In Part I: With the Murray appeal still pending, Marshall and Houston were engaged in two very important Maryland battles simultaneously, the equal pay for Colored teachers case that was burgeoning in Anne Arundel County in 1936 and the Baltimore County school desegregation case in 1935. There were about 40 enclaves in Baltimore County with Black residents in 1935, yet there was no high school for Black children in the county.
‘Open Up a High School for Me’
“I had just come out of the seventh grade and it was time for us to go to high school,” recalled 81-year-old Lucille Scott-Jones from her home in Edmondson Village in southwest Baltimore.
However, as Scott-Jones reflects back to 1935, when she was Lucille Scott, a 13-year-old Colored girl from the small Black enclave of Cowdensville, near Arbutus, she couldn’t just hop on the bus to the nearest high school like her White counterparts. There were 11 high schools in Baltimore County, but all of them were all White. There was no high school for Black children in Baltimore County.
“We had to walk about 4 miles from our little village, from Cowdensville to Arbutus, to catch the streetcar to Baltimore,” said Scott-Jones.
There was another hurdle, as well. “We had to take a very rigid test to go to the city school. If we passed, our parents didn’t have to pay,” she remembered.
White children simply were promoted to high school upon passing the seventh grade and they attended the school closest to their home.
So the NAACP developed a strategy to take the next big step toward equality in education. The plan was for Lucille Scott and another seventh-grader, Margaret Williams (who would become the actual plaintiff in the case), who also lived in Cowdenville, to attempt to enter the nearest school, all-White Catonsville High School. Williams is still alive, but age and illness have clouded her mind. However, Scott-Jones has vivid memories of her first day at the school.
“The White children were yelling at us. But we felt very proud. We had this nice-looking lawyer taking us to school.”
The memory causes her to giggle like a 13-year-old schoolgirl again. That lawyer was Thurgood Marshall, a young, rising legal star, who represented the NAACP and Margaret Williams in an effort to integrate Catonsville High School.
“He felt very protective of us. He had each of us by the hand and we walked into the principal’s office,” Scotts-Jones said.
Marshall did not actually enter the school with Williams and Scott, yet for the next year, he fought mightily on behalf of the girls and all Black children.
‘More Power to You, Sir’ – Sept. 12, 1935
At about 2:30 that Thursday afternoon in Baltimore, Marshall sent off a telegram to Charles Hamilton Houston, the NAACP’s chief legal counsel in New York. It read: “PUPILS APPLIED WHITE HIGH SCHOOL BALTIMORE COUNTY THIS MORNING. THURGOOD.”
That same day, Marshall drafted a formal letter to Houston briefing him in detail on the above matter:
“As to the case itself, two children applied to the White high school this morning. Their names, Margaret Williams and Lucille Scott. The children were refused admission on the grounds that the regulations of Baltimore County prevented Negroes and Whites from attending the same school.”
Just days before Williams and Scott were refused admission to Catonsville High School, Marshall had escorted Donald Gaines Murray to register him for classes at the University of Maryland Law School.
This was the hand Black Americans were dealt in 1935. This was the minefield that had to be negotiated by the NAACP and its top generals on the front, Houston and Marshall. The organization was emerging from Murray v. Raymond A. Pearson, president of the University of Maryland, et al., the first school desegregation victory in the United States. Yet, Black children in Baltimore County still had to travel up to 24 miles to attend high school in Baltimore City.
So, the NAACP had to strike a precarious balance between power and patience. They could not lose the momentum created by the Murray victory, but they couldn’t push White people too far, too fast.
“The University of Maryland case is a wedge, but such a little wedge. And if we do not remain on the alert and push the struggle farther with all our might, even this little hole will close upon us … and we must convince the White people at all times that we are fighting a defensive fight,” wrote Houston in The Crisis magazine, circa 1935.
Sept. 14, 1935
Regarding Marshall’s Sept. 12 letter, Houston responded brilliantly, laying down a loose legal blueprint for the Baltimore County high school case.
“Since there were two pupils who applied to the White high school,” wrote Houston, “I suggest two suits: 1 – mandamus to have the first child admitted into the White high school; 2 – simultaneous suit for mandamus by second child to force the county to afford her high school facilities.”
Then Houston explained his reasoning behind the strategy.
“By filing the two suites at once, it will be perfectly clear that our main effort is to get adequate high school facilities for Negro children and that we are in substance leaving it up to the county whether it will admit Negro children to the White school or provide separate, but equal high school facilities for the Negro child,” he wrote.
This distinction would prove to be pivotal in the case. Furthermore, the notion of separate, but equal –the debate over segregation or integration – was a burgeoning firestorm in Black America and Houston became one of the most prominent voices in the dialogue.
“The association does not intend to endorse the principle of segregation, but to fight segregation by making it so expensive to the state that there will be a disposition on the part of the taxpayer to do away with it,” stated Houston in a 1934 memorandum.
Sept. 16, 1935
In general, Marshall agreed with Houston’s assessment of the high school case; however, there were additional factors to be weighed. “I do not believe these suits can be filed at present because I have made application to the state superintendent, and he has not as yet refused the application. Then, under our law, matters concerning education are referred first to the county board of education,” informed Marshall. “A court of appeals case of Maryland involving the establishment of a White high school was lost because of failure to refer the matter to the county board. This will take time.”
See the coming edition of the AFRO for the conclusion of this important story.