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KENSINGTON – U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall’s attempts to improve the lives of African Americans began in Rockville, according to Ralph Buglass of the Montgomery County Historical Society.
He spoke Feb. 26 at the Wheaton and Kensington Chamber of Commerce’s lunch mixer.
Long before Marshall successfully litigated Brown v. Board of Education, which overturned school segregation, the Baltimore native represented William Gibbs Jr., a teacher in 1936 at Rockville Colored School.
Gibbs had written to Marshall about the unfairness of being paid $612 a year to teach when his white counterparts in their schools in Montgomery County were earning $1,175, Buglass said.
“A white teacher here in Montgomery County, with the same education and the same number of years of teaching, was paid almost double,” he said.
Even white janitors were paid more than African Americans who taught in the colored schools, Buglass said.
Instead of arguing against the current law of separate but equal, Marshall cited the 14th Amendment, which said all American citizens are equal.
He argued that case in the now-vacant but still standing former Montgomery County Circuit Court. The case was settled out of court, and within two years, colored teachers began receiving the same salary as white teachers.
“It was here, in some ways, that he started the quest,” Buglass said of Marshall. “The long road to Brown v. Board of Education began right here in Montgomery County.”
In those days, African Americans attended inferiorly built schools, learned from used books and were not eligible for busing. Not only were teachers in colored schools paid less, but they also were responsible for scrubbing clean their own classrooms, Buglass said.
Even as new schools for whites were being built, the colored schools were not improved. Remember, he said, Maryland was a Southern state with segregated schools.
Even Marshall was deemed unfit for all-white schools. He attended law school at Howard University when the University of Maryland did not accept colored students. There he made connections and met mentors to help him on his journey, Buglass said.
“By and large, Thurgood Marshall was known for his civil rights work, thus earning him the name ‘Mr. Civil Rights,’” Buglass said, noting there was a movie documentary on Marshall bearing that title.
In that documentary, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, who clerked for Marshall, called Brown v. Board of Education historic. “I don’t know of a legal decision in this country that was greater,” she said in the documentary, a clip of which was shown during the chamber meeting.
During his talk, Buglass pointed out the county schools still standing that were built during the Jim Crow era, calling Richard Montgomery High School the oldest school in the county.
Using funds from Julius Rosenwald, who was president of the former Sears and Roebuck department stores, 17 colored schools were built around the county between 1920 and 1929.
The one-room courthouse in Courthouse Square, where Gibbs’s case was debated, may be renovated. Currently, “We are working to get a better sign” out front that tells more of this Civil Rights story, Buglass said.
Someday, if there is enough funding, the building could be a museum, he said, “That’s our history that we need to remember.”