College fund named for 1st black student Martin Dyer honored by St. John's during homecoming events

Broke color barrier in '48

Contributions sought to allow impoverished scholars to buy books

September 29, 1997|By Kristi E. Swartz | Kristi E. Swartz,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

In 1948, St. John's College students recruited Martin A. Dyer from his poor East Baltimore neighborhood to be the first black to attend a private college south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Nearly 50 years later, after Dyer's successful career as a government lawyer, the college has established a fund in his name to help other impoverished students buy the Great Books that are integral to the school's curriculum.

The fund drive began three weeks ago, and the school has collected enough money to supply one student with volumes such as the Bible, "The Divine Comedy," "Don Quixote" and "Faust."

Students could borrow the books from the library or sell their books at the end of each semester to make money for the next set, said Joan Ruch, a college spokeswoman. But St. John's wants to encourage students to build libraries of their own, so it is important that they are able to buy, and keep, their books.

Many students attending school with financial aid can barely pay the $17,000 annual tuition, let alone buy books, she said.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Urban League and local churches raised the money for his tuition and books within two weeks, Dyer said.

Dyer, who graduated from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, one of two black high schools in Baltimore at the time, was recruited for St. John's by students who had served in World War II and were attending college on the GI Bill of Rights.

The military veterans had shared foxholes in France and on the Pacific atoll of Tarawa with blacks, and became "increasingly tolerant of different kinds of people," Dyer said.

The faculty supported the students, but the board of visitors and governors opposed the idea until it was "dragged kicking and screaming" to make the change, Dyer said.

The decision to integrate St. John's came six years before the Supreme Court ruled that separate schools were inherently unequal, and nearly 20 years before Anne Arundel County schools were integrated.

"The students thought this was the right thing to do and the board finally agreed, with a little reluctance," said Harvey Poe, who was the college's assistant dean at the time.

The college sent students on recruiting trips to high schools throughout Maryland for black applicants, Dyer recalled. "I would not have applied had they not come" to Dunbar, he said.

One black had applied to St. John's before Dyer, but college officials rejected him because they were concerned about him living in a segregated city.

"It was pretty daunting to be a black coming to St. John's in 1948," Poe said.

Dyer could not eat in the same restaurants, see a movie in the same theaters or get a haircut at the same barbershops as his classmates. He was virtually confined to the small campus that enrolled only 100 students.

Former student George Udel, a classmate of Dyer's, remembers a time he and a few friends wanted to get hamburgers at the Little Campus, a popular college hangout a few blocks from the campus on Maryland Avenue.

Dyer said he couldn't go along because he knew he would not be served, and Udel laid plans to picket the restaurant.

"It was mostly because I was a hell raiser and because it seemed completely stupid to me," Udel said.

But Dyer begged them to reconsider, and the picketing plan was abandoned.

Dyer "was very determined and had his nose to the grindstone, and I have great admiration for what he accomplished," Udel said.

Dyer joined the Army after graduating from St. John's in 1952 and attended the University of Maryland Law School four years later.

He retired from 30 years of federal service in 1989 and now is associate director of Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc., where he manages a fair housing program.

Saturday night, Dyer and three others -- from the classes of 1935, 1947 and 1955 -- received the alumni association's Order of Merit for their achievements as part of the college's homecoming activities.

Pub Date: 9/29/97

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