It has been years now, but Valerie Mills-Cooper remembers her father working the front gate at Carr's Beach, one of the few Maryland resorts open to African-Americans during segregation.
Walter Mills, the popular longtime principal of Parole Elementary School near Annapolis, worked many summers as a ticket-taker at the popular attraction to supplement his income, and to little Valerie, he might as well have been a king.
"I thought my dad owned the beach," says Mills-Cooper, 59, a retired county teacher and administrator. "I figured if people had to go through him to get in, he must run the place."
She might not have realized it at the time, but her father was indeed a commanding figure — if not on the beach, at least in the history of public education. Seventy-one years ago this week, Mills was the winning plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Anne Arundel County Board of Education that won African-American teachers the right to be paid the same wages as their white counterparts.
The landmark action — brought by a young attorney named Thurgood Marshall and one of many that paved the way for the full integration of schools — is the focal point of a new exhibit at the Banneker-Douglass Museum, "Shaping History Through Service: The Walter Mills Story," which started last month and runs through April. It recounts Mills' life in pictures, papers and personal reflections — a vivid tribute to a man without whose life of principled action, the world would be a different place.
Mills-Cooper calls herself proud that the museum has memorialized the man who guarded the beach, though she doubts her father — who died in 1994 after a 50-year career as an educator — would be as excited about the display as the hundreds who have come through since it opened on Halloween.
"I think he'd just look at all this stuff and say, 'Hmm, I did that?' " she says. "None of this was for glory. He got up every day and did what he thought was right."
Those who remember Mills say he was a sociable type — in his rare free time, he loved bowling and going dancing with his wife, Irene, at Quiet Waters Park — but he didn't work those summers at the beach because he loved the action.
He and Irene had bought a house on Forest Drive in the days when it was still a lonely country road, and after having their only child, Valerie, in 1951, they wanted to pay it off as quickly as possible so she would never have to worry about it.
"He always said, 'Live as though you'll die tomorrow, but plan as though you'll live forever,' " Mills-Cooper says.
Mills learned that thinking early. One of seven children, he grew up on a 1,000-acre tobacco farm at Maddox, St. Mary's County, and had the benefit of observing the industry and foresight of his parents, William and Ellen.
In those days, Maryland's African-Americans had to sacrifice for a chance at the kind of education whites could take for granted. Walter attended the local "colored school" until he was 12, but had to leave home to continue his schooling after that. At 13, in 1921, he became a boarder at a high school for blacks in Bowie, later studied at Bowie Normal School for Teachers (now Bowie State), and because of segregationist policies in his home state, had to leave Maryland to complete both his bachelor's and master's degrees.
He returned to serve as a principal, first in St. Mary's County and then on the Eastern Shore, before taking the job as principal-teacher at Parole Elementary School — a two-room Rosenwald School for African-American children — in 1931. The school grew in size over the years and was moved from its original site on Hicks Avenue to Chinquapin Round Road, its current location, but Mills was principal until he retired 47 years later.
The 230-pound educator brought formality to his work (he always wore a three-piece suit) and struck generations as a fair but demanding teacher. Kids might have wanted someone easier, but his approach worked. "Even after he retired, [people] were always thanking him," says Jean Queene Haughton of Annapolis, who was a first-grade student of Mills' and returned as his assistant principal in the early 1960s. "At funerals, in church, it was, 'Mr. Mills, I'll always remember you — I don't know how we'd have done it without you.' "
There wasn't a late afternoon, she says, when you didn't see Mills sitting on the porch of some Parole home, staying abreast of family news, or hear of him using his ample connections to solve some problem in the community. He also elevated the school, bringing in outside experts to train his staff and pressing for upgrades to its supplies The Mid-Atlantic States Evaluation Team often cited its quality.
But one man's paragon is another man's pain, especially in segregated America. The superintendent of the Anne Arundel County schools, a man named George Fox, never liked the teacher's attitude. "I cannot [rehire him] … unless he has shown a good professional spirit by cooperating with those in authority," Fox, who was white, wrote in 1934. "He has not been cooperating with [officials] in charge of the colored schools." Fox would become the villain in the showdown to come.
A car, a home, a bank account
Because it's all too common for the achievements of African-Americans to be lost to history, says Joni Jones, director of Banneker-Douglass Museum, it's the mission of the 26-year-old institution to preserve that history.
And that doesn't mean commemorating just the giants — Anne Arundel physician-politician Aris T. Allen, say, or Marshall — but also the men and women who practiced excellence with less recognition, not to mention the context in which they lived. "We strive to show the humanity behind the heroism," Jones says.
It took generations for Anne Arundel County, like most of Maryland, to offer anything like equal access to education. Though the county was more than half African-American, as recently as the 1850s it allocated no public funds to schools for blacks. By 1872, that had changed, but the county was directing $783 toward them per year — compared to $30,000 for white schools.
Inequality lasted well into the 20th century, largely in the form of lower pay for black educators. In 1916, the minimum salary for Anne Arundel teachers was $280 per year for blacks, $600 for whites — a disparity that endured well into Mills' career, when the figures were $765 for African-Americans, $1,250 for whites.
When Mills decided to sue the state in 1937, he cast the move in practical terms. "I would like to own a nice car, and have a home and sizable bank account, before considering marriage, but these things must wait," he wrote as part of an action against the Maryland Board of Education. "In addition to money for schooling, I must help keep a comfortable home for my mother, who is 71 … and it's rather difficult to do these things on the salary we make."
A 29-year-old special counsel for the NAACP, Thurgood Marshall, was working on similar lawsuits in Calvert and Montgomery counties. He got wind of Mills' suit and advised him to shift his attention to Anne Arundel County. "By doing this, you will benefit all the teachers in the state," he wrote.
By then, the county school board had already offered dissatisfied black teachers a 10 percent increase — an offer most wanted to jump at. Mills, though, warned the board that its policy violated the 14th Amendment, whatever the dollar amounts.
Fox threatened to have him dismissed if he refused to "come within compliance and act more like a professional." The educator pressed ahead. In 1938, he became the lone plaintiff in Walter Mills v. the Board of Education of Anne Arundel County, et al.
Mills-Cooper doesn't remember her father as a rabble-rouser. He was the hard-working man who was away at meetings most nights — setting up the Parole Health Center and directing it, conferring with fellow leaders on the boards of civic organizations such as Frontiers International, serving as a revered Scoutmaster. (After he retired, he was a trustee on the board of Anne Arundel Community College, among other distinctions.)
When he was home on Forest Drive, though, he was often out in the yard, tending the roses that surrounded their rambling house. Over the years, on those not-so-infrequent occasions when he made the news, Mills-Cooper says, she rarely knew about it until she saw his picture in the paper. So it was no shock that he rarely mentioned the lawsuit.
But it was certainly a bold stance to take. "It was a very brave thing for him to do, especially when you consider that African-Americans had little or no power at the time and were at the mercy of the powers that be," says Betty Coleman of Parole, who was his student during the 1940s and later had a teaching career of her own. "But that was the type of person Mr. Mills was. If he believed it was right, he did it."
In later years, when she did ask him about those times, Mills-Cooper says she learned her father's bravery was an element of his upbringing. Before he joined the fight, he talked it over at length with his mother.
"She told him what she and my father always believed," she says. "If you think you're right, and you make sure you have the facts on your side, then fight the fight."
When he testified, Mills had only one public supporter, a family friend with whom he had lived during his Bowie days. The process took two rancorous years.
Fox retaliated, though memories differ as to how. Coleman's mother always told her Fox fired Mills and that the Parole community complained so loudly he was reinstated. Mills-Cooper says Fox challenged his credentials as a principal but was foiled when Irene, a thorough record-keeper, produced his certificate.
During the trial, Fox made one of the case's most infamous statements. "The worst white teacher," he said in the Baltimore courtroom of U.S. District Judge W. Calvin Chestnut, "is better than the best black teacher."
Unimpressed, the judge handed down his opinion on Nov. 22, 1939. "If Mills were a white principal he would necessarily receive, according to the county scale, not less than $1,550 [per year], as compared to his actual salary of $1,058," the judge wrote. He found the board's policy unconstitutional and ordered it changed. By the end of 1940, the county had instituted a single salary structure for teachers, and the Maryland legislature made the policy statewide in 1941.
In a letter on display in the exhibit, Marshall sounds as giddy as he does lawyerly. "I assume you have received a copy of the final decree in your case," he wrote Mills in 1941. "Please sign the enclosed letter and send it by registered mail to Mr. George Fox … I'm sure you join with us in our relief that this case is completed at last, unless the other side appeals, and personally, I do not care whether they appeal or not."
Thirteen years later, he argued for the plaintiff in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court case that found school segregation unconstitutional.
Loss and remembrance
It's an emotional time for Mills-Cooper. On the one hand, Banneker-Douglass, the state's official repository of African-American material culture, has cemented her father's status as a community pillar — not just for helping pave the way to history, but for his day-to-day triumphs as an educator and community leader. (In 1994, the school system renamed Parole Elementary the Walter S. Mills-Parole Elementary School.)
On the other hand, the woman who played the biggest supporting role in Walter Mills' life didn't live to see the exhibit. Irene S. Mills, a longtime educator herself, died unexpectedly at 95, six days before it opened.
Jones describes Irene as a woman of nearly regal presence who was a role model in the African-American community for decades. She only went ahead with the Oct. 31 reception at Mills-Cooper's insistence. More than 160 people packed the place, including 102-year-old Beatrice Payne, who had been a year ahead of Mills in school and told the crowd she'd always known "the kid" would do well in life.
"This is a surreal feeling," says Mills-Cooper, who spoke off the cuff about both parents that night. "It's going to take time to process everything."
Perhaps it will help when some locals get together this Saturday to celebrate her father once more. Mills-Cooper's late husband, Howard University drama professor Theodore G. Cooper, wrote a one-act play, "The Lion and the Fox," about Mills' equal-pay victory, and a small cast of actors will do a free reading at the museum at 1 p.m.
A family friend, Tony Spencer, will portray Mills. Judge Clayton Greene Jr., of the Maryland Court of Appeals, will play Marshall. And in a twist that suggests how far things have come since Mills took his first job, the current Anne Arundel County Schools superintendent, Kevin M. Maxwell, will play George Fox.
Maxwell has a different take on Mills than his distant predecessor's.
"There is no way to … summarize the true impact Walter Mills had on education in [the] county, across Maryland and beyond," Maxwell says. "His tireless efforts … laid the foundation for countless educational success stories. Students in our county continue to benefit from the work [he] accomplished."
If you go
What: "Shaping History Through Service: The Walter S. Mills Story," an exhibit on the life of longtime Anne Arundel County educator Walter Mills
Where: The Banneker-Douglass Museum, 84 Franklin St., Annapolis
When: through April 2, 2011
Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays
Information: 410-216-6180 or bdmuseum.com