The board that oversees most public colleges and universities in Maryland yesterday elected its first African American leader, a milestone in a state that maintained segregated public colleges well into the 1960s.

Nathan A. Chapman Jr., 41, of Columbia, a son of a railroad laborer and a seamstress who grew up to manage the nation's first black-owned securities brokerage firm, took over the chairmanship of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents at a meeting in College Park. Chapman, a Baltimore businessman with close ties to Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D), was elected chairman by acclamation.

"As the first African American elected chairman," Chapman said, "I recognize I'm standing on the shoulders of African American educators and civil rights leaders who dedicated their lives to . . . equal education." He takes the reins of a growing system of 13 institutions of higher learning with 105,000 students.

Chapman succeeds Lance W. Billingsley, another Glendening associate and a Prince George's lawyer who had held the post for four years. Chapman, appointed to the board in 1995, had been vice chairman.

Glendening had made it known that Chapman, who has raised thousands of dollars for Glendening's campaigns, was his choice to lead the university system, which has an annual budget of $2.2 billion. The governor appoints all regents, but the board selects its chairman each year.

The governor's spokesman, Ray Feldmann, said Glendening "has been obviously very public" in supporting Chapman. "He's eager to see him serve as chair."

Chapman, whose Baltimore-based firm manages more than $600 million for clients, including more than $100 million in state retirement funds, made no apologies for his Glendening connection. "I'm proud to be associated with this governor."

The regents named retired Adm. Charles R. Larson, former superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy, as vice chairman. Some State House politicians had wanted Larson for the top post. But at least one legislator, Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman (D-Baltimore), suggested that Larson later could ascend to the chairmanship. Larson, whom Glendening appointed a regent in May, won praise for his chairmanship last year of a state task force on higher education.

Hoffman was guarded in her appraisal of Chapman. "I hope it works out. . . . From what I've read about him, I don't think he wants to fail at this. I think he will put his energies into doing a good job."

But she held out hopes for Larson eventually to ascend to the chairmanship.

"The governor said to me the other day that since Chapman was vice chairman, it's a natural progression" for him to assume the chairmanship, Hoffman said.

Chapman said he will remain in the job, which is notoriously time-consuming and pays only expenses, "as long as I feel good about it, as long as the board and the citizens of Maryland have confidence in me. . . . I think it's a responsibility that for all who are given much, much is expected. Giving back to the community is an important part of that."

Chapman graduated in 1980 from the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, where he was student body president and graduated in 2 1/2 years.

"I benefited mightily from having a quality education," he said. "I want to see that everybody who has the ability and qualifies can do the same."

Those who have followed Chapman's rapid rise in the world of finance and investment describe him as ambitious and self-assured.

"He has a strong work ethic, and he's confident of his abilities," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings (D-Baltimore), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Rawlings, 62, recalling a recent past when blacks of his own generation could not attend the segregated University of Maryland, described Chapman as "clearly the right person at the right time for this position."

Chapman, an only child, was raised in West Baltimore by parents who had been part of the great migration of southern blacks moving north in the 1940s for economic advancement. He credits his mother with his strong faith and his late father, who unloaded rail cars, for his strong work ethic.

Chapman spent two years in the Air Force before college, then worked for two years as an accountant for KPMG Peat Marwick. In 1983, he joined Alex Brown & Sons, the nation's oldest investment banking house, where he was the firm's only minority stockbroker at the time, he recalled.

After three years, Chapman left to form his own company with $500,000, including $50,000 from Alex Brown. He now heads two publicly traded financial companies with branches in five states and corporate headquarters on the 28th floor of the World Trade Center on Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

Along the way, Chapman was cited for making trades on behalf of two clients without their permission, for which he paid a $4,037 fine. His firm also paid a $30,000 fine in 1996 to the National Association of Securities Dealers for failing to maintain sufficient money in reserve in 1993 and 1994.

"My view is our compliance record, if you compare it with most firms, is exemplary," Chapman said.

For 15 years, Chapman has lived in Columbia with his wife, Valerie, and three daughters, ages 9, 7 and 6, who attend the Columbia Academy, a private school. "I hope they'll be going to Maryland [public] universities," he said.

CAPTION: Nathan A. Chapman Jr., center, with university system Chancellor Donald Langenberg, will succeed Lance W. Billingsley, right, as regents chairman.