Marshall lost the case, and the subsequent appeal. But the fight would produce a surprising chit that Marshall would cash in later to successfully argue the Brown case.

"In the appeal, according to the NAACP, there was a line where the court pointed out that separate was never going to be really equal," Gibson said. "That gave kind of an indication of where the [future] cases and strategies should go. The case showed Marshall and Houston that the way to go was to thoroughly document the impact and the consequences of separation - which, of course, became an important part of the Brown decision some 18 years later."

The Williams case also produced another unexpected victory.

"Because of what he did," said Louis S. Diggs, a Baltimore County historian, "in 1937, when the appeal to the state went through, Baltimore County must have seen the handwriting on the wall." Two years later, the county system arranged for the high school curriculum to be taught at three black elementary schools to black students - in effect, creating high schools for county black students.

But discrimination didn't end there.

"That was just a stopgap measure," said John McGrain, also a Baltimore County historian. "They stuck with segregation even after that."

By that time, Margaret Williams' family had paid for her to go to a private school, her nephew Barry Williams, Baltimore County's director of employment and training, said. Margaret Williams, now 83, became a nurse and lives in Baltimore County.

Hero and celebrity
The case helped make Marshall a hero and celebrity in Baltimore.

Local black newspaper articles personally celebrated his courtroom victories. "He brought us the Constitution as a document," one official of the NAACP said, "like Moses brought his people the Ten Commandments."

The third steppingstone to Brown also was a local case. At the time, black teachers in county schools were paid about half of what white teachers earned, historians said. In 1939, Marshall argued for the equalization of pay in Anne Arundel County on behalf of a black teacher there.

"This was the first successful teacher-pay case in the nation," Gibson said. "The Maryland precedent was followed by successful teacher-pay cases in 14 states."

All three cases dealt blows to the Plessy vs. Ferguson argument of separate but equal, and established the NAACP as a formidable national civil rights organization.

The cases also set the stage for what would become Marshall's lifelong passion - equalizing educational opportunities.

His fight would make him famous internationally, the source of great hometown pride. But Marshall appears to have harbored no real love for Baltimore.

Except for a few memorable occasions - such as when the city honored him by erecting a bronze 8-foot-tall statue outside the federal courthouse - Marshall seems to have seldom returned to his hometown.

In 1977, a Sun reporter interviewed Marshall when he came to Baltimore to pose for the statue.

"I was born at McMechen [Street] near Pennsylvania Avenue, across from the slaughterhouse," Marshall said. His family lived in New York from the time he was about a year old until he was 7. Then the family moved back to Baltimore and lived at 1632 Division St.

The sting of segregation tinged Marshall's memories of Baltimore.

Marshall said that when he was a teen-ager, he was arrested after he got into a fight with a white man. He said he was riding on a trolley carrying a stack of boxes for a merchant. The white man grabbed him and said, "Don't push in front of a white person." The white man wasn't arrested, and Marshall was released without being charged after the merchant went to the police station and spoke up for him, he said.