For more than 40 years, Maryland taxpayers paid for the graduate education of hundreds of African-American teachers, lest they breach the walls of segregation at the University of Maryland.
Tuition, travel and living expenses were paid by a state government afraid of lawsuits like the one that forced the University of Maryland to open its law school to an African-American, Donald G. Murray, in 1935. (Murray's lawyer was a young African-American from Baltimore named Thurgood Marshall.)
Those who took advantage of the "out-of-state scholarship program" returned to Maryland to take up positions among the educated black elite. They've long since retired. Many have died.
The oldest, Lena K. Lee, a longtime principal who became a lawyer and served 16 years in the General Assembly, will be 98 in July.
"I'm the last leaf on the tree," says Lee, who commuted to New York University on and off for nearly two decades before earning a master's degree about 1950. "I obviously didn't go straight through. Some winters I just couldn't take it."
Larry Gibson, a University of Maryland law professor and authority on civil rights litigation, has studied the out-of-state scholarship program.
"After the Murray case, they really got it going about 1937, and it was well-funded after that," Gibson says. "The irony, of course, is that a lot of African-Americans got their degrees at top-flight schools, schools like Barnard and New York University."
Another irony is that after the Brown decision opened the University of Maryland to all races in 1954, many of the out-of-state scholarship recipients earned advanced degrees at the school that once shunned them. And one of them, Wilbur G. Valentine, 87, served for a time on the University of Maryland Board of Regents.
"I didn't waste time on resentment," says Valentine, who graduated from what is now Coppin State University in 1936. "There was nothing you could do about it at the time. [Segregation] was the law of the land. And when Brown came along, we all wondered why it took so long."
Most of the scholarship holders were working teachers with undergraduate degrees from Coppin or Morgan State College, which then had no graduate education schools. Some teachers got up at 4 a.m. Saturday, caught a train to New York and took classes all day, returning late to Baltimore. Some stayed over Saturday night, but all had to be back in their Baltimore classrooms early each Monday.
"By the time you got to New York, you were worn out," remembers Lena Lee, "and of course we couldn't ride the Pullmans. This great country actually tolerated that."
But Lee, like so many others who studied out-of-state because their flagship university was strictly segregated, refuses to harbor bitterness. "You would be stupid to stay angry, especially if you've lived as long as I have," she says.
Betty Williams, 80, was Lee's pupil in the fourth grade. After she graduated from Morgan in 1944, Williams received a Maryland scholarship to study English at Columbia University.
"I had a desk in the stacks and wrote a thesis on Alfred Lord Tennyson," Williams remembers. "I had no unpleasant experiences, but the work was hard. In one of my classes there were 500 students, and I was the only black."
The lure of teaching brought Williams back to Baltimore, where she worked 39 years in the city system, becoming principal of the prestigious Eastern High School. Of the four-decade period in which African-Americans were barred from University of Maryland graduate schools, Williams says, "I have no bitterness. It was all so stupid."
Gloria Carrington, 82, took classes at NYU during the summer, staying with an aunt in a Harlem apartment. "The classes were huge and mostly white," Carrington remembers.
Carrington eventually became the first black social worker at Margaret Brent Elementary in what is now Charles Village. At year's end, her principal told her she could not attend the faculty party at a segregated restaurant.