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When Terry Walls of Springfield, Mo., decided to go back to college at age 52, he wanted to put to rest a family rumor. He had heard his mother was denied admission to Missouri State University, and he was pointed toward Meyer Library on the MSU campus for answers.
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 Oct. 2, 1950, and it was addressed to the university registrar:
"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 ... "
Friday, Walls is graduating from the same university that denied his mother admission because of the color of her skin.
'The Colored Girl'
Missouri State University, previously called Southwest Missouri State College, was an all-white school in 1950. Price was the daughter of a black woman and a white man. She was the salutatorian of her graduating class.
"[The letter] brought tears to my eyes. It was unreal," Walls says.
He kept digging for more information about his mother's application. 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.
"My understanding of the applications of that time is that there was not a form, a box to check for race," says Ann Baker, the university archivist who oversees these documents at MSU. "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."
She says the last letter suggests that the presidents all met in a Kansas City hotel to talk further. Clearly, 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 Price's family didn't have the money to send her there.
'Swept Up Under The Rug'
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.
"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,' " she says. "They did it like they'd do all the rest. It was just swept up under the rug."
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 Dickinson, 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 her 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 v. Board of Education that the color line had been erased.
Friday afternoon, as Walls crosses the stage, shakes the dean's hand and receives his diploma, his mother will be watching from the audience.