When Victor McTeer left McDaniel College in 1969 — it was called Western Maryland College back then — he was not only glad to be done with the place, but bitter about his experience there. He was one of the first black students to attend the school, and only 16 years old in his freshman year. A graduate of Forest Park High School in Baltimore, McTeer had received a full scholarship to attend the college and play football; he been named to the Associated Press Little All-America team.
But he was glad to get out.
He'd gone from a predominantly black neighborhood in Northwest Baltimore to an all-white college in predominantly white Westminster, the seat of predominantly white and mostly rural Carroll County.
"Suffice it to say," McTeer said the other day, "when I went to Western Maryland, I was the first African-American anyone had seen in an educational institution without a mop and a broom. … I was the first African-American any of them had gone to school with."
There were hostile stares. Students and teammates shunned him; they'd stop speaking when he walked into a room.
"The silence leads to a kind of personal horror," he said.
In 1968, he heard five white students laughing and celebrating the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
McTeer was angry. He was 30 miles from home, but felt isolated, surrounded by 800 white students.
"Suffice it to say," as he put it, being in the vanguard of racial integration anywhere in the 1960s was soul-searing, heart-wrenching and painful.
McTeer found a mentor at the college, a white man, a professor of religious studies and assistant football coach named Ira Zepp. In his senior year, McTeer met Parren Mitchell, a visiting sociology professor from Morgan State University who one year later would become the first African-American elected to Congress from Maryland. Zepp and Mitchell encouraged McTeer to go to the smoldering front lines of the civil rights movement, to channel his anger into the cause of social justice.
"I wanted to go to Mississippi," McTeer said. He yearned to be among fellow African-Americans again, and in a place where he believed he could be useful. His Baltimore family was not happy about it, but with Mitchell's and Zepp's support, McTeer went to the Mississippi Delta that first summer after getting his bachelor's degree. He found himself among civil rights workers. The experience inspired him to pursue a law degree.
In 1972, he earned one from Rutgers University, then returned to Mississippi and established himself as a civil rights litigator in Mound Bayou. Just a year later, he took the case of two black women who had been denied public school teaching jobs because they had given birth to children out of wedlock. McTeer argued that the policy violated the women's constitutional rights. The case went to the Supreme Court in 1976. McTeer won. He was 25 years old.
In the decades that followed, McTeer had a busy career as an attorney, waging court battles against discrimination in housing and employment, representing clients in voting rights cases, and suing segregated Mississippi Delta municipalities that paved the sidewalks and streets of white neighborhoods while ignoring the needs of black ones.
In 1981, according to his biography on the McDaniel College website, McTeer was part of a legal team that won an unprecedented $500,000 in damages from a faction of the Ku Klux Klan for five black women who had been victims of a racially motivated shooting on the streets of Chattanooga, Tenn. It was McTeer who made the closing argument before the mostly white jury.
He later took on product liability and commercial litigation in some high-profile cases in Mississippi, winning honors for his service along the way.
Twenty years ago, he and his wife started providing scholarships to needy students from the Delta. Five years ago, he endowed a scholarship at McDaniel. In 2013, he was elected to the college's board of trustees. Last May, he gave a great commencement speech.
So he has found his way back to a college he left in anger, and the college has changed significantly. A record 36 percent of this year's freshman class are students of color, according to a McDaniel official, and the college has been cited by the New America Foundation for its efforts to increase minority enrollment over the last 10 years.
McTeer now looks back on his undergraduate days, and Zepp's mentoring, as experiences that changed his life. Zepp taught him to listen, and to love his enemies, to find common ground, to learn but to act because "to know and not act is not to know."
On Saturday, McTeer was to be in Westminster again for the dedication of a new plaza he funded to honor his late mentor. It will be called McTeer-Zepp Plaza.
Dan Rodricks' column runs on Wednesday and Sunday. More commentary can be found at his blog, Roughly Speaking, on baltimoresun.com.