Jehovah’s Witness First Black Graduate at University of Maryland

[Original publication date: February 19, 2004]

Hiram Whittle, the first black undergraduate at the university, poses with the rest of the residents of Temporary Dormitory One in the 1950s. UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND
Hiram Whittle, the first black undergraduate at the university, poses with the rest of the residents of Temporary Dormitory One in the 1950s. UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND

“Just another day on campus”

He was an ambitious yet quiet child who planted morning glories and vegetables in the backyard of his three-story Baltimore home, never argued with his family and had a job at the local grocery store at age 12.
By Kate Slusark – Staff writer

At 20 years old, Hiram Whittle’s ambition led him to enroll as the first black undergraduate at the university with the help of Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP. Fifty years after Brown vs. the Board of Education officially desegregated public schools, Whittle downplays his role in integrating undergraduates three years before the monumental case.

“I don’t consider myself a celebrity, just another student,” Whittle said, shrugging his 73-year-old shoulders underneath his brown tweed suit jacket.

He transferred to an all-white undergraduate program at the university in February 1951 after a year and a half at the historically black Morgan State University. He said his first day at this university was “just another day on campus,” his wide smile spreading across his face.

The NAACP initially helped him file a suit for admission to the university, but he said he was allowed to enroll before the case was finished.

Though he was the only black undergraduate at the university and living in the dorms, Whittle insists he never encountered a “single incident” of racial discrimination while at the university.

“I was used to getting along with people,” Whittle said, sliding his hands along the arms of his chair.

However, Hiram’s sister, Norma Whittle, 74, said she knows people mistreated her brother when he was at the university and said his quiet demeanor may prevent him from talking about it.

“I know they did not like him there because he was the only black, in fact the first black,” Norma Whittle said. “There was a lot of cruel discrimination going on but he would never talk about it. Mother told the children – she said they did something to Hiram there. But we don’t know.”

Hiram Whittle said the only kind of discrimination he has encountered throughout his life has been religious.

Whittle was brought up in as a devout Jehovah’s Witness and remains religious today. He maintains three Jehovah’s Witness websites and has filed many law suits in the name of discrimination against people of his religion, he said. He said he considers himself a watchdog for discrimination against Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide.

Growing up in an ethnically diverse Baltimore neighborhood, the nine surviving of eleven Whittle children were each other’s playmates – sharing three bedrooms. Their mother was unemployed and their father dyed and cleaned clothing for 35 years.

At 12, Hiram Whittle began dragging his wagon to the local grocery store and offering to carry customers’ bags home for tips. The store later offered him a job, and Whittle said he continued to work there on and off for nearly 20 years.

After graduating from Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School in Baltimore, Whittle went to an employment office and took a placement test to look for a job. The agent, however, said Whittle’s scores were so high he should consider furthering his education.

He took her advice and enrolled at Morgan State University in September 1948. After a year and half there, he received a letter from the NAACP seeking a black student to serve as a test case for racially integrating this university.

Whittle accepted and spent his first semester living with a family the NAACP recommended for him. He then lived in a temporary dorm near Ritchie Coliseum while majoring in electrical engineering. He left without a degree in June 1952 and moved to New York with hopes of continuing his education.

But he never transferred to another school and worked factory jobs in New York until he moved back to Baltimore in 1955. He returned to the grocery store, and in 1966 he put his education to work when he got a job drafting electrical lines for engineering consultants for the city. The city still employs him today as a title records assistant.

Norma Whittle said she is proud of her brother’s accomplishments that paved the way for future university students.

“I’ve always been proud of him, always been proud,” she said, calling him the most ambitious child of the family since he was young. “I always thought he was an extraordinary child.”

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