In 1949, almost on a whim, Esther McCready requested an application from an all-white nursing school. That began a court battle that lasted more than a year, enlisted the talents of a young attorney named Thurgood Marshall, and integrated the University of Maryland School of Nursing in Baltimore.
The hard-won letter that McCready received admitting her to the class of 1953 and the Florence Nightingale cap -- or "Flossie" -- that she later earned are on display at the Lewis Museum.
At the time, Provident Hospital in Baltimore had a nursing program that accepted black students. In addition, the University of Maryland, desperate to maintain its whites-only status, paid tuition for some black nursing students from Maryland who agreed to study out of state.
But McCready didn't want to go to Provident, and she also didn't want to attend nursing school in Tennessee. She wanted to study at the nursing school that she had been walking past for the past 17 years on her way to medical check-ups at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
On her application, McCready clearly stated that she had graduated from a black high school.
"I thought it was a shame that because of my race, there was only one school in Baltimore that I could attend," says McCready, now 74 and a New York resident. "But I wasn't trying to pull the wool over anyone's eyes. I knew what they were going to say, but I wanted to make them say it."
Months went by. After repeated inquiries, McCready was told that her credentials were being reviewed. When she called again a few months later, she received the same reply. She went to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The organization filed suit on McCready's behalf. Initially, the district court ruled against her, but the NAACP appealed. The appeal was argued by Marshall, an attorney and the grandson of a slave, who, in 1967, would become the nation's first African-American Supreme Court justice.
Decades later, McCready remembers details of Marshall's summation, and smiles. "He was brilliant," she says. "He argued that the University of Maryland was a state school supported by taxes, and that Negro people pay taxes, too."
The Maryland Court of Appeals' decision was handed down in April 1950. McCready had won.