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U-Md. to dedicate dorm named for Black students who broke barriers on campus

The Johnson-Whittle Hall and Heritage Community plaza on the University of Maryland campus in College Park. (John T. Consoli/U-Md.)

In the fall of 1955, Elaine Johnson Coates became one of seven African American students allowed to live on the University of Maryland campus. She graduated four years later, the first African American woman to do so.

She overcame struggles of prejudice and loneliness to get her education.

“I thought when I walked away in 1959 with my diploma in hand that no one would ever speak my name again,” Coates said. “I was surprised but really honored when they contacted me and started asking about my time there.”

Coates’s name will now be part of the campus, on one of two residence halls honoring former students who broke barriers at the university. Johnson-Whittle Hall — which will be dedicated in a ceremony Friday — also honors Hiram Whittle, who in 1951 was the first African American male admitted to the university.

Whittle died in 2021. After the announcement of the residence hall names in 2020, Whittle said, “My hope is that my story will continue to inspire the campus community to move forward and follow their dreams.”

The co-ed residence hall will house 450 students, with single and double rooms available.

“A great privilege of my career is playing a role in honoring Maryland trailblazers, including the time I have spent with Hiram Whittle and Elaine Johnson Coates,” said U-Md. President Darryll Pines. “Students from all backgrounds come to Maryland and thrive, in part, because of them. Now generations of Terps will call Johnson-Whittle Hall their home, and they will be inspired by a story of diverse excellence.”

The university opened a neighboring residence hall, Pyon-Chen Hall, in 2021 honoring Pyon Su, who in 1891 became the first Korean student to graduate from the institution, and Chunjen Constant Chen, who in 1915 became the first Chinese student to enroll at the school.

Coates initially planned to go into teaching after she graduated but did not receive a placement — Black schools were oversaturated and White schools were not hiring. She pivoted and went into social work for two years. Later, she got an opportunity to teach at her former high school for a few years, then returned to social work. She eventually earned a master’s degree in social work.

U-Md. previously honored Coates’s achievements at the Maryland Awards in 2019, when she became the first recipient of an award in her name. She also gave the 2019 commencement address, discussing the importance of being fearless even in the midst of struggle.

Coates said the university has been taking the right steps toward creating diverse and inclusive spaces. “During the past couple of years, as I’ve been going out for meetings and seeing all the other opportunities for Blacks and other minorities out there, it’s just amazing,” Coates said. “I did not have that support. It was not there.”

Coates will attend Friday’s ceremony, with friends and family traveling to show their support.

Her granddaughter Paris Walker made a TikTok highlighting Coates’s personal tour of the residence hall. “I am incredibly honored to have been able to share this groundbreaking moment with her,” Walker wrote in a caption.

Coates’s children, Tamara Coates-Walker and Jason Coates, who both attended U-Md., will be in attendance Friday. Jason Coates works as a wellness director and trainer, and Coates-Walker works as an obstetrician-gynecologist.

Coates-Walker said she is amazed that her mother’s story is so important to others and that she has the opportunity to be honored in such a big way.

She said that although her mother was the first Black woman to graduate from U-Md., she didn’t view herself as a “legacy” and her mother wouldn’t harp on what took place throughout her experience.

“She would tell me to turn every scar into a star, meaning find something good in any situation,” Coates-Walker said. “These were the lessons I took when I went to Maryland.”

More on local education

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K-12 classrooms: The Montgomery County school system is revisiting safety training after a report of a student with a gun led to a campus lockdown. New safety protocols also are in the works in D.C. after a bus driver crashed a bus and was charged with a DUI. A settlement in a public records lawsuit reveals some of the emails submitted to Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s education tip line.

On campus: The University of Maryland has pledged to expand aid for in-state students who have significant financial need. What the twists, turns and drops of roller coasters are teaching Johns Hopkins University students about engineering.

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