Honorary Degree Recipients
Elaine Johnson Coates '59
Elaine Johnson Coates recalls the day that her high school guidance counselor told her she couldn’t go to college and should be a secretary. Coates believed she’d failed the “paper bag test”—her skin color was too dark.
But she wrote the University of Maryland seeking a scholarship and in 1955 became one of the first seven African American students allowed to live on campus. Four years later, she was the first black woman to earn a bachelor’s degree at UMD.
Coates grew up in Baltimore and attended segregated Frederick Douglass High School. After the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, Coates decided to go to the University of Maryland “because I could.” When the counselor refused to write Coates a letter of recommendation, Coates’ mother encouraged her to write her own.
Living in Caroline Hall “was very lonely at first,” she says. “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.”
After earning a degree from the College of Education, Coates began a long career in social work and teaching. Her two children—a personal trainer and an OB/GYN—also graduated from Maryland.
Last spring, the Alumni Association honored Coates with a new award for a graduate who has made a significant contribution that fosters diversity and inclusion—an award named in her honor. Coates also addressed the Class of 2019 at Commencement. “I stand upon this podium and look out at the diversity in the beautiful faces of this graduating class, and it tells me that my journey mattered,” she said.
Hiram T. Whittle
Born in Baltimore in 1931 to a dry cleaning worker and homemaker, Hiram T. Whittle dreamed of one day becoming an electrical engineer.
Whittle initially enrolled at Morgan State College in September 1948 to study mathematics but a year later he applied for admission as a first-year engineering student at the all-white University of Maryland. After receiving no response, and with the assistance of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and lawyers such as Thurgood Marshall, Whittle petitioned Baltimore City Court for a decision on his application without regard to skin color.
University and state officials denied him admission in August 1949, citing the “separate but equal” doctrine and the Maryland State College at Princess Anne, now the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, as the land-grant higher education institution for black Marylanders.
Undeterred, he continued studying at Morgan State while fighting in the courts to attend UMD. On Jan. 31, 1951, the Board of Regents acknowledged engineering opportunities were not equal between College Park and Princess Anne, and in February, Whittle became the first African American to enroll in an undergraduate degree program at the University of Maryland.
Living in a campus dorm near Richie Coliseum, Whittle focused on his coursework, which included engineering mechanics and drawing, along with sociology and government and politics. He left the university in June 1952 without completing his degree and moved to New York City intending to continue his education. Instead, he worked in factory jobs and returned to Baltimore in 1955, working in a grocery store and then using his educational background to draft electrical lines for city engineering consultants. Since 1967, Whittle has been employed by the city of Baltimore and today, at age 89, still works there full-time as a title records assistant.
A lifelong and devout Jehovah’s Witness, Whittle spends his free time serving his religious community.