Martin Dyer wasn't looking to become the Jackie Robinson of Annapolis. After the second or third time idealistic white classmates at St. John's College dragged him up Maryland Avenue for a confrontation with the bewildered Greek owners of the Little Campus diner over its whites-only rule, he'd had enough.
"Oh, it was embarrassing," Dyer recalled. "Tremendously."
Dyer, 73, broke the color barrier at the nation's third-oldest college when he arrived at St. John's from Baltimore in fall 1948. But integrating St. John's -- and challenging segregation in the shops and eateries of post-war Annapolis -- had not been high on his academic itinerary.
In spring of '48, Dyer, the son of a Baltimore steelworker, had the second-highest grade-point average in his class at segregated Dunbar High School. The top student was female. When some seniors from the all-male St. John's turned up at the guidance office one day looking for a recruit, the counselor tapped Dyer.
"She simply told me there was a splendid opportunity available," recalled Dyer, now a retired lawyer living in Baltimore. "I knew nothing about St. John's College. I'd never heard of it, in fact."
St. John's was the first all-white private college south of the Mason-Dixon line to integrate, according to college President Christopher Nelson, who spoke last week at the dedication of a new residence hall.
The first seven black graduates of St. John's attended the dedication of Gilliam Hall, a structure named for the late African American lawyer James H. Gilliam Jr., who was devoted to improving higher education opportunities for black students.
The alumni easily outnumbered the African Americans attending St. John this year; there are only three. But Dyer and the others said they were neither offended nor particularly surprised by that. The college, whose origins date to 1696, serves a largely self-selected group of young people drawn to its unusual curriculum.
Students spend all four years at St. John's reading and discussing great books. Everyone takes the same courses. Professors, known on this campus as tutors, teach across the subjects. There are few tests, and students are discouraged from inquiring about their final grades.
No other black student was enrolled at St. John's during the four years Dyer attended. Students from that era say racial tensions outside the college may have kept others away.
"There was a very big gap between the school and the town on many issues, and bringing in a black student didn't help at all," said Stewart Greenfield, an investment manager in Westport, Conn., who studied with Dyer. "It was a pioneering process."
Dyer found himself welcomed like family on the St. John's campus. Students had lobbied for years to integrate the school; here, at last, was the fruit of their labors.
"When I went into the dining hall the first time, I had no idea where I should sit, and someone came up to me and said, 'Why don't you sit at our table?'" Dyer recalled.
Everett Wilson, who enrolled at St. John's four years later as the second black student, recounted a similar welcome: "My first night there, when I went into the coffee shop, I was welcomed by at least 20 people. I sat down and they came over, one by one."
The students thought they could integrate the town, as well.
The obvious place to stage a protest was Little Campus, a diner on Maryland Avenue that served as a second home for students both from St. John's and the nearby Naval Academy. Dyer remembered going there at least twice with groups of hopeful white students, only to be turned away.
So the students tried a different tack. They went into the black section of Annapolis and tried to attend a movie with Dyer at the movie theater there.
"And they wouldn't let us in," recalled Adam Pinsker, of Woodstock, N.Y., a white classmate of Dyer's.
It was Wilson, one of two blacks who enrolled in the class of '56, who finally broke bread at Little Campus.
The son of farmers in Salisbury, Wilson had been urged to apply to St. John's by the owners of a manor where he worked as a gardener. Salisbury was comparatively integrated at the time. Wilson, who now lives in Severna Park, remembered being able to "walk into any store, any time I wanted."
Things were different in Annapolis. A shopkeeper told Wilson he could not try on a suit he intended to buy. Wilson recalls the shopkeeper saying, "You pay me, take it to campus and try it on, and if you don't like it, bring it back." Wilson replied, "Keep it."
Late one night in April 1954, a classmate awakened Wilson and rushed him up to Little Campus for another showdown with the owner.
Times were beginning to change. "The owner said, 'I'm sorry what happened to the other guy, but from now on, you guys are welcome here,' " Wilson recalled.
Little Campus closed in 1998, despite a visit the previous year by President Clinton.
Dyer thrived at St. John's despite his problems in town. He sang and acted, and he served in student government. He graduated in 1952 and went on to law school at the University of Maryland and a career in health care administration. Mostly retired now, he works during the holidays at the crafts store Calico Cat in Baltimore.
He has a wife and two grown daughters. One went to Earlham College in Indiana, the other to Harvard.
"Oh my God," Dyer chuckled, "it's a totally different world."