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Mary Jean Price Walls, A Testament To MSU's Past Discrimination, Dies

MSU Visual Media

Missouri State University is mourning the loss of an iconic figure who helped shape the path of the institution, even though she was denied the opportunity to study there. Mary Jean Price Walls died Monday, according to a statement from the university. 

As a teenager growing up in post-war Springfield, Walls was undeniably bright and dedicated: she graduated salutatorian of her high school class, then set her sights on college.

But in 1950, Southwest Missouri State was still an all-white college, due to the racist policies of segregation.

Walls was the daughter of a Black woman and a white man, and she had attended Lincoln High School—the school designated for African Americans during the days of segregation.  She spoke to KSMU's Jennifer Moore in 2012 for a story on NPR's Morning Edition.  

"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 said in 2012. 

Credit MSU Visual Media / MSU
Mary Jean Price Walls was awarded an honorary degree from Missouri State University in 2010, six decades after she was denied admission because of the color of her skin.

What she didn’t know in 1950 was that her application had created some shock waves in the top circles of Missouri’s higher education leadership. A series of letters between the presidents of the state’s public colleges and universities refer to her as “the colored girl” who was seeking admission.

The formal minutes from the university’s board of regents’ special meeting showed her application was eventually denied by eight white men.

So instead of fulfilling her dream of becoming a teacher, she married a welder and raised eight children. She cleaned houses for white families, and then worked as a janitor until she retired in 2009.

A generation later, her son, Terry, discovered the eloquent letter his mother had typed on fragile, onion-skin paper and sent 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 ... " the letter begins.

He eventually graduated from the same university that had denied his mother admission all those years ago. Mary Jean Price Walls watched from the audience.

In 2010, Missouri State University recognized that Walls had been robbed of one of life’s greatest achievements and awarded her an honorary bachelor’s degree.  More recently, MSU named its multicultural resource center in her honor.

In her later years, she said she bore no ill feelings toward the administrators who had prevented her from attending the institution. 

In a statement issued this week, MSU President Clif Smart mourned her passing, saying that Mary Jean Price Walls is “a reminder of our history of discrimination which we continue to work to overcome.”