Esther McCready (1931-2020)
MSA SC 3520-14290
Born in Baltimore, Esther McCready grew up near Johns Hopkins Hospital and came of age during the modern civil rights movement. With the help of NAACP lawyers, Charles Hamilton Houston, Donald Gaines Murray, and Thurgood Marshall, McCready sued for admission to the University of Maryland School of Nursing. She won her case in the Maryland Court of Appeals on April 14, 1950, helping to lay the groundwork for the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision of 1954. She graduated from the University of Maryland in 1953.1
One of four children, McCready grew up in a bustling home. She remembers wanting to be a nurse for most of her childhood: “I was delivered by a doctor at Johns Hopkins [Hospital], and if you were born at Hopkins or delivered by a Hopkins doctor, they followed you in the [Harriet Lane Pediatric] clinic until you were 16 years old. . . That planted the seed. I always knew I would be interested in nursing.”2 For Esther, raised in East Baltimore, segregation was a way of life. Her all-black high school, Dunbar High, was one of only two high schools for African Americans in Baltimore. However, Esther made the most of her opportunities. While in high school she gained experience as a nurse’s aid working part-time at Sinai Hospital, and, upon graduation, requested applications from nursing schools in Maryland. Higher education in Maryland was also segregated, with only Provident Hospital offering training to African American nurses; only the University of Maryland responded to her request, and they offered a difficult choice.3 On February 1, 1949, the all-white nursing school offered a scholarship to the all-black Meharry Medical College School of Nursing in Tennessee, where the University of Maryland paid tuition and all living expenses for three African Americans a year rather than educate them in Baltimore.4 Having grown up in Baltimore, McCready believed she should be able to attend school in Baltimore and refused the offer. Instead, she sought the help of the NAACP.
Esther McCready approached the NAACP at an opportune time. Civil rights lawyers were engaged in a broad attempt to overthrow the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson “Separate but Equal” ruling that codified segregation and Jim Crow. One strategy was to sue to integrate professional schools. In Maryland, the last success had been in 1936 when Donald G. Murray was admitted to the University of Maryland School of Law. However, fourteen long years had passed without an important victory. Murray, Charles Hamilton Houston, and Thurgood Marshall took on McCready’s case, eager to shut down the practice of sending African-American students out of state on scholarships rather than educate them at white schools. Two recent Supreme Court rulings had declared that African Americans be allowed to study at professional schools in their home states. Esther’s case, McCready v. Byrd, brought Maryland in compliance with the higher court’s ruling. According to the Afro-American, the opinion issued by Judge Charles Markell stated that “the State cannot require a colored student to accept a scholarship at an out-of-State institution for courses offered to white students within the State."5 Esther, at the center of the controversy, could finally go to the nursing school which was state supported and be able to remain in her hometown.
Being “the first” is never easy; it was all the more difficult in the charged atmosphere of the newly desegregated University of Maryland School of Nursing. With unflappable grace, McCready faced the hostile school. On her first day, only two people approached her; the first was another freshman who boldly crossed the color line to welcome her. The other person was an instructor who told her: “If you don’t pray to God, you won’t get out of here, because [nobody here is] for you.” McCready quickly replied: “If God intends for me to get out [of here, nobody here] can stop me.”6 Like countless other pioneers in the civil rights movement, McCready’s faith sustained her through the worst racism and bigotry. McCready had to contend with a professor who lectured to the opposite side of the classroom to pointedly ignore her and a dean who named all scholarship recipients except McCready at a public school event.7 She was kept out of the Nurses' Residence under the guise that there were no rooms available on campus. Therefore, she had to commute daily from home.8 However, McCready got what she wanted: a quality education. In 1953, she graduated and then passed her boards on the first attempt.9
While Esther McCready has lived the rest of her life out of the spotlight, her courage and determination have continued to inspire people. She worked at hospitals, health centers, and universities in Boston and New York City, and was head nurse at the former Morgan State College. In addition to nursing, she took courses in elementary education at Hunter College while teaching in the New York City Public School system for seventeen years. While in New York, she also tutored the young actress, Raven Symone, on the set of “The Cosby Show.”10 A talented singer, McCready earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in music from the Manhattan School of Music. She toured with opera diva Grace Bumbry and sang in the chorus of the Metropolitan Opera’s production of “Porgy and Bess.”11
From 1996 to 2004, McCready served on the Board of Visitors for the University of Maryland School of Nursing. She has also volunteered as a docent at the school’s museum, which displays information about her landmark court case. In 2004, she was inducted into the Maryland Women's Hall of Fame. The dean of the School of Nursing, Janet D. Allan, sums up her important contribution: “While Esther McCready doesn’t think of herself as a pioneer, but just someone who had the inner strength to do what she had to do, her legacy and impact leave little doubt that a pioneer is precisely what she is.”12 McCready opened the doors at a crucial moment in history, and the generations that follow have her to thank. Today, over one-third of the students at the University of Maryland School of Nursing are minorities: most of that group are African-American.
Esther Elizabeth McCready passed away in Randallstown, Baltimore County, on September 2, 2020.
1. Mike Bowler. “McCready was a Genuine First,” The Baltimore Sun, 7 February 1996. return to text
2. Ibid. return to text
3. Anna Kaplan. “Sharing Tale of Triumph from ‘Trying Time’; First Black Student at UM Nursing Marks Anniversary,” The Baltimore Sun, 18 March 2003; Maryland Commission for Women. “Esther McCready,” Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame, 2004. http://msaweb/msa/educ/exhibits/womenshall/html/mccready.html. return to text
4. “Open U. of Md.: Court of Appeals Reverses City Judge,” The Afro-American, 22 April 1950. return to text
5. Ibid. return to text
6. Bowler; personal correspondence with Ms. McCready dated 15 April 2008. return to text
7. Ibid. return to text
8. Kaplan. return to text
9. University of Maryland School of Nursing. “School of Nursing Alumna to be Inducted into Maryland Woman’s Hall of Fame,” February 4, 2004. http://nursing.umaryland.edu/communications/releases/mccready/mccready.htm. return to text
10. University of Maryland, Baltimore. "News at UMB," February 25, 2004. http://www.umaryland.edu/oea/news/2004/040225-mosley-rs.htm. return to text
11. Personal correspondence with Ms. McCready dated 15 April 2008. return to text
12. University of Maryland School of Nursing. return to text
Biography written by 2004 summer intern Amy Hobbs; edited by Jennifer Hafner Abbott, September 2020.
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