SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- A woman who was denied entrance to a southwest Missouri college more than 60 years ago recently watched her 55-year-old son graduate from the same school.
Mary Jean Walls was an 18-year-old graduate of the all-black Lincoln High School in Springfield 62 years ago. The Springfield News Leader reported that Walls was the first black student to apply to then-Southwest Missouri State University, which denied her admission.
But on Friday, Walls, now 80, watched her son, Terry Walls, receive his bachelor's degree in criminology from Missouri State University. The school changed its name in 2005.
She says she's proud of her son, because he has turned his life around. Terry Walls had spent about 25 years of his life incarcerated, but is now the chairman of the ex-offender program that's run by the Springfield chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He also has earned six credit hours toward his master's degree and wants to earn a doctorate.
"I decided that I was not going to let anybody define me or confine me," he said.
Terry Walls also uncovered in 2009 what his mother had never discussed -- her rejection from the university.
"It was such a shock that I just buried it," she said.
But Terry Walls did some digging, which took him to the Special Collections and Archives at MSU's Meyer Library, where he found a transcript of one of his mother's letters to the school's administrative registrar:
"My parents are not well-to-do and the opportunity to pursue supervised study here would mean much by enabling me to continue the advantage of family environment and avoiding the incurring of additional financial expenses, which we cannot afford," her letter said.
Mary was one of 12 children and her father was a custodian at Lincoln High. She had received scholarship offers to two all-black universities, but Mary didn't want to leave Springfield and couldn't afford to, either. She never went to college.
When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that segregating students into "separate but equal" schools was illegal, Mary was married and raising a family.
But, in 2010, thanks to her son's research, MSU established the Mary Jean Walls Multicultural Scholarship. Today, of the 22,866 students enrolled in the Missouri State System, 585, or 2.5 percent, are black.
Interim President Clif Smart acknowledged mother and son during Friday's ceremony.