Proud friends and family members at the July 30 commencement ceremony had been fidgeting, chatting or waving at their graduates as the events of the day unfolded.
But as 78-year-old Mary Jean (Price) Walls was introduced, the crowd began to fall silent.
“Today is the first time in the history of our institution that we will be awarding an honorary undergraduate degree,” said then-President Michael T. Nietzel. Walls, the honoree in question, was escorted to the podium as he continued.
“She was the first African-American to apply for admission to this University. That was a very different time in our state and country’s history, and Mary Jean Price was not admitted.”
He went on to note that in 1950, the year Walls applied, all public schools were segregated.
Her application was denied despite the fact that she was salutatorian of her class, and apparently she was never officially notified of the decision.
Walls, a Springfield resident, did not want to go to Lincoln University (the state’s black college in Jefferson City) because of expenses and her father’s poor health. In 1954, when the Supreme Court overturned “separate but equal,” she was married with children. The bottom line: She never went to college. She retired from the workforce in 2009 after serving as a janitor at a local science center.
“Looking back 60 years, it’s hard for many of us to understand the thinking that led to Ms. Walls being denied admission,” said Dr. Earle Doman, vice president for student affairs and dean of students. “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.”
Missouri State learned about the events during the writings of Daring to Excel, The First 100 Years of Southwest Missouri State University. Walls’ son Terry, who is currently a criminology major at the University, further explored the archives after remembering that his aunt said his mother was the school’s first black applicant. He found correspondence that confirmed the story.
MSU wanted to acknowledge the episode and fulfill Walls’ dream of a college degree, and the administration, Faculty Senate and Board of Governors all recommended that she receive the first honorary bachelor’s degree.
Walls received an emotionally charged standing ovation and plenty of supportive whistles as she went to the front to accept her degree and a bouquet of red roses.
After many handshakes, she was taken back to her front-row seat by son Terry.
Her story not only captivated the local audience: National news outlets, including ABC and NBC, aired pieces about Walls that were seen around the country.
Nietzel said bestowing the degree gave the University great pleasure.
“This long overdue recognition not only honors and acknowledges her, but will symbolize her belief — along with the commitment of Missouri State University — that we are to serve and provide educational opportunities for all citizens,” Nietzel said.