60 years later, details emerge on MSU’s denial of first African American applicant

Mar 1st, 2010 | By | Category: Campus News, News, Top Story

by Nate Bassett

Terry Walls wanted to know the truth; the ugly, racist truth.

In 1950, his mother, Mary Jean Price, became the first African American applicant to Missouri State University (then a white’s-only institution known as Southwest Missouri State College).

The college failed to respond to her application, and a Greene County judge ruled against her when she filed suit against the school for their inaction. Denied the opportunity for an education, Price moved on with her life, but the scar of the racially-motivated denial have never really healed.

Sixty-years later, after wafting through the Meyer Library Archives, her son found the sordid details of how the Board of Regents was prepared to go to the Supreme Court to deny his mother’s admission to the school. Price found originally-confidential correspondence letters that indicated this intent in the file along with his mother’s original application to the school.

In 1950, four years prior to when the Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education ordered the desegregation of schools, African American students were unable to attend Southwest Missouri State College unless the studies they wanted to pursue were not offered at Lincoln University, the state’s African American college.

Price, 18 at the time, wanted to be a schoolteacher. She submitted her transcripts and a letter, stating her intentions to study library science, which was not offered at Lincoln.

The college registrar, Guy Thompson, forwarded the letter up the ranks to Southwest Missouri State College President Roy Ellis.

According to facsimile correspondence available from the library archives, President Ellis considered her application a “test case.”

While waiting on the opinion of the college attorney, he mailed four other Missouri college presidents.

In a confidential letter dated November 13, 1950, he related the difficulty of trying to formulate a policy on the admission of potential black students who were eligible under the conditional laws of the time.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., fought for equal rights for African Americans during the Civil Rights movement. He worked to erase racial inequalities such as policies that denied Mary Jean Price admission to Missouri State University in 1950.

“The College should ask a local Circuit Court for a declaratory judgment,” the letter stated. President Ellis related the feelings of the Board of Regents and how they were discussing, “carrying the matter on to the Supreme Court in case the local Court decided the girl could be admitted.”

This conviction to preventing her admission proved unnecessary, as events would reveal. After the college failed to respond to Price, Tac Kaplan hired attorney Irving Schwab to file a lawsuit against the school on Price’s behalf.

But in the declaratory judgment the Board had hoped for, a judge of the Circuit Court of Greene County ruled against Price. Her chances of attending Missouri State were finished.

“Can you imagine being an 18 year old kid, and having your ambitions dashed?” Walls said. “Sixty years later; nobody acknowledges it, as though it never happened. It did happen, and we were a part of it.”

For him, and others, the fact that the story has gone untold for so long is a shock. According to Walls, his mother never spoke about it until he found the letter and local television station KSPR ran a story on it recently.

Although it was good for Price to finally speak on the matter, “it opened up old wounds,” according to Walls. Price never went on to teach and worked as an elevator operator before marrying and having children. She is now in her late 70s.

See Related Story: Students debate how MSU should respond to story of Mary Jean Price

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  1. A correction: Paula Kaplan is actually the daughter of the attorney who submitted the suit on Ms. Price’s behalf.