white school in 1950. Mary Jean Price was the daughter of a black woman and a white man. She was the salutatorian of her graduating class.
WALLS: It brought tears to my eyes. You know, it was unreal.
MOORE: Walls kept digging. He came across a series of letters between the university president and the presidents of the other state institutions. They all refer to the colored girl who had applied for admission.
(SOUNDBITE OF PAPER CRUMBLING)
MOORE: Ann Baker is the university archivist who oversees these documents at MSU.
ANN BAKER: My understanding of the applications of that time is that there was not a form, a box to check for race. However, in the example of Mrs. Walls, she went to Lincoln High School. And that right there would have been the giveaway, because Lincoln High School was the African-American school.
MOORE: She says the last letter suggests that the presidents all meet in a Kansas City hotel to talk further. Clearly, Mary Jean Price's application posed a problem for them. The following week, the university's board of regents held a special meeting where a group of eight white men decided Price's fate. The formal minutes reveal that her application was denied because those same classes were available at the all-black college four hours away in Jefferson City. But Mary Jean Price's family didn't have the money to send her there.
MARY JEAN PRICE: I remember typing it, the letter.
MOORE: Today, Mary Jean Price Walls is 80. She still lives in Springfield, and until her son brought her that letter, she hadn't breathed a word about it in six decades.
PRICE: I kept waiting and waiting and waiting, and I never got an answer. I always had the hope, but I never got a formal yes or no. They did it like they do all the rest. It was just swept up under the rug.
MOORE: She says her only desire as a child was to become a teacher, and that she always had her nose in a hand-me-down book from the all-white schools. But instead of diving into Thoreau and Dickenson, she married a welder and gave birth to eight children. She cleaned houses for white families, and then worked as a janitor until she retired.
Two years ago, MSU awarded Mary Jean Price Walls an honorary degree, recognizing that she had been robbed of one of life's greatest achievements. She says although she was angry at the administrators from 1950, she bears no hard feelings toward the university today.
In 1954, four years after she applied, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education that the color line had been erased. This afternoon, as Terry Walls crosses the stage, shakes the dean's hand, and receives his diploma, his mother will be watching from the audience.
For NPR News, I'm Jennifer Moore in Springfield, Missouri.
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