Margaret W. Rose, whose struggle in the 1930s to attend high school in Baltimore County helped shape legal strategy in the Supreme Court's historic Brown v. Board of Education case two decades later, died of Alzheimer's disease Feb. 11 at St. Elizabeth Rehabilitation & Nursing Center in Southwest Baltimore. She was 84.
She was born Margaret Odralee Williams and raised in Cowdensville, a 200-year-old African-American enclave near Arbutus.
After completing the seventh grade at Colored School No. 21, she planned to continue her education and earn a high school diploma.
"Black children who wanted to attend high school had to pass an arduous test to attend the black public high school in the city. The county would pay for those black students who passed the elementary exit exam," wrote a nephew, Barry F. Williams, former principal of Randallstown High School and now director of the Baltimore County Office of Employment and Training, in a family memoir. "Those who passed would then have to ride several streetcars to get to Douglass High School in Baltimore City."
Even though she had failed the exam twice, her father, angry at the inequality of the system, was determined that his daughter would get an education.
"The doctrine of the day dictated that there should be a `separate but equal' educational system. Given that colored children received the discarded textbooks of the children from white schools and other inequities, the system was separate but far from equal," Mr. Williams wrote.
Her father, Joshua Williams, decided to hire a young attorney, Thurgood Marshall. Along with fellow National Association for the Advancement of Colored People lawyer Charles Hamilton Houston, Mr. Marshall had won his first major civil rights case -- Murray v. Pearson -- that integrated the University of Maryland Law School in 1935.
He advised Mr. Williams to enroll his daughter at Catonsville High School, which was the school nearest to her home.
"She was turned away by the principal, who told her that because she was a colored girl, that an education would be a waste of time, and to go home and have babies," Mr. Williams said.
Louis S. Diggs, author of In Our Voices, interviewed Mrs. Rose several years ago.
"It was like I, as a young Black girl, could not have hopes and dreams of becoming someone significant in my adult years, other than just having babies," Mrs. Rose told the author.
Future Supreme Court Justice Marshall and the NAACP sued for her admission to Catonsville High School in Williams v. Zimmerman.
They lost in Circuit Court and the Court of Appeals, which alluded to "separate treatment" resulting in "some inequalities" in education. But the 1936 case helped shape the strategy used 18 years later by Marshall and Houston. That lawsuit caused the high court to strike down the doctrine of "separate but equal" in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.
In 1997, W. Edward Orser, professor of American studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, told The Sun: "In a sense, Margaret Williams, not the children of Topeka, sowed the seed of the Brown decision."
The Williams v. Zimmerman case also resulted in Baltimore County instituting a high school curriculum that was taught at three black elementary schools by 1939. Four years later, three black high schools had opened.
"She was a quiet and humble person who had no bitterness or rancor. Unfortunately, that was the way life was then when she was a young woman," Mr. Williams said.
Mrs. Rose completed her education at St. Francis Academy in Baltimore, and graduated from a nursing school in New York City. She worked for many years as a nurse for the Baltimore City Health Department.
She was married in 1955 to Paul Rose, a city Health Department worker, and they lived for many years in Pumphrey. He died in 1996.
She gave up nursing in 1967 to care for her son, Paul Rose Jr., who had Down syndrome. He died in 1987.
Mrs. Rose, who worked for about a decade for the Visiting Nurses Association until retiring in 1995, attended St. John United Methodist Church.
A soprano and church soloist, she was known for her performances of classical and spiritual music.
"She was such an inspiration. All of her nieces and nephews went into either public service, health care, government or education," said Del. Adrienne A. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat and speaker pro tem of the House of Delegates. "I'm very proud of my aunt. When I'm in Annapolis and walk past the statue of Thurgood Marshall, I think of how he's part of our family history and of the strides we've made."
Services were held Thursday.
Also surviving are a brother, E. Stanley Williams of Arbutus; a sister, Mildred E. Williams of Arbutus; and many nieces and nephews.