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  • Emmanuel Mehr

Justice from Baltimore: Thurgood Marshall's Story through the Lens of His Hometown

Updated: Apr 1, 2023

BHW 6: March 11, 2023


In a recent visit to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., I spent time contemplating a portrait of Thurgood Marshall by painter James Ormsbee Chapin (Figure 1). Beside the painting, its label begins by naming Marshall, the years he lived, and Baltimore, Maryland as the place he was born (Figure 2). This label heading format is typical of portraits in this museum, as is the label going on to provide a short biography of Marshall’s contributions to American history. It does so without any other mentions of Baltimore. His headline accomplishments as the lawyer who argued Brown v. Board of Education and the first Black U.S. Supreme Court justice certainly happened on the national scale. But so much of his life and impact relates to his roots in Baltimore City. Marshall’s story through the lens of his Baltimore upbringing sheds light on the city’s place within national civil rights narratives and public historical memory.

This is a photograph of a portrait painting of Thurgood Marshall. Marshall is depicted as a middle-aged Black man with short dark hair and a moustache. He is dressed in a suit and tie. The painting's background is teal, as is the wall on which the painting hangs.
Figure 1. Photo by author, 2023

This is a photograph of the label for a portrait painting of Thurgood Marshall. It appears in English on the left, and Spanish on the right. The bio begins by naming Marshall and Baltimore, Maryland as the place of his birth. It then goes on to summarize his major life accomplishments including arguing Brown v. Board of Education and becoming the first Black U.S. Supreme Court justice.
Figure 2. Photo by author, 2023

In 1908, Thoroughgood Marshall, who would later change his name to Thurgood, was born at 543 McMechen Street in Baltimore City. [1] His birth came twelve years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision gave a legal stamp of approval for segregation. [2] The year after Marshall’s birth, the National Negro Committee was created, which reorganized as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in February 1910. [3] Marshall spent his career battling for civil rights through the NAACP and later as the first Black U.S. Supreme Court justice. He entered the 1950s having already spent much of his professional life fighting to overturn the 1896 Plessy decision. Indeed, in 1951 he wrote, “The problem is carefully to marshal overwhelming evidence of the inequalities inherent in segregation . . . With each succeeding case, the Court must also be urged to overrule Plessy v. Ferguson and to break completely with the ‘separate but equal’ philosophy.” [4] He achieved this goal in 1954 when he argued and won the Brown case, ending de jure segregation. Yet, de facto segregation remains an issue today. To understand Marshall’s contributions to American law and society, it is important to understand the Baltimore City where he was born and raised.

Segregation was a primary characteristic of Baltimore in 1908. The city pioneered the system of residential segregation based on restrictive covenants, which enabled homeowners to declare their property forevermore non-transferable to a non-white person. [5] For example, a 1913 “Deed and Agreement” for a sale of land partly in Baltimore City and partly in Baltimore County contained such a covenant. It stated, “At no time shall the land included in said tract or any part thereof, or any building erected thereon, be occupied by any negro or person of negro extraction [sic].” [6] Agreements like these put the force of the law behind residential segregation. Baltimore’s covenant system was thereafter copied and implemented by states throughout the South. It also dictated community life, dividing young Marshall’s northwest Baltimore neighborhood into racially segregated blocks. While the entire Druid Hill Avenue neighborhood where he lived was middle-class, each block was legally designated ­either all-white or all-Black. [7] This system originated in December 1910 with Baltimore City Ordinance 610, which mandated block-by-block segregation. [8] A week later, the New York Times deemed this “probably the most remarkable ordinance ever entered upon the records of [any] town or city in this country” and “so far-reaching in the logical sequence that must result from its enforcement that it may be said to mark a new era in social legislation.” [9] These remarks from the Times turned out to be quite prescient, as segregation would go on to characterize much of the twentieth century for the United States. This environment cultivated in Marshall a disgust for and defiance of racial segregation from a young age. [10]

Segregation also shaped Marshall’s schooling experience in Baltimore. He attended School Number 103, the best of the segregated Black schools in Baltimore. When he reached high school, he moved to the under-resourced “Colored High” and Training School, housed in an old building with minimal facilities. This was the first public high school for Black Baltimoreans, so Marshall experienced the segregated high school system in an original form. [11] Fifty years after his graduation from this school, he returned to give the 1975 commencement address. While his health was deteriorating and he made minimal public appearances at this stage of his life, it appears he was never going to miss this. Perhaps this address was one of his proudest moments, looking out at the wide-eyed, ambitious crowd of mostly Black students. Many likely had their eyes set on college. When Marshall applied to law schools, the University of Maryland would not take him as they only accepted white students. Instead, he commuted from Baltimore to Howard University in Washington, D.C. [12] He would later get revenge on the University of Maryland for rejecting him on account of his race, winning a case arguing against segregation at the school. [13] Educational desegregation meant the opening of many more opportunities for Black Americans.­

Segregated colleges led to the concentration of elite Black academic and legal minds at schools like Howard, where Marshall met his influential mentor Charles Hamilton Houston. It was Houston who trained him in the ways of bridging law with activism, and who brought him into the NAACP. When Marshall established his own legal practice in Baltimore City after law school, his passion for the NAACP continued and his practice struggled due to his unwavering prioritization of NAACP work. [14] His first case as NAACP lead attorney was in Baltimore County, just outside of Baltimore City, in 1935. This school desegregation case set the stage for a career of such cases, but progress on this front was by no means linear. Indeed, Marshall and the NAACP lost this 1935 case. Yet, it still generated momentum for the legal battle against segregated schooling. [15] Houston started out as Marshall’s teacher, but by this point became his senior partner. [16] Upon Marshall’s promotion from the NAACP’s Baltimore branch to the national branch in New York, the two men shared an office. [17] Marshall would soon surpass his mentor in achievements as he rose through barrier-breaking court appointments on the way to becoming the country’s first Black Supreme Court justice.

Baltimore’s position as a nexus of North and South created the divisive racial landscape that shaped many of Marshall’s views. His life must not be separated from this context. As urban studies scholar Howell S. Baum points out, “Socially and economically, the city was a web of segregative practices comparable to any in the Deep South.” But Baltimore also had distinct characteristics from its Southern counterparts. Its greater levels of industrialization produced even more pressure for segregation than in the city’s more-Southern counterparts, due to the close confines of industrial urban life. [18] This heightened racial tension contributed to the NAACP’s second branch being in Baltimore, a clear choice for the organization’s initial expansion from New York. [19] Historian Lee Sartain argues that Baltimore’s localized propensity towards Black social activism “was made easier and more effective by Thurgood Marshall living in the city . . . ready to direct the attack on many legal fronts.” [20] Marshall certainly played a significant role in Baltimore City becoming a hub for Black legal activism. The city’s border position shaped reception of Marshall throughout his life. In perhaps his highest moment, when he was confirmed as a U.S. Supreme Court justice in 1967, the confirmation vote was split evenly between North and South. Southern members of Congress largely voted against the confirmation and only one non-Southerner voted with them. This lone non-Southern naysayer, Sen. Robert. C. Byrd (D-WV), was from West Virginia, a border state just like Maryland. [21] Border states and southern states continued to independently legislate inequality until the legislative nationalization of the civil rights movement through the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act. [22]

Letters sent to President John F. Kennedy regarding Marshall’s nomination and eventual appointment as a U.S. Court of Appeals justice in 1962 demonstrate the persistence of national divisions on civil rights. The letters clarify racial divisions of which Baltimore City was a microcosm. In a letter marked September 25, 1961, a concerned citizen named Henry V. Carver wrote to President Kennedy:


Carver clearly did not hold back on being anti-Marshall. Others emphasized the politics long bound together with racial divisions. Then-campaigning Democrat Howard W. Roberson responded to the Marshall nomination by writing, “Are you gents out to kill the Democratic Party?” [24] The sentiment that nominating a Black man to a federal court would destroy the Democratic Party shows the prevalence of race amongst national concerns. Some letters took the opposite approach, pushing the President to move forward with nominating Marshall or celebrating his nomination. Civil rights leader Willie Melton wrote, “It is a disgrace upon America for the great delay upon Judge Marshall seemingly because he is a Negro.” [25] Carl Murphy, the publisher of the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper, wrote to the President after the appointment offering, “THE THANKS OF ALL OF US FOR YOUR COURAGE AND PERSISTENCE WHICH BROUGHT ABOUT THE CONFIRMATION OF JUDGE THURGOOD MARSHALL.” [26] This letter from the publisher of Baltimore’s historic Black newspaper represents the continued commitment of the city’s Black community to Marshall’s success.

Chapin’s portrait of Thurgood Marshall graced the cover of Time magazine in 1955, to mark the first school year post-Brown. It now sits in the National Portrait Gallery’s “Struggle for Justice” exhibition as a gift from Time to the Smithsonian Institution and the American people (Figure 1). In both settings, the portrait gives a face to the legal battle against segregation, to the civil rights movement, and to twentieth-century Baltimore. That Marshall was born in Baltimore is not just a typical inclusion on a gallery label, it is representative of the city’s place in American history (Figure 2). He was convinced by his experiences growing up in an extremely segregated Baltimore City that such an unjust, harmful system must be stopped. Dedicating his career to doing just that, he attacked segregation in multiple settings. From fighting housing segregation through Baltimore’s NAACP, he later shifted to prioritizing school desegregation through the courts at the national level. Frequently making clear that he fought for the rights of all Americans, he also stressed that legal protections for these rights had paramount importance for Black Americans due to the difficulties caused by systemic racism. [27] These perspectives came from personal experience of what it meant to be Black in Baltimore City. Marshall’s efforts greatly contributed to the desegregation of schools and neighborhoods, such as the “Colored High” school he attended and the Druid Hill Avenue neighborhood of his youth. [28] While he commuted from Baltimore to attend law school, and eventually moved from the NAACP’s Baltimore branch to its national headquarters in New York, Baltimore never left his mind. The city was not only home, it also fundamentally shaped the changemaker he became, the values he held, and the mark he left on the United States.


[1] Fred B. Shoken, “National Register of Historic Places Registration: Old West Baltimore Historic District,” February 2004, United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 21,

[2] Mark V. Tushnet, Making Civil Rights Law, Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court, 1936-1961 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 12,

[3] Howard Ball, A Defiant Life: Thurgood Marshall and the Persistence of Racism in America (New York: Crown Publishers, 1998), 13, 20,

[4] Thurgood Marshall, “‘The Supreme Court as Protector of Civil Rights: Equal Protection of the Laws,’ Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, vol. 275, May 1951” in Thurgood Marshall: His Speeches, Writings, Arguments, Opinions, and Reminiscences, ed. Mark V. Tushnet (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2001), 124,

[5] Juan Williams, Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary (New York: Times Books, 1998), 162, Kindle edition; Carl T. Rowan, Dream Makers, Dream Breakers: The World of Justice Thurgood Marshall (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1995 [1993]), 80-81,

[6] Roland Park Company, “Deed and agreement between the Roland Park Company and Edward H. Bouton containing restrictions, conditions, charges, etc. relating to Guilford,” July 1, 1913, H. Furlong Baldwin Library, Maryland Center for History and Culture (Baltimore, MD), 5,

[7] Ball, A Defiant Life, 14.

[8] Emily Lieb, “The ‘Baltimore Idea’ and the Cities It Built,” Southern Cultures 25, no. 2 (Summer 2019): 109-110,


[10] Williams, Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary, 24-25.

[11] Williams, Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary, 44.

[12] Shoken, “National Register of Historic Places Registration: Old West Baltimore Historic District,” February 2004, 21.

[13] Williams, Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary, 89.

[14] Tushnet, Making Civil Rights Law, Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court, 10.

[15] Baum, Brown in Baltimore, 36.

[16] Williams, Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary, 74.

[17] Williams, Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary, 104.

[18] Howard S. Baum, Brown in Baltimore: School Desegregation and the Limits of Liberalism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010), 24.

[19] Williams, Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary, 33.

[20] Lee Sartain, Borders of Equality: The NAACP and the Baltimore Civil Rights Struggle, 1914-1970 (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2013), 6, Kindle edition.

[21] Carl T. Rowan, Dream Makers, Dream Breakers, 306.

[22] Sartain, Borders of Equality, 175.

[23] Henry V. Carver, “Letter from Henry V. Carter to President John F. Kennedy, September 25, 1961,” Papers of John F. Kennedy, Presidential Papers, Series 1: White House Central Name File, 1961-1963, Thurgood Marshall,

[24] Howard W. Roberson, “Letter from Howard W. Roberson to President John F. Kennedy, September 29, 1962,” Papers of John F. Kennedy, Presidential Papers, Series 1: White House Central Name File, 1961-1963, Thurgood Marshall,

[25] Willie Melton, “Letter from Willie Melton to President John F. Kennedy, August 8, 1962,” Papers of John F. Kennedy, Presidential Papers, Series 1: White House Central Name File, 1961-1963, Thurgood Marshall,

[26] Carl Murphy, “Letter from Carl Murphy to President John F. Kennedy, September 12, 1962,” Papers of John F. Kennedy, Presidential Papers, Series 1: White House Central Name File, 1961-1963, Thurgood Marshall,

[27] Thurgood Marshall, “The Legal Attack to Secure Civil Rights: Speech at the NAACP Wartime Conference, 1944,” in Thurgood Marshall: His Speeches, Writings, Arguments, Opinions, and Reminiscences, ed. Mark V. Tushnet (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2001), 90-91,

[28] Williams, Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary, 44.


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