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Martin Appell Dyer

Lawyer and fair-housing advocate was the first African-American to attend St. John's College in Annapolis

By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

5:24 PM EDT, September 19, 2011

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Martin Appell Dyer, a lawyer and neighborhood activist who was the first African-American to enroll at St. John's College in Annapolis, died Thursday of cancer at his Windsor Hills home.

He was 80.

The son of Martin A. Dyer, a steelworker, and Margaret Louise Dyer, a secretary to Lillie Mae Jackson when she was president of the Baltimore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, he was born and raised in East Baltimore.

After graduating from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in 1948, he entered St. John's College.

"St. John's was the first college south of the Mason-Dixon Line to voluntarily desegregate," said Barbara Goyette, vice president of the college.

"There was no trouble on campus, even though college officials were worried because Annapolis was so segregated in those days. Where would he get his haircut or eat?" said Ms. Goyette. "He formed strong alliances on campus and even formed an interracial basketball league."

In 2004 at a ceremony at St. John's honoring Mr. Dyer and six other pioneering African-American students who followed him in the early 1950s, he told a reporter for The Baltimore Sun that he attended the college after "a core of students actively scouted Baltimore's two black high schools to recruit students for a college virtually unknown in the black community."

"To accept [blacks] is one thing," Mr. Dyer said. "But to deliberately and consciously seek someone is another."

He recalled being turned away from the Little Campus Inn in Annapolis one evening because of his race.

"I always felt obligated to do well as a representative of my race. Quite honestly, I was alone in the undertaking and felt lonely and isolated," he said. "But I was welcomed on campus, a bastion, and that welcome made all the difference in the world."

Mr. Dyer was interviewed extensively for an oral history project, "So Reason Can Rule: The Necessity of Racial Integration at St. John's College."

After graduating from St. John's in 1952, he enlisted in the Army and served with the 843rd Engineer Battalion in Europe. He was honorably discharged in 1954.

He earned his law degree from the University of Maryland School of Law in 1959 and briefly was in private practice.

In the early 1960s, he worked as a congressional intern on Capitol Hill and was awarded a fellowship in congressional operations by the American Political Science Association in 1963.

From 1965 until 1968, he was the principal legislative aide and speechwriter for Alaska Sen. Edward L. "Bob" Bartlett, who had been the architect of Alaskan statehood.

For nearly the next two decades, Mr. Dyer worked in the Health Care Finance Administration. He retired in 1990.

In 1962, he married Jane Weeden, who later retired from the Bryn Mawr School, Oldfields School and Roland Park Country School, where she had taught French and continues to tutor students.

"Because of miscegenation laws in Maryland, they were forced to get married in Cranston, R.I.," said a daughter, Jennifer M. Dyer, a Baltimore graphic artist.

After their marriage, the couple settled in Windsor Hills.

"He was a champion for fair housing and after retiring from federal service, he served as associate director of Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc., investigating housing discrimination complaints and enforcing laws prohibiting discrimination in housing," said Ms. Dyer.

Mr. Dyer also served on the boards of Greater Baltimore Community Housing Resource Board, Belair-Edison Housing Service and Citizens Planning and Housing Association. After stepping down from Baltimore Neighborhoods, he continued working as an independent fair-housing consultant.

"He was an expert on the Fair Housing Law and often spoke to Realtor groups about the law," said Michael L. Marks, who lives in Mount Washington. "He was committed to social justice and the arts he so loved."

Oscar Melvin was a longtime friend and colleague who retired from Baltimore Neighborhoods in 1991.

"He had no trepidation about doing what was right. He was dedicated to fair housing, and he made the world not a little better but a lot better," said Mr. Melvin. "He was a perfect gentleman. I have nothing but fond words and memories of Martin. He was a beautiful person."

In his Windsor Hills neighborhood, Mr. Dyer was an active member of the neighborhood association, where he had served as vice president, a board member and was editor of the community newsletter, and was co-author of "Windsor Hills: A Century of History 1895-1995."

Published in 1995, the book told the history of a community that had been a white, gentile enclave until the arrival in 1910 of the first Jewish residents. African-Americans began moving into the community in 1955.

The peaceful integration was one of the reasons Mr. Dyer remained in the neighborhood.

"It was an organized effort by the neighborhood to stem white flight," Mr. Dyer told The Baltimore Sun in a 2004 interview.

Mr. Dyer remained active at St. John's College, where he was a member of the Board of Visitors and Governors and also was an active member of an advisory committee to recruit and retain minority students.

"He volunteered to help the college with diversity issues and wanted St. John's to keep the promise it made after World War II on diversity," said Ms. Goyette.

"Martin was a dignified, articulate and gentle man. He was a role model for us here at the college. He could make confrontations work for everyone when it came to diversity and issues regarding race," she said. "I like to think that Martin was so helpful to us in how we thought about race, our approach and how the institution moved forward."

In recognition of his long record as a volunteer, St. John's initiated the Martin Dyer Book Fund in 1997, which helps students meet the expense of the Great Books that are integral to the college's curriculum.

Mr, Dyer also volunteered his legal skills and drafted the application for federal recognition for the Pokanoket tribe of the Wampanoag Nation.

He was a lover of art, classical music and opera, and was a member of the Peabody Choir. He was a founding member of the board of directors of the James E. Lewis Museum of Art Foundation at Morgan State University and had served as president of the board of Young Audiences of Maryland.

Mr. Dyer was a gourmet chef and assisted with his wife's catering business, Fine Foods for Small Feasts. The couple also enjoyed entertaining and were known for their New Year's Day open house.

He was an avid traveler and book collector.

Because he was born on Christmas Day, he held the holiday "in special regard," his daughter said.

"Every year, he decorated his home with numerous trees and dioramas. He donated many decorations and trees to Our House Family Support Center in Cherry Hill," said Ms. Dyer.

For years, at Christmas, he worked at the Calico Cat, a Woodlawn gift shop, where he made miniature Christmas trees decorated with flowers.

At Mr. Dyer's request, no services will be held.

In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Dyer is survived by another daughter, Mya Starling of New York City; and a sister, Alma Lawson of Ashburton.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com