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Local History

Mary Jean Price's Story

Four years before the landmark Supreme Court case Brown versus Topeka Board of Education, a young Springfield woman applied to be admitted to what is now Missouri State University. For our Sense of Place series, reporter Emma Wilson brings us the story of what happened and how her story is still playing out today.

Mary Jean Price was the salutatorian of her graduating class. She had excellent grades and a passion for learning. So, with those credentials, you can imagine her shock when she applied to what was then Southwest Missouri State Teachers College but was not admitted.

“I had really put my heart and soul into education, into a higher education. But when I went to apply…I looked at them and I thought, ‘really and truly, they must be crazy’ because I had done everything I was supposed to do. But until this day they could not tell me why I could not go.”

Mary Jean Price, who now goes by Mary Walls, was one of the first black applicants to SMS and was essentially denied admission since the university never responded to her application. Although this disappointment shaped the rest of her life, she never mentioned it to her children. Her son Terry had heard rumors that his mother was the first black person to apply to SMS. In the university’s archives, he found her original letter requesting admission. It was typed on onion skin paper.

Terry said, “I was blown away to feel a piece of history, a piece of my history. It was no longer a mystery to me, it was real. It wasn’t just a conjured up story or a rumor. It really touched my heart.”

Now, Missouri State University is attempting to come to grips with this part of its history. A university administrator says that a formal apology or honorary degree of some kind is in the works, which will be presented to Mary Walls in the next week or two. Mary Walls and her son Terry now share a home in Springfield. On a recent evening, Terry shuffled through a stack of photocopied letters from the archives, searching for the one his mother wrote to the Administrative Registrar at the time.

Terry read the letter aloud to his mother and I.

The letter gives an articulate explanation of why she wants to be admitted to SMS. The quality of the letter struck a chord with J.W. Jones. He was president of Northwest Missouri State College at the time that Mary Jean Price was seeking admittance to SMS. He even made note of her eloquence in a letter he sent to Roy Ellis, who was president of SMS at the time. Ellis, Jones, and other college presidents exchanged a series of letters regarding how they were going to address the issue of admitting black students. In these letters, they did not resolve how to handle what one of them described as quote-“the negro problem” end-quote, but the Supreme Court settled the issue four years later with the Brown case. Administrators at SMS never responded to Mary Jean Price’s letter requesting admission, and she says she had no other choice than to just move on with her life. She never attended college.

“The heartbreak was terrible, to think I had worked so hard and so long,” said Walls.

After all these years, the university is trying to come up with an answer for Mary Jean Price. Earle Doman is Vice President of Student Affairs and the Dean of Students at Missouri State University.

Doman says, “I certainly don’t know why it’s-again; it’s one of those things. That was wrong, there is no doubt, that was wrong. So do we just say ‘that was the times, those were the issues being dealt with?’ I guess, I really don’t know. But I think if nothing else that it’s common courtesy to respond to an individual.”

Doman says the university is working on an appropriate way to recognize Mary Jean Price and the injustice she’s had to live with for sixty years.

For KSMU’s Sense of Place, I’m Emma Wilson.