19: This Month in Black History – Thurgood Marshall

Thurgood Marshall was born in Baltimore, Maryland on July 2, 1908, as the grandson of a slave. His father was a Pullman Porter and his mother a teacher. He attended the historically Black Lincoln University in Pennsylvania where his classmates at Lincoln included a distinguished group of future Black leaders such as the poet Langston Hughes, the future President of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, and musician Cab Calloway.

In 1930, Thurgood applied to the University of Maryland Law School, but was denied admission because he was Black. He then sought admission and was accepted at the Howard University Law School, another distinguished HBCU that same year and came under the immediate influence of the dynamic activist dean, Charles Hamilton Houston. Paramount in Houston’s outlook was the need to overturn the 1898 Supreme Court ruling, Plessy v. Ferguson which established the legal doctrine called, “separate but equal.” All of Hamilton’s students entered the profession with this goal. Marshall’s first major court case came in 1933 when he successfully sued the University of Maryland to admit a young African American Amherst University graduate named Donald Gaines Murray.

Thurgood Marshall followed his Howard University mentor, Charles Hamilton Houston to New York and later became Chief Counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). During this period, Mr. Marshall was asked by the United Nations and the United Kingdom to help draft the constitutions of the emerging African nations of Ghana and what is now Tanzania. After amassing an impressive record of Supreme Court challenges to state-sponsored discrimination, he, along with others, argued the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, which led to the desegregation of public institutions. President John F. Kennedy appointed Thurgood Marshall to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. In this capacity, he wrote over 150 decisions including support for the rights of immigrants, limiting government intrusion in cases involving illegal search and seizure, double jeopardy, and right to privacy. Biographers Michael Davis and Hunter Clark note that, “none of his (Marshall’s) 98 majority decisions was ever reversed by the Supreme Court.” In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson appointed Judge Marshall to the office of U.S. Solicitor General. While in this position, he won 14 of the 19 cases he argued before the Supreme Court. Indeed, Thurgood Marshall represented and won more cases before the United States Supreme Court than any other American.

He was nominated to the United States Supreme Court in 1967, and was Justice on this Court until his retirement in 1991. Justice Marshall died on January 24, 1993.

The Faculty Advisory Board of the Arcus Center for Social Justice leadership and the HHMI Inclusive Excellence Faculty team present this monthly notice aimed at educating the K community on African-American history and culture. 19 marks 1619, the year in which the first set of African captives were brought to what would become the United States, and June 19th, 1865, the day that Blacks celebrate the end of enslavement in the US. Both of these dates, and their meanings, were largely unknown to many outsides of the Black community. We feel much of the “surprise” at recent uprisings led by the Black lives Matter movement derives from a lack of knowledge of the rich fabric of Black History. This month and every month, hereafter, we will offer messages like this one to help better educate our College community as we work towards being an anti-racist Institution.

Regina Stevens-Truss, HHMI Inclusive Excellence + Chemistry department
Lisa Brock, ACSJL + History department