SPRINGFIELD — The year was 1950, and Mary Jean Price was eager to start college after graduating second in her high school class.
But she was black, and Missouri State University — then called Southwest Missouri State College — had an all-white student body. She was the first black student to apply, and she was denied admission.
Now, 60 years later, Price, whose last name has changed to Walls, will be honored with an honorary bachelor's degree at the summer commencement on July 30.
"I honestly thought people were crazy," she told the Springfield News-Leader.
At the time, Missouri mandated "separate but equal" education. Black students attended Lincoln University in Jefferson City, but Walls could not afford to travel there.
"My plan was to go to college," Walls said. "I worked really, really hard. And, of course, I loved school."
Walls didn't talk about the denial, not even with her own children. It only became known after her son, Terry Walls — curious to know if his mother was indeed the first black student to apply at the Springfield college, as his aunt had said — dug out correspondence between then-President Roy Ellis and other college presidents in 1950.
"She was 18 years old. She loved to learn, but she was denied the opportunity to learn. It's horrifying," said Terry Walls, 54, who now studies criminology at Missouri State.
Media outlets, including KSPR-TV and the campus newspaper, began covering Walls' story and word spread.
"One of the faculty members (English instructor Carolyn Hembree) had suggested my mom be given an honorary degree," Terry Walls said. "It just snowballed from there."
Walls called the degree a nice gesture.
"It'll be an inspiration for my children," said Walls, who went on to become a mother of eight but never the schoolteacher she had aspired to be. "They have been raised into a better world."
Earle Doman, the vice president for student affairs and dean of students, said it's hard to understand the thinking that led to Walls being denied admission.
"But that was a very different period in our nation's history," Doman said in a statement. "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."
The university now has more than 600 black students out of a total student enrollment of about 23,000.