She beat segregation years before `Brown'

WAY BACK WHEN

May 22, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Louise Kerr-Hines occasionally thinks back to the 1940s, when she brought a federal suit against the Enoch Pratt Free Library after being denied admission to a library training course because she was black.

During the current 50th anniversary remembrances of Brown vs. Board of Education, it is worthwhile to recall the now nearly forgotten victories that preceded the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case.

Today, Kerr-Hines, 88, who uses a wheelchair and has failing eyesight, lives at Manor Care Roland Park near Cross Keys.

"I do the best I can with what I've got left," she says with a laugh.

Kerr-Hines, who was a reporter for the Afro-American during World War II and later taught school, retired in 1978 from the Maryland Department of Human Resources where she had worked in unemployment claims for 27 years.

In 1943, Kerr-Hines saw a newspaper ad for a trainee job at Pratt. She applied but was rejected because of her race.

Carl Murphy, publisher of the Afro, and Dr. Lillie Mae Jackson, president of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, urged Kerr-Hines to file suit.

"You've heard the expression, `Curiosity killed the cat, and satisfaction brought him back.' I did it because I wanted to see what would happen, plus I was annoyed at not being able to do what I wanted to do," Kerr-Hines recalled the other day.

"I was also helped by my father, Dr. T. Henderson Kerr, who was a pharmacist and owned Kerr's Pharmacy on George Street. He backed me up. Also, I felt kind of lucky because I was born on the Ides of March," she said.

The suit sought $4,500 in damages for the denial of her equal rights.

In 1944, U.S. District Court Judge Calvin W. Chestnut dismissed the suit, saying the library was a private corporation, not a governmental agency.

"The Negroes contended that since the city annually contributes about $500,000 to the library, the library is a public institution. They argued that by using public funds for that purpose, the city was taking funds of Negroes allegedly barred from the training course without due process of law," The Sun reported.

Kerr-Hines' lawyers appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va.

On April 17, 1945, the court ruled that the Pratt was an "instrumentality of the State of Maryland," and there can be "no doubt that the applicant was excluded ... because of her race," Judge Morris A. Soper of Baltimore wrote in his decision.

The Court of Appeals discovered that 200 applications from African-Americans had been rejected by the library under a long-standing practice.

"On June 14, 1933, the trustees of the library formally resolved to make no changes in the policy, then existing, not to employ Negro assistants on the library service staff in view of the public criticism which would rise and the effect upon the morale of the library staff and public," the decision said.

The opinion also noted that two African-Americans were hired in 1942 as technical assistants at a branch library that served blacks. But neither had attended the training school.

Seven days later, the Pratt's board of trustees appealed the decision to the Supreme Court of the United States, but it declined to hear the case.

The board of trustees rescinded its policy of barring blacks from its training classes and said all "further action of this board and the library with respect to the training class and the recruiting of the library staff will be in accordance with the language and spirit of that opinion," reported The Sun.

Kerr-Hines never reapplied for a job at the library.

"They later disbanded the class, and she went on to be a school teacher. We are proud of her because she stuck to her guns, and it was something she really wanted to do, " said Deborah D. Taylor, a friend who is the Pratt's coordinator of school and student services.

"This became a hallmark for the next generation who have to be cognizant of what happened before their time. I think she took joy in what she had done," she said.

"It was something that happened a long time ago; however, if she ever heard or saw anything about the library, she'd occasionally mention it," said Delores P. Kerr, her sister-in-law.

"It was just an incident. I was never enraged or anything like that, I just wanted to be able to get a job that I wanted," Kerr-Hines said.

In 1981, Anna A. Curry, an African-American, was appointed director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

Kerr-Hines said she rejoiced at living long enough to see an African-American head the institution where 38 years earlier, she had been denied a job because of the color of her skin.

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