Civil rights pioneer's legacy takes flight at BWI Airport

Marshall name change is effective starting tomorrow

September 30, 2005|By JAMIE STIEHM | JAMIE STIEHM,SUN REPORTER

As Thurgood Marshall Jr. remembers it, his father didn't spurn his hometown of Baltimore - nor, for that matter, did he look back in anger at Maryland, the state where he couldn't attend law school because of his race.

In fact, Thurgood Marshall - famed civil rights lawyer, Supreme Court justice and Baltimore native - rooted for the Colts and returned to the city occasionally to take his sons to baseball games at Memorial Stadium.

The elder Marshall also frequently pointed out his old neighborhood of West Baltimore rowhouses from the train window as he traveled between New York and Washington, his son recalled.

Marshall Jr., a Washington lawyer who served in the Clinton administration, discussed his father's views about his hometown recently after Maryland's decision to rename the state's major airport Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. The name change takes effect tomorrow.

Though state Comptroller and former Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer has suggested the renaming wasn't appropriate - he doesn't believe Marshall liked Baltimore - Marshall Jr. said it's not that simple.

For his father, Baltimore was a place full of stories and memories that could not be reduced to black and white - although he knew it as a city where people of color could not enter the front door of department stores.

"For someone who applied life lessons as he did, it would be impossible simply to walk away from a life and a community where the seeds of his future success had been so carefully planted by his family," said Marshall Jr., a Washington insider whose polished demeanor contrasts with his father's salty, often blunt manner.

The discussion about Marshall's personal views about Baltimore was revived when Del. Emmett C. Burns, Jr., introduced a bill this year to rename BWI in the late justice's honor. The bill was supported by Marshall's widow, Cecilia, who went to Annapolis to speak to lawmakers in March. Both houses passed the bill, and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. signed it.

But Schaefer sounded off when the measure came before the three-member state Board of Public Works on Aug. 31.

`This is wrong'

"This is wrong....Did you know [Marshall] didn't want to come to the dedication of his statue on Pratt Street? He didn't like Baltimore," Schaefer, 83, complained before the board approved the change.

The record reflects divided feelings. Though it's unclear whether Marshall actually applied to the University of Maryland law school in 1930, he clearly never forgot the fact that he couldn't attend it because he was black. He also felt a measure of satisfaction, even vindication, in going to court a few years later to force the law school to begin accepting black applicants. Four and a half decades later, when the law school held a ceremony in the fall of 1980 to name its library after Marshall, he was conspicuously absent.

Yet the justice was present with his family and five other sitting justices when a statue of Marshall was unveiled outside the federal courthouse on Pratt Street in Baltimore earlier that year.

Larry S. Gibson, a law professor at the University of Maryland, was present that day in May 1980 and insisted the occasion meant a great deal to Marshall. "You don't bring five of your colleagues unless you're excited about it."

Schaefer - who called Marshall "a great man" - said he isn't convinced the justice wanted to attend that event.

"I know personally that he was induced by [fellow Justice William J.] Brennan to come," Schaefer, a former Maryland governor, said in a phone interview. "Thurgood Marshall didn't want to be honored by Baltimore."

But Marshall Jr. said that his father was pleased with the statue.

"We will always be grateful to Gov. Schaefer's leadership in making the [courthouse] statue a reality," said Marshall Jr. "I know my father was greatly excited by the dedication and would commend the statue to people, including my sons."

"He was a bit amused at the [statue's] placement at the back of the courthouse," he added.

According to articles in The Sun, three years before the dedication, the "silver-haired justice" and his wife paid visits to the Bolton Hill studio of Reuben Kramer, the artist who sculpted the eight-foot-tall bronze statue of Marshall.

Marshall Jr., 49, said his restless father would never visit an artist's studio if the statue didn't matter to him. As for the law school controversy, the younger Marshall said, "More's read into that than necessary. I've never really thought that one experience motivated him more than another.

`Bigger than payback'

"He was much bigger than payback," his son said.

Gibson said Marshall expressly gave permission for the law library honor through his lifelong friend, Clarence Mitchell.

Marshall was born on July 2, 1908, on McMechen Street, near Pennsylvania Avenue and across from a slaughterhouse. He grew up in several houses, including one on Druid Hill Avenue.

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