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Esther McCready, MM, BM, DIN ’53
Honorary Doctor of Public Service
Many students have experienced difficult times at the University of Maryland School of Nursing (UMSON). After all, as one of the oldest and largest U.S. nursing schools, it has been challenging students since 1889.
But it’s likely no one had a tougher time completing his/her studies than Esther McCready. Rejected by the school in 1949 because she is African-American, she gained admittance on April 14, 1950, when the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled in favor of McCready, thus making her UMSON’s first African-American student. Three years later, she became its first African-American graduate.
It wasn’t easy. At first McCready’s white classmates ignored her. During orientation, she walked alone down the hallways and sat by herself in the dining room at lunch. She was kept out of the Nurses' Residence (having to commute daily from home) under the guise that there were no rooms available. After successfully completing the probationary period, she was allowed to move into the Nurses’ Residence but not on the floor with the other students. An office in the dean’s floor was cleared and a private bedroom was set up. Supervisors attempted to sabotage her work.One professor lectured to the opposite side of the classroom to pointedly ignore her. Another approached her the first day and said, “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.”
Through it all, McCready maintained a quiet dignity and determination that could not be defeated.
"After the first day, I had a headache like I had never had before, with all the stress,” McCready recalls. “I remember when I got home and opened the front door, my mother took one look at me and said, ‘You don’t have to go back.’ But I needed to go back. At that time the only jobs available for African-Americans at University Hospital were as a housekeeper, nurse’s aide, orderly, and in the dietary area. My case tore down barriers not only in the School of Nursing but in the remaining professional schools at UMB, at the undergraduate program at University of Maryland in College Park and later in various schools throughout the city.”
McCready said at the outset she never intended to become a civil rights trailblazer. She just wanted to study nursing, a dream she had since she was 8, but without leaving her native Baltimore.
After graduating from UMSON, and passing her boards on the first attempt, she worked in hospitals in Baltimore, Boston, and New York for 35 years. While working in New York, McCready pursued her passion for music. She completed undergraduate and graduate degrees at the Manhattan School of Music. She also performed in all of the Metropolitan Opera performances of the opera Porgy and Bess and with opera groups in various European cities.
In addition to music and nursing, McCready squeezed in 20 years as an educator in the New York City Public School System, in elementary education, as the first teacher-in-charge of the existing Harbor Junior High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan, and as the first academic teacher (on the set of The Cosby Show) for Raven Symone.
And despite the initial rejection, McCready has stayed active at the School of Nursing, serving on its Board of Visitors from 1996 to 2004 and as a docent in the Living History Museum.
She recalls one day at the Living History Museum when she observed a nursing student who was sitting nearby and seemed obviously troubled. McCready approached her and asked “Why are you so nervous?” The student said she was facing her first clinical exam. McCready sat down and they reviewed the material together. McCready reminded her “the first thing you do is speak to the patient, and make sure you identify the right person.” Later the student came back and said she passed her exam. The exchange gave the student confidence.
The kindness McCready showed the student was so much different than the learning environment she once experienced. But McCready isn’t bitter and is “shocked and very excited” to be receiving an honorary degree at commencement. “I couldn’t believe it was happening,” she recalls. “When Dean Kirschling called, she asked me, ‘Have I made your day?’ And I said, ‘Yes, you have.’”
She is a member of the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame and the Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nursing and is one of 25 recipients of UMSON’s inaugural Visionary Pioneer Awards.
McCready thanks God for her blessings. “You will always be humble as long as you know where ALL of this comes from — your knowledge, your abilities, your gifts — it comes from God,” she says. “I’m so very grateful.”