Thurgood Marshall and His Hometown Courthouse

Murray_v._Maryland,_1936_Murray v. Maryland, 1936. (Photo: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Visual Materials from the NAACP Records)

A 1935 photograph shows Thurgood Marshall, a young lawyer at the counsel table, in the Baltimore City Courthouse. Mid-argument, he stands with notes in one hand and the other outstretched to underscore a point. Marshall’s mentor, Charles Hamilton Houston, sits to his far left making notes. At Marshall’s elbow is his client, Donald Gaines Murray, who beams admiringly at his attorney even as he hugs his torso in a gesture of reserve. Though perhaps an unfamiliar image of a man more often depicted as a justice on the United States Supreme Court, it was in the humble venue of his hometown courthouse that Marshall first engaged in legal contests over race and rights.

Born in 1908, Thurgood Marshall was a third generation Baltimorean, and his family story traversed troubled moments in the city’s racial past. One of his grandfathers arrived in Baltimore after fleeing from slavery, and the other served in the Union military during the Civil War. His grandmothers were free women of color who lived in the city even as colonization schemes and the Maryland legal regime threatened their removal from the state. His parents came of age in the era of Jim Crow, and as a youth Marshall was educated in Baltimore’s segregated schools. It was entirely apt that after graduating from Howard Law School in 1933, Marshall returned to Baltimore to begin his career and that he did so much of his early lawyering at the city courthouse. Black Baltimoreans had been coming there to make their claims for equality for nearly a century by the time he made his debut in the building.

Throughout the South, local courthouses were simultaneously hubs of civic life, symbols of regional pride and grandeur, fraught vessels for the tensions litigants carried with them, and sometimes sites for the lynchings that were the most brutal enactments of Jim Crow’s racial violence. This was no less true in Baltimore, where since the early nineteenth century to say “I’m going to court” was to let neighbors know that one was headed to Calvert and Lexington Streets, just off Monument Square. Thurgood Marshall knew how contested a venue his local courthouse was. Indeed, as someone who understood the law to be an instrument of social change, he purposefully chose that venue as the site for beginning his campaign to challenge Jim Crow. Under Charles Hamilton Houston’s guidance and with the support of the NAACP, when Marshall stood up to argue on behalf of Donald Murray, his larger target was the separate but equal doctrine entrenched in law by the 1896 Supreme Court decision in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson.

Donald Gaines Murray was among Marshall’s first clients. Murray too had been raised in Baltimore and during the early 1920s, had lived in the same neighborhood as Marshall. Murray had left the city to attend Amherst College, but had returned after graduation and applied to the University of Maryland Law School, only to have his application returned with the explanation that the school did not admit African Americans. When the Board of Regents ignored his appeal of that decision, Murray filed suit, and in June 1935, he, Marshall, and Houston went to court. Newspapers described a daylong hearing, from the early hours until past the usual closing time. There was a “sharp interchange of legal argument and court wit,” that included testimony from Murray and Raymond Pearson, President of the University of Maryland. The end was dramatic. Judge Eugene O’Dunne declined to deliberate. Instead, he immediately ruled from the bench in Murray’s favor, ordering the law school to admit the young man. Later, the decision would be affirmed by the state’s high court.

Murray v. Pearson, as the case is remembered today, was but the first of Thurgood Marshall’s local courthouse skirmishes. He saw to it that Maryland would become the NAACP’s legal laboratory for refining strategies and tactics. In the photograph of Marshall’s first courthouse hearing, juxtaposed are the everyday and the remarkable. On one hand, it is an ordinary scene in which no one in charge anticipated that the day’s calendar included a case that would make the annals of history. Just behind Marshall, at the back of the courtroom, is a clerk’s desk with a mess of papers haphazardly blanketing the surface. Nearby, what appear to be case files are stacked in a way that suggests nothing but disorder. The day, in short, was just like any other day in a busy trial court. But if the condition of the courtroom suggests business as usual, Marshall himself exudes astute self-consciousness. It is in the light color of his suit, which ensured that he would stand out in the poorly lit courtroom. It is in the very fact of the photo. Someone believed the occasion significant enough to arrange for a camera to capture the image. For Thurgood Marshall, Baltimore City’s courthouse was the sort of ordinary place where extraordinary things might happen.

About the Author

Martha S. Jones

Martha S. Jones is Presidential Bicentennial Professor at the University of Michigan where she teaches history, African American studies, and law, and directs the Michigan Law Program in Race, Law & History. She is the author of Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America, forthcoming in 2017 from Cambridge University Press.

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