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‘It’s Worth Fighting For’

First Black Woman to Graduate From UMD Recounts her Experience in New Oral History

By Sala Levin ’10

Elaine Johnson Coates at commencement

Photo by Stephanie S. Cordle; yearbook photo courtesy of the 1959 Terrapin

Elaine Johnson Coates, the first black woman to earn a bachelor’s degree at UMD, addressed the Class of 2019 at Commencement last May. University Archives has now recorded her story so future generations will have the opportunity to hear it in her own voice.

Elaine Johnson Coates recalls the day that her guidance counselor told her she couldn’t go to college and should be a secretary. She believed she'd failed the “paper bag test"—her skin color was too dark. 

Yearbook photo of Elaine Johnson CoatesBut she wrote the University of Maryland seeking a scholarship and in 1959 became the first black woman to earn a bachelor’s degree at UMD.

Now, the Libraries’ University Archives has recorded Coates’ story of perseverance through discrimination and social isolation so future generations will have the opportunity to hear it in her own voice:

“You ate alone in the cafeteria, or the dining hall. But … my mother always told me, ‘No one knows what’s going on on the inside,’” she told University Archivist Lae’l Hughes-Watkins. “And I can pose a good front. Stomach may be turning over, shakes, but no one knew.” 

Hughes-Watkins, the first African American university archivist at Maryland, credited Coates for helping to forge the path that allowed Hughes-Watkins to hold her current role.

"Her story at the University of Maryland is critical to understanding the evolution of this campus, especially when it comes to issues of race," Hughes-Watkins said. "By adding her oral history to the institutional record, we are addressing the gaps in our narratives that are void of marginalized voices and creating a more accurate depiction of UMD's story." 

Coates, who had a long career as an educator and social worker, said she hopes that listeners who hear her experiences come away learning, “You will have to endure. Maybe in a different way. But fight for it. It’s worth fighting for, it’s worth hanging in there for.” 

Listen to Coates tell her story, or read a transcript, here.

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