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MO State Honors First Black Applicant

SPRINGFIELD, MO - Had Mary Jean (Price) Walls applied for admission to Missouri State University in 2010, she would have been admitted to an increasingly diverse student body that now includes 616 African American students. With her credentials and determination, there is no doubt she would have achieved her dream of graduating from college. And, she likely would have received scholastic honors along the way.

But Walls didn’t apply in 2010. She applied 60 years ago, in 1950. In fact, she was the first African American to apply for admission to the institution, but her application was denied, although apparently she was never officially notified of the decision. The result was she was not able to enroll.

Now Missouri State intends to fulfill Walls’ dream by awarding her an honorary bachelor’s degree at the summer commencement on July 30.

“Even though it is many years later, we can help fulfill Ms. Walls’ dream of having a college degree, said Dr. Earle Doman, vice president for student affairs and dean of students.  “We are very excited to make the presentation. I think there will be a lot of celebrating by Ms. Walls and her family.”

Missouri State officials has briefed the Academic Affairs Committee of the Board of Governors and now will seek official approval at the Board meeting on July 30. The honorary degree is being recommended by the university administration, with endorsement from the Faculty Senate and other campus groups.

“Looking back 60 years, it’s hard for many of us to understand the thinking that led to Ms. Walls being denied admission,” said Doman. “But that was a very different period in our nation’s history. And while we have more work to do to diversify our campus community, in many ways, Ms. Walls’ story shows how far we have come.”

It was different in 1950 as the nation was just beginning to deal with race issues. The landmark school desegregation case Brown vs. Board of Education didn’t occur until 1954, four years after Walls applied for admission. Summaries of the landmark case indicate that Missouri and 16 other states had state laws that mandated “separate but equal” education. For Missouri, Lincoln University met that requirement for African Americans. But Walls could not afford to travel to Jefferson City for her college education; she wanted to stay in Springfield, so she applied to Missouri State (then Southwest Missouri State College).

“I think it is clear from the records that university officials across the state were wrestling with admissions decisions, trying to balance what they believed in their hearts was the right thing to do with what the state law at the time clearly mandated,” said Doman. “It must have been a very trying time for them. I don’t envy them. I am glad we don’t have to worry about that anymore.”

The summer commencement is scheduled for 1 p.m. July 30 in JQH Arena.

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