This is the final portion of a two-part series from the AFRO’s Road to Brown (2004) chronicling Thurgood Marshall’s quest to integrate Baltimore schools. Click here to read Part 1.
Oct. 8, 1935
Marshall was putting the pieces of the case together and his work included extensive travel around the state. He reported his efforts and observations to Walter White, secretary of the NAACP.
“On this afternoon, I appeared before the board of education with a petition signed by residents and taxpayers of the County requesting the county to establish a Negro high school. They refused to receive the petition, refused to hear me and told me they were doing as much as they intended to do, and that we were going to set the Negro race back many years. I am not on the second step in that case which is to appeal to the State Board of Education. Upon their refusal, suit will be immediately filed,” stated Marshall.
However, Marshall’s letter failed to fully convey the level of resistance he was met with at the county board of education. The heated exchange was reported by the AFRO Oct. 19, 1935. “Mr. Warfield declared that he was a friend to Mr. Marshall’s race and asserted that the Colored people of Baltimore County are getting all they need in the way of education.”
When Marshall responded affirmatively to Warfield’s question whether he expected the board to take any action, Warfield exclaimed, “Well, we are not.”
Warfield went on to warn Marshall that the NAACP program calling “for a high school in Baltimore County and equality of education facilities is going to do more harm than good. It will set your people back further than they are.”
When Marshall reminded Warfield that even in Mississippi there were educational opportunities for Black, Warfield replied, tellingly: “Well, there are a lot more of them down there than up here and we believe that we are being fair to your people.”
This was the kind of intolerance that forced Marshall and Houston to postpone filing the Baltimore County high school case and kept their intentions to file out of the “White papers” until after a decision in the Murray appeal was rendered. They feared if Whites believed the NAACP was seeking integration of the schools, the public backlash would adversely affect the decision in the Murray appeal, and it seems their anxiety was warranted.
Jan. 22, 1936
“As to the University of Maryland case, the Baltimore News, a Hearst paper, has so couched the article on the University of Maryland case and the Baltimore County case as to give the belief that our main object is to seek admission into the White school. This was for the purpose of stirring up opposition,” Marshall observed in a letter to Houston.
But Marshall attempted to remedy the situation by lobbying Louis Azrael, a White columnist with the Baltimore News-Post.
On March 3, 1936, Azrael wrote:
“There’s likely to be considerable commotion soon about admission of Colored children to White high schools. The Colored people don’t really want to start any movement toward that end. But they do want, according to some of their leaders, to see that the county affords Colored children the advantages which the law demands and which in other counties are given.”
The Hard Work
It is clear Marshall prepared prodigiously for the Baltimore County high school case. “I am, at present, trying by all methods above board and below board to get a list of the students attending the schools in Baltimore City and shall either visit them myself or have them visited, and also have them make out questionnaires,” Marshall wrote to Houston on Jan. 22, 1936.
Indeed Marshall had traveled hundreds of miles around the state to interview families, gather information and, in some cases, to measure how many miles Black children had to travel to get to school.
“We live 20 miles from the city, 12 miles from Towson, the nearest car line and three and a half miles from the trains,” read one testimony in an investigative report filed March 2, 1936, by Marshall and his team.
Furthermore, the report graphically identified the huge disparities in educating Black children and White children in Baltimore County.
“Last year $336,594.88 was spent for current expenses for the support of these high schools. Not one cent of this was shared by Negro pupils. $25,937.43 was spent to transport White children to and from the high schools located in Baltimore County.
On the other hand, the chosen few Negroes who are given opportunities for high school education are required to go outside the county to Baltimore City to get it and up to 1936 received not a single cent toward payment of their transportation.”
At this point, Marshall was ready to proceed. The Murray victory had been secured two months earlier, in mid-January 1936, and finally, on March 14, 1936, Marshall filed on behalf of Margaret Williams in the Baltimore County Circuit Court in Towson.
However, only one suit was filed, a writ of mandamus that required the county to admit Williams to the nearest high school. There was no second suit filed to open up a high school in Baltimore County specifically for Blacks as had been discussed early on by Marshall and Houston.
“It was a combination of factors. They had limited financial resources, everything was delayed waiting for the Murray decision and he didn’t think he had a suitable plaintiff for the second lawsuit. So he decided to gamble with one lawsuit,” said professor Larry S. Gibson, of the University of Maryland Law School.
Then in mid-September 1936, Marshall appeared before Judge Frank I. Duncan prepared to make his case abundantly clear:
1. There were obvious differences in educational facilities for Blacks and Whites, most glaring being the absence of a high school for Black children.
2. The examinations given to Black students for high school entrance was grossly unfair and it was created expressly to keep Blacks from receiving tuition payments from the state for high school education.
However, as some would suggest, Judge Duncan shifted the playing field on Marshall. “Judge Duncan very narrowly defined the issue. ‘Did she pass the exam to go to the high school? I don’t need to consider anything else.’ This was Judge Duncan’s primary focus,” explained Gibson.
So ultimately, Marshall lost the case. However in the appeal ruling on May 26, 1937, rendered by Chief Judge C.J. Bond, an important victory sparkled within a dubious admission by the Court.
“The allowance of separate treatment of all involves allowance of some incidental differences and some inequalities in meeting practical problems presented,” cited Bond.
The NAACP immediately seized upon the sliver of daylight Judge Bond provided.
“Here, for the first time, a court has admitted that certain inequalities are inevitable in a separate school system,” read an NAACP press release on May 28, 1937. In other words, separate could never be equal.
Two years later, in 1939, the Baltimore County School Board voted to establish high schools for Black children in Towson, Catonsville and Sparrows Point, but, it was too late for Lucille Scott and Margaret Williams.
Williams graduated from St. Frances Academy in 1939 and Scott graduated from Doug