Louise Kerr Hines, a retired state employment claims examiner whose 1940s lawsuit paved the way for African-Americans to work as librarians at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, died of cancer Monday at Homewood FutureCare. The West Baltimore resident was 91.
Born Louise Lyles Kerr in Baltimore and raised on Division Street, she graduated with honors from Frederick Douglass High School in 1934. She was salutatorian of her class at the old Coppin Normal School, where she remained an active alumna.
She taught in the city's segregated public schools - No. 157 and 140 - for five years, worked in the Baltimore office of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and during World War II was a reporter for the Baltimore Afro-American.
While working at the paper, Mrs. Hines saw an ad for a trainee position at the Pratt. She applied but was rejected because of her race, she recalled in a 2004 Sun column.
She said that Carl Murphy, the Afro's publisher and Lillie Mae Jackson, president of the Baltimore NAACP chapter, urged her 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," she told a Sun reporter.
"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. In 1944, U.S. District Judge W. Calvin 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.
Her attorneys appealed to the 4th U.S. 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 that there could be "no doubt that the applicant was excluded ... because of her race," Judge Morris A. Soper wrote in his decision.
About 200 applications from African-Americans had been rejected by the library under a long-standing practice, the court noted.
Seven days later, the Pratt's board of trustees appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case. The library's trustees then opened the training classes "in accordance with the language and spirit of that opinion," a Sun account said.
Mrs. Hines never reapplied for a job at the library but was honored at a ceremony in 1986 during the library's centennial.
"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," she said in 2002.
In 1951, Mrs. Hines became a claims examiner for the Maryland Department of Human Resources and retired in 1978.
Mrs. Hines enjoyed freelance and creative writing, sewing, cooking, piano playing and travel. She was also a Maryland Historical Society volunteer and did oral histories.
Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. today at Heritage United Church of Christ, 3106 Liberty Heights Ave., where she was an active member and financial contributor to an elevator and accessibility project.
Survivors include five nephews, Thomas Kerr III of Boston, Mass., Judson Kerr Jr. of Reisterstown, James Kerr and Gerald Kerr, both of Columbia, and David Kerr of Laurel; and two nieces, Judy Kerr of New York City and Jessie Louise St. Lawrence of Baltimore. Her husband, C. Marsell Hines, died in 1984.