Walter S. Mills, whose 1939 suit against the Anne Arundel County Board of Education resulted in equal pay for black principals and teachers, died Monday of cardiac arrest at Anne Arundel Medical Center. He was 85.
At the time of his suit, white school principals received $1,800 a year compared with the $1,050 that Mr. Mills and other black principals earned.
"I felt that what we were doing was just as important as the white principals and that we should be paid equally for it," he told The Sun in 1984.
The only plaintiff in the test case, Mr. Mills was principal of what is now Parole Elementary School. He was represented by Thurgood Marshall, then a lawyer with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Mr. Marshall, later a Supreme Court justice, said the salary discrepancy was caused by racial differences and violated the U.S. Constitution's 14th Amendment.
The school board tried to head off Mr. Mills' legal action by offering him a 10 percent pay increase. But he refused the offer.
Noah A. Hillman, then the school board attorney, asked that the suit be dismissed based on "extenuating circumstances." He also argued that paying whites and blacks the same salaries would require a 7-cent increase in the county tax rate and that black teachers achieved poorer results with their students.
On Jan. 12, 1940, Judge W. Calvin Chestnut of the U.S. District Court in Baltimore ruled in Mr. Mills' favor and in his decree "perpetually enjoined the School Board from discriminating in payment of salaries against the plaintiff and other colored teachers in the county."
The case is one of only two cited in law books concerning discriminatory pay practices in education. It came 15 years before the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case in 1954.
In 1993, the case was the subject of a one-act play, "The Lion and the Fox," by playwright and director T. G. Cooper. It was performed at the Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis.
"He is one of our American heroes," Mr. Cooper told The Sun in 1993, "a man who stood up for equality years before Rosa Parks took a seat in the front of the bus."
Edward J. Anderson, retired superintendent of Anne Arundel County Schools, said Mr. Mills "never mentioned the 1939 case and I only learned about it after someone showed me some clippings. It simply never came up. It was a very courageous thing for him to have done. He righted a great injustice."
Mr. Mills was born and reared on a farm his parents owned in St. Mary's County. He got his early education in a one-room schoolhouse. In 1929, he graduated from Bowie High and Normal School and in 1939 earned his bachelor's degree from Hampton Institute in Virginia.
He began his teaching career in 1929 in St. Mary's County and taught in Charles County schools before coming to Parole Elementary School, where he spent 46 years before retiring in 1978.
In 1941, he established the Parole Health Center on Drew Street in Annapolis, which is still in operation. In 1984, the National Education Association gave him its Whitney M. Young Jr. Memorial Award for educators who have fought discrimination.
He enjoyed traveling, listening to music and watching football and baseball. He also maintained a garden at his Forest Drive residence in Annapolis, where he raised more than 60 varieties of roses.
Services are planned for 11 a.m. Saturday at St. Philips Episcopal Church, Bestgate and Severn Grove roads in Annapolis, where Mr. Mills was a member for 62 years.
Survivors include his wife of 45 years, the former Irene Stryckning, a retired teacher and principal; a daughter, Valerie Mills Cooper of Annapolis; a sister, Ethel Suydan of Washington, D.C.; and a granddaughter, Irene Cooper of Annapolis.
Memorial donations may be made to St. Philips Episcopal Church.