Sharing tale of triumph from `trying time'

First black student at UM nursing marks anniversary

March 18, 2003|By Anna Kaplan | Anna Kaplan,SUN STAFF

Looking at the diverse crowd gathered to hear Esther McCready speak yesterday, it's hard to believe that just 50 years ago, the self-assured, eloquent woman needed a high-profile lawsuit to help her become the first African-American student at the University of Maryland Nursing School.

McCready, a retired nurse, teacher, musician and mentor, gave an informal talk about her experiences at her alma mater yesterday in honor of Women's History Month and the golden anniversary of her graduation.

Her time at Maryland was far from easy. She had to deal with professors pointedly lecturing to a different side of the classroom from where she sat; with being unable to eat lunch with other students because of segregation; with being given a converted office as her room, on a different floor than other students, in the nursing residence hall.

She remembers an instructor saying to her, "If you don't pray to God, you won't get out of here, because nobody's here for you." She replied, "If God intends for me to get out, no one can stop me."

"It was a trying time," she said yesterday, "but as I look back on it, interesting."

McCready, a Baltimore native, wanted to be a nurse from the age of 8. While attending Dunbar High School in East Baltimore, she was dissatisfied with the options available to her in the segregated university system, and "thought I should be able to apply to any school in Maryland."

The University of Maryland was the only one to send her an application. But it wasn't until she sought help from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and lawyers Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall, the future Supreme Court justice, that she was finally allowed to attend classes in 1950.

McCready's case opened the doors of the University of Maryland to other African-American students. In 1951, three aspiring nurses entered the program; however, none graduated.

Later, McCready worked as a nurse in several hospitals on the East Coast. She studied at the Manhattan School of Music and received an elementary education degree from Hunter College. She taught in New York public schools for many years and now lives in Manhattan.

Yesterday's talk also featured David Terry, who has written extensively on segregation in the United States. He said Baltimore's reaction to integration was more progressive than that of other Southern cities. "Esther's story is important because it shows a piece of a large puzzle," he said, emphasizing the significance of individual experience in the study of history.

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