“My Journey Mattered”
UMD Honors First Black Woman to Complete Bachelor’s Degreeby Sala Levin ’10 | Commencement photo by Stephanie S. Cordle; Yearbook photo courtesy of 1959 Terrapin
In fall 1955, freshman Elaine Johnson Coates would sometimes be studying in her Caroline Hall room when a neighbor would knock on the door and say she had a call on the hallway phone. She’d pick up the receiver and hear a string of vile insults. The message was clear: She wasn’t welcome at Maryland.
“I ate alone, I walked alone, I was in class alone,” says Coates ’59.
Coates back then was one of the first seven African-American students allowed to live on campus. Four years later, she was the only one to graduate, becoming the first African-American woman to earn a bachelor’s degree at the university. This spring, the Alumni Association honored the retired social worker and educator with a new award for an alumnus who has made a significant and sustained contribution that fosters diversity and inclusion—an award named in her honor.
The daughter of a railroad porter and a domestic worker, Coates grew up in Baltimore and went to the segregated Frederick Douglass High School. After the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954, Coates decided she wanted to go to the University of Maryland “because I could.” Her school counselor refused to write Coates a letter of recommendation and suggested she find a job; at her mother’s urging, Coates wrote her own letter, ultimately earning a four-year scholarship.
Caroline Hall “was very lonely at first,” she says. Her roommate, a high school classmate, “couldn’t take the pressure” and left partway through the year. “Some girls would speak to me in the dorm, but when they got outside, I guess because of peer pressure, it was a very different thing.”
Coates also found unequal treatment in classrooms. When she’d compare test results with fellow residents, she’d find that “we could have written the exact same thing, and that person would have an A- and I’d have a C-.”
Still, Coates persisted. “I had a plan and I had a purpose,” she says. “I wanted to do something that had never been done in my family. … I wanted to make my family and my church proud of me, and those whose shoulders I was standing on were very strong.”
She planned on being a teacher but didn’t get a placement after graduating from the College of Education; instead, she went into social work, and worked in that field and teaching throughout her career. Her two children—a personal trainer and an OB/GYN—also graduated from Maryland.
In addition to being welcomed back to campus for her honor at the Maryland Awards, Coates was also invited to address the Class of 2019 at Commencement in May.
“I stand upon this podium and look out at the diversity in the beautiful faces of this graduating class,” she said, “and it tells me that my journey mattered.”
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