The last time St. John's College opened a new dormitory was 1954, just after the private school in Annapolis went coed. A residence hall dedicated yesterday honored diversity of a different sort.
The 48-bed Gilliam Hall is named for the late James H. Gilliam Jr., an African American lawyer devoted to improving higher education opportunities for black students. The first seven African American graduates of St. John's, a school that integrated in 1948, attended the dedication.
Gilliam, a graduate of Morgan State University in Baltimore, was a trustee of the Hodson Trust, which largely funded the new dorm.
At St. John's, where lessons were first taught in 1696, students read Plato, Newton and Einstein in the original texts. There are few grades or tests, and no final exams. The "great books" study plan is so unusual that no one may transfer in with credits from another school.
Martin Dyer, the first African American student to enroll at St. John's, was recruited to this unique environment in the late 1940s from then-segregated Dunbar High School in Baltimore. Yesterday, he recalled getting a warm welcome from the students who had launched the desegregation effort and from the faculty that had embraced it. The broader Annapolis community proved less hospitable.
"The problem, to the extent that there was one, was the town," said Dyer, who graduated in 1952 and now lives in Baltimore. "I was isolated to the campus."
The desegregation movement began with students and spread to the faculty and administration. Well into the 1950s, the campus remained "an island of liberality in a sea of segregation," said Jerry Hynson, a black student who graduated in 1959, paraphrasing a pamphlet he read about the school at the time.
"On campus, you were just one of the crowd," Hynson said. But he couldn't join fellow students at Little Campus, a popular student hangout, now defunct.
"Could I go to the supermarket? Absolutely," said Leo Simms, Class of '56, another of the first black students. "Could I go to the movie theater? No. Could I go to some restaurants? No."
St. John's integrated several years before the Brown v. Board of Education ruling of 1954, well ahead of most Southern colleges. That's a source of both pride and shame, said Christopher B. Nelson, the school's current president.
"While we are hardly proud of having been one of the many historically white colleges south of the Mason-Dixon line," Nelson said, "we are told that we were the first such college to desegregate voluntarily before Brown."
Outside the hall where he spoke, two young couples played croquet on the front lawn off College Avenue. Four young men smoked tobacco from a hookah around a table behind McDowell Hall, a structure built in 1789 and considered the third-oldest academic building in continuous use in the United States. Fresh graffiti on the wall of the campus bookstore urged students to "smash the state," a slogan as broad as the curriculum at this bookish school.
The curriculum, adopted in 1937, aims to teach students how to think by leading them through centuries of original texts, in roughly chronological order, from Homer and Sophocles to Kafka and Freud. Faculty are not called professors -- "they do not profess," Nelson said -- but rather tutors, and classes tend toward roundtable seminars rather than lectures. There are final grades, but students are discouraged from looking at them.
St. John's isn't much more integrated now than it was in the 1950s; minorities account for 8 percent of the approximately 450 students.
And black students?
"Three: me, my brother and a freshman who's half black, half Jewish," said Daniel Russell, a senior who lives in the new dorm.
Russell said he loves the college because St. John's is an essentially self-selected student body, its dorms filled with an assortment of mostly high-achieving students who found the school and its curriculum appealing. There is a new campus initiative to recruit more minority applicants.
There was a time when most anyone could find good student housing within a few blocks of the campus in Annapolis. But over the past decade, spiraling property values have pushed rents beyond the reach of many students, Nelson said.
"The downtown historic district served as a sort of extended dormitory for years and years," he said. "But that has changed. The students have moved farther and farther away."
The new dorm, which opened to students a few months before the dedication, will permit the college to house about three-quarters of its students on campus.
Some of the older dorms date to the 19th century. "They're terrible," Russell said. "There [are] pipes sticking out of the walls. All you have to do is roll over the wrong way and you'll singe your nose off."