'He did what he thought was right'

Exhibit celebrates life of Walter S. Mills, a pillar of the Parole community who won equal pay for black teachers

  • Prince Hall Masons of Universal Lodge No. 14 regalia are among the items on display showing the community life of Walter S. Mills.
Prince Hall Masons of Universal Lodge No. 14 regalia are among… (Kim Hairston, Baltimore…)
November 21, 2010|By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun

It has been years now, but Valerie Mills-Cooper remembers her father working the front gate at Carr's Beach, one of the few Maryland resorts open to African-Americans during segregation.

Walter Mills, the popular longtime principal of Parole Elementary School near Annapolis, worked many summers as a ticket-taker at the popular attraction to supplement his income, and to little Valerie, he might as well have been a king.

"I thought my dad owned the beach," says Mills-Cooper, 59, a retired county teacher and administrator. "I figured if people had to go through him to get in, he must run the place."

She might not have realized it at the time, but her father was indeed a commanding figure — if not on the beach, at least in the history of public education. Seventy-one years ago this week, Mills was the winning plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Anne Arundel County Board of Education that won African-American teachers the right to be paid the same wages as their white counterparts.

The landmark action — brought by a young attorney named Thurgood Marshall and one of many that paved the way for the full integration of schools — is the focal point of a new exhibit at the Banneker-Douglass Museum, "Shaping History Through Service: The Walter Mills Story," which started last month and runs through April. It recounts Mills' life in pictures, papers and personal reflections — a vivid tribute to a man without whose life of principled action, the world would be a different place.

Mills-Cooper calls herself proud that the museum has memorialized the man who guarded the beach, though she doubts her father — who died in 1994 after a 50-year career as an educator — would be as excited about the display as the hundreds who have come through since it opened on Halloween.

"I think he'd just look at all this stuff and say, 'Hmm, I did that?' " she says. "None of this was for glory. He got up every day and did what he thought was right."

Big man

Those who remember Mills say he was a sociable type — in his rare free time, he loved bowling and going dancing with his wife, Irene, at Quiet Waters Park — but he didn't work those summers at the beach because he loved the action.

He and Irene had bought a house on Forest Drive in the days when it was still a lonely country road, and after having their only child, Valerie, in 1951, they wanted to pay it off as quickly as possible so she would never have to worry about it.

"He always said, 'Live as though you'll die tomorrow, but plan as though you'll live forever,' " Mills-Cooper says.

Mills learned that thinking early. One of seven children, he grew up on a 1,000-acre tobacco farm at Maddox, St. Mary's County, and had the benefit of observing the industry and foresight of his parents, William and Ellen.

In those days, Maryland's African-Americans had to sacrifice for a chance at the kind of education whites could take for granted. Walter attended the local "colored school" until he was 12, but had to leave home to continue his schooling after that. At 13, in 1921, he became a boarder at a high school for blacks in Bowie, later studied at Bowie Normal School for Teachers (now Bowie State), and because of segregationist policies in his home state, had to leave Maryland to complete both his bachelor's and master's degrees.

He returned to serve as a principal, first in St. Mary's County and then on the Eastern Shore, before taking the job as principal-teacher at Parole Elementary School — a two-room Rosenwald School for African-American children — in 1931. The school grew in size over the years and was moved from its original site on Hicks Avenue to Chinquapin Round Road, its current location, but Mills was principal until he retired 47 years later.

The 230-pound educator brought formality to his work (he always wore a three-piece suit) and struck generations as a fair but demanding teacher. Kids might have wanted someone easier, but his approach worked. "Even after he retired, [people] were always thanking him," says Jean Queene Haughton of Annapolis, who was a first-grade student of Mills' and returned as his assistant principal in the early 1960s. "At funerals, in church, it was, 'Mr. Mills, I'll always remember you — I don't know how we'd have done it without you.' "

There wasn't a late afternoon, she says, when you didn't see Mills sitting on the porch of some Parole home, staying abreast of family news, or hear of him using his ample connections to solve some problem in the community. He also elevated the school, bringing in outside experts to train his staff and pressing for upgrades to its supplies The Mid-Atlantic States Evaluation Team often cited its quality.

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