'Baltimore's Own The neighborhood that nurtured legendary Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall could sure use someone like him again

November 03, 1998|By M. DION THOMPSON | M. DION THOMPSON,SUN STAFF

The man answering the door at 1632 Division St. is not pleased. Just moments earlier he was enjoying his afternoon meal. Now someone is on his steps, asking questions about the plaque that says Thurgood Marshall lived here.

"I'm-a tell it to you short and sweet," he says through his front-door screen. "It's a home. It's not a museum."

He has no more to say. No name. No family memories. Nothing. Besides, his meal is getting cold. He shuts the door.

This was Marshall's world in the early years of this century. Some call the area Marble Hill. Others call it Druid Heights. Back then it might have been called Old West Baltimore. Black doctors, lawyers, teachers and Pullman porters lived in the large, three-story rowhouses.

This neighborhood formed a "cocoon" for Marshall, shielding him from the hard edge of racism, says Juan Williams, author of the recently published "Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary" (Times Books, $27.50). He will discuss the book tomorrow at the Enoch Pratt Free Library's main branch. Marshall, who died in 1993 at 84, ran the streets and alleys west of Eutaw Place. He went to the YMCA on Druid Hill Avenue, crossed Pennsylvania Avenue and attended the old Douglass High School.

"Baltimore is a cocoon, very much a protective layer around the young Thurgood Marshall," says Williams. "It provides him a stable black community where he can not only get an education, but get to know white people, to have jobs."

Baltimore's style of Jim Crow segregation was different from the soul-crushing system found in the Deep South, or on the Eastern Shore. Baltimore was urban, industrial, almost Northern. It had a long history of free and progressive blacks.

At the beginning of the Civil War, more free blacks lived here than in any other city in America. Three of Marshall's grandparents were free. The fourth escaped slavery on Virginia's side of the Eastern Shore. His mother was a teacher. His father worked the railroads as a porter. They gave him examples of success.

"As a result of growing up in this cocoon, when he goes off to college he doesn't have this racial consciousness," says Williams. "Marshall's consciousness of race has to be lifted because growing up in Baltimore, he was a very contented young fellow."

Marshall's Baltimore is long gone. Except for the plaque on Division Street, there is no sign of him. The house at 543 McMechen St. where he was born July 2, 1908, was torn down years ago. Even the street number is gone. The last address on the block is 541. The rest of the block is a parking lot. If the house still stood, a tenant could look out a window and see a graffito that reads: "Dome Boyz Murder Squad."

A man working on a car parked in the lot has nothing to say about Marshall. "I don't know nothing about it and I don't live here," he says, sounding as put-upon as the man at 1632 Division St.

Across the street, Ruth Harrison, 71, sweeps a pile of golden autumn leaves and urban detritus into the gutter. She has something to say.

"All around here was a good-living neighborhood. You know, good livers," says Harrison, who has lived on McMechen Street for eight years.

When asked about Marshall, she doesn't launch into an eloquent speech or recitation of his achievements. The historic Brown vs. Board of Education decision, which Williams calls "the transforming moment in this century," doesn't cross her lips. Her view of Marshall is simply of someone who helped people who couldn't help themselves.

"He was a wonderful man and did what he could," she says. "We need more like him."

He started out as a small-time lawyer, taking pro bono cases at his office in the Phoenix Building at 4 E. Redwood St. He wasn't born a revolutionary. Life outside the cocoon of Old West Baltimore made him that. In 1930, he considered applying to the University of Maryland law school. Admission at an in-state school would have been perfect for his financially strapped family, but the school had not admitted any blacks since 1890.

"Until now Jim Crow racism had always been more an inconvenience than an obstacle to Marshall's success," writes Williams. "Suddenly the rules of segregation in Baltimore were like a weight around his neck as he tried to stay above water."

Marshall never applied, opting instead for Howard University. He never forgave the University of Maryland. Winning the 1935 case that integrated the law school didn't end his anger. When the university dedicated a library to him, he declined an invitation to attend. A legend grew up that he hated Baltimore.

"He never hated Baltimore, but he clearly had a grudge against the University of Maryland," says Williams. "I think when people hear about Baltimore, when they hear about Marshall's attitudes on Baltimore, I think they want to paint it in black and white and it's more than just that. It's the complicated relationship you have with your family and your hometown."

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