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Esther McCready, first African American student at U-Md. nursing school, dies at 89

Esther McCready stands in front of a photo of herself on display at the University of Maryland School of Nursing's museum in 2009.
Esther McCready stands in front of a photo of herself on display at the University of Maryland School of Nursing's museum in 2009. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun)
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Esther E. McCready, who helped open segregated professional and graduate schools to African Americans when she won a court victory in 1950 to become the first Black student admitted to the University of Maryland School of Nursing, died Sept. 2 at a hospital in Randallstown, Md. She was 89.

The cause was a blood-borne infection, said a niece, Colletha Massey.

Ms. McCready grew up in East Baltimore, in a neighborhood near Johns Hopkins Hospital, and had decided by age 8 that she wanted to be a nurse. Schools, like much of American life at the time, were segregated. When Ms. McCready applied to the U-Md. nursing school in Baltimore in 1949 — making no secret that she had attended an African American high school — she understood that her application was certain to be rejected.

“I knew what they were going to say,” she once told the Baltimore Sun, “but I wanted to make them say it.”

At first, what the nursing school said was nothing. When Ms. McCready repeatedly checked on the status of her application, university administrators told her it was under review. By the late summer of 1949, when the new academic year began and Ms. McCready had still received no reply, she agreed to allow the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to take her case to court.

At the time, the NAACP was engaged in an array of legal battles to secure educational equality for African Americans, a key front in the civil rights movement. The most important milestone came in 1954 with the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education that declared segregated public schools unconstitutional. But there were other important victories that preceded it.

In 1936, Donald Gaines Murray became the first African American admitted to the U-Md. law school in more than four decades, with future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall representing him in court. Murray, Marshall and Marshall’s mentor, Charles Hamilton Houston, were among the lawyers who crafted Ms. McCready’s case in McCready v. Byrd. (The defendant was Harry Clifton “Curley” Byrd, the president of U-Md.)

The nursing school had offered Ms. McCready a scholarship to attend Meharry Medical College, a historically Black school in Nashville, and won an initial victory in 1949, when a Baltimore judge ruled that with that offer, the school had satisfied its constitutional obligations under the “separate but equal” doctrine established in 1896 under its Plessy v. Ferguson decision.

But Ms. McCready appealed and, in 1950, won. Describing the provision to send African American applicants to historically Black schools as a “dodge that could not even be called artful,” a Washington Post editorial at the time declared that “there is something extremely heartening in the candid recognition of this fact by the Maryland Supreme Court.”

In 1951, Byrd announced that applications to professional schools at U-Md. would be evaluated without consideration of race. The same year, the university accepted its first African American undergraduate student, Hiram Whittle.

For Ms. McCready, many challenges remained. On the first day, she told the Sun, “nobody spoke. Nobody said, ‘Hi, come and join us.’ Nobody said, ‘Come and join us in the cafeteria.’ But the dietary aides, who were African American, were beaming at me.”

She recalled a White nurse who counseled her, “If you don’t pray, you won’t get out of here, because nobody here is for you.” Ms. McCready’s response, by her account, was that “if God intends for me to get out of here, nobody here can stop me.”

Years later, Ms. McCready recalled to an interviewer for U-Md. that when she came home after the first day, she was so visibly distraught that her mother told her she didn’t have to return. But she did, enduring continued insults as she pursued her education.

After first denying her a dorm room, the nursing school allowed her to live on campus, but alone, in a private room fashioned from an unused office. At least one lecturer intentionally faced away from her in class, according to an account in the Online Journal of Issues in Nursing. “I can still hear you,” Ms. McCready recalled telling him, “and I am taking notes to prepare for the exam.”

“Through it all,” the nursing school said in a statement after Ms. McCready’s death, “she maintained a quiet dignity and determination that could not be defeated. Her courage helped open the doors for generations of ­African-American nursing students, for whom she has served as a mentor and role model.”

Ms. McCready graduated in 1953 and went on to a decades-long nursing career in Baltimore, where she was head nurse at Morgan State University, and worked in Boston and New York.

Esther Elizabeth McCready, one of four children, was born in Baltimore on Jan. 10, 1931. Her mother was a domestic worker for the Catholic Church, and her father sold produce and poultry from a horse-drawn cart.

In high school, Ms. McCready worked at a hospital as a nurse’s aide. At home, she absorbed from her brother — an accomplished pianist and organist — a deep musical education.

During her time in New York, she studied classical voice at the Manhattan School of Music, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1966 and a master’s degree in 1970. She sang in a Metropolitan Opera production of “Porgy and Bess” and toured with the acclaimed African American opera singer Grace Bumbry.

Ms. McCready pursued a second career as a teacher in the New York City school system but continued working as a nurse, including taking day assignments at Harlem Hospital. She returned to the Baltimore area in the 1990s and served on the U-Md. nursing school’s Board of Visitors from 1996 to 2004. Her honors included induction into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame.

Ms. McCready had no immediate survivors.

“People ask if I was bitter about what happened,” she told the Sun in 2009, recalling her time in nursing school. “I don’t allow bitterness to enter my life. Bitterness destroys you.”

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