Yesterday, I learned of the passing of two people upon whose shoulders we stand. Mrs. Mary Jean Price Walls and Rev. William E. Pitts were people whose local connection to the City of Springfield and Missouri State University changed us forever. Both passed from this earthly plane after living lives that changed many of us who knew and learned from them. They transcended barriers and challenges in order to overcome unfairness and injustice that resulted in making our lives better.
Mary Jean Price Walls
In 1950 Mary Jean Price Walls was denied admission to then, Southwest Missouri State College, now Missouri State University, because she was African American. She applied for admission at SMS after graduating salutatorian of her high school class from Lincoln High School, at the time an all-black segregated public school in Springfield, MO. The SMS board of regents met specifically to discuss her case and denied her admission because the classes she wanted to take were available at an all-black college in Jefferson City, Lincoln University. However, because of the distance and her father’s illness Mary Jean Walls could not attend and she would not realize her dream of being a teacher.
In 2010, Missouri State University awarded Mrs. Mary Jean Price Walls the first-ever Honorary Bachelor’s Degree and named the Multicultural Resource Annex after her after a vote by the Student Government Association. The facility offers services to students such as a study room, kitchen and the LGBTQ+ Resource Center.
Reverend William E. Pitts
Reverend William E. Pitts, former pastor at historic Washington Avenue Baptist Church (now Turning Point Church), passed away in Alabama on July 2, 2020 on his 99th birthday. Reverend Pitts was also the local president of the NAACP and was responsible for organizing the NAACP Youth Chapter during the 1960’s and 1970’s. Rev. Pitts was my pastor when I was a boy and sang in the youth choir with my brother Henry and other neighborhood youth. His mentorship and leadership in our hometown inspired me into a life of public service starting at the age of 15 in 1965. Many youth of our community were motivated to engage in civil rights direct action, including demonstrations, lobbying for a national holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and championing the right to vote at 18.
Rev. Pitts, along with former SMS Professor Anderson McCullough, lifted up the black young people of this community and encouraged them to change the world. On a personal note, Rev. Pitts’ mentorship inspired me to make a difference in my community, encouraged me to attend law school and to be a life-long public servant. His example and his life’s work was the foundation that created the trajectory for my life of service and for that, especially, I am forever grateful.
Many of us grew up knowing them…being nurtured and taught by these servants. We were blessed because we knew them and were touched by their lives. Their stories have inspired us to do and be better.
We offer heartfelt condolences and prayers to the families of Mrs. Mary Jean Price Walls and Reverend Dr. William E. Pitts. Although they may be gone please know they will never be forgotten.
Wes Pratt, J.D.