In 1970, I entered the University of Maryland’s College of Library and Information Services to pursue a Master’s degree. The University had been under Court Order to increase its population of Black students to match Statewide percentages; so, they had admitted a larger than usual number of Black students to its main campus in College Park. Many of us received financial assistance in the form of teaching fellowships; however, we were never assigned classroom work. In private conversations, we questioned whether they were leery of our abilities, or simply afraid our skin color would rub off on their White students and faculty? I felt our checks were hush money, given to silence any controversy we might incite. For me, those checks marked the first time in my life that my brown skin gave me something instead of denying me things. I considered them drops in the bucket toward a long-owed debt.
Another discomforting factor was that for the first time since my days as a cook’s helper at a rich White girls’ camp in Vermont, I was again the other. The University’s 40,000 population included only a few hundred Blacks. The Library School had less than 25 in all its divisions. Since I was already different, I took things one step further and began to cover my Afro with a gelee, a turban made from imported African prints.
However, I went to classes, submitted assignments on time, said little, and studied for exams. I knew that if I failed, it wouldn’t just be Sarah who failed; I would be a symbol of why Black people didn’t deserve the opportunity for higher education -- proof they didn’t have what it took to achieve. Under the weight of that baggage, each day I set off from Baltimore for College Park in my yellow VW bug, determined to show them that Blacks were their intellectual equal. And I had only 12 months — the amount of time the State would allow the college library where I worked to hold my job.
To my surprise, some White students reached out in friendship and invited me to party with them. It was the ’70's and everyone seemed to be experimenting with some sort of mind-expanding drug. My tentative forays into their world introduced me to marijuana-laced brownies and fat, cigar-like stogies rolled from what they said was the finest, imported grass. I did not like the helpless feeling of abandon that their soft drugs induced so I soon turned away from their invitations. If I got locked up for drug possession, there was no one to post my bail, .
For one of my courses, I undertook a project with a group of hippies who lived communally in an old house in Washington DC. My task was to come there each day and organize the tons of information they were gathering for a book called The Whole Earth Catalogue. I was quite impressed by their round-the-clock pursuit of their goal until someone told me that their vigor was fueled by amphetamines. When I completed my assignment, I returned to campus and my role as an observer.
One incident stands out boldly among my memories of graduate school. All masters degree candidates were required to take a Library Administration lecture course and more than a hundred students filled the lecture hall when I registered for it. Throughout the semester, I sat near the back and never asked questions. Grades were determined by a written final and an administrative case-study. At the end of the course, the professor posted grades outside his door with a note that case-studies could be reclaimed inside his office. He barely looked up when I walked in. When I stated my mission, he motioned to a stack of papers near the door.
“Mine isn’t in here,” I said, after looking through the pile.
“It’s not?” he asked, his brown eyes now leveled on me. “What grade did you get?”
“An A,” I answered.
“Oh, ” he said, “What’s your name?”
“Sarah White," I answered. Then, in an effort to curry conversation, added, "My study was on Baltimore City’s Department of Legislative Reference.”
The professor began leafing through another stack atop his desk. Was that the “A” pile? Had he assumed that my paper wasn’t among them because I was Black? Midway his search of the pile, he removed the thick blue folder I had submitted and handed it to me, saying nothing. I took the packet and left.
For the first time in my life, I was glad a teacher hadn’t known who I was. My mother had been opposed to sending Black children to White schools just because of teachers like him. She believed that students rose to their teacher’s level of expectation; and since Whites considered Blacks inferior, White teachers offered Black children discouragement, not inspiration. I was glad I hadn’t encountered White teachers like him until grad school, when their expectations no longer had an effect on me.
Twelve months after entering the University of Maryland, I completed the required course work and earned a high enough GPA to secure membership in the grad school’s International Honor Society. I did not attend the graduaation ceremony; instead, I elected to have my diploma mailed to me. I wanted no more to do with the University of Maryland than they had wanted to do with me.