Baltimore’s Upton neighborhood gets attention for blight and crime today. But years ago, it gave birth to a Baltimore legend: Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court Justice and subject of the new movie “Marshall,” grew up there.
“It was a different world,” said Olando Bartee, 63, sitting on the marble steps of his house on the 1600 block of Division Street.
Marshall’s boyhood home is just next door to Bartee’s. Like Bartee, Marshall’s own dad used to sit on the front marble steps, too — wearing his undershirt to annoy his more refined wife, according to a biographer.
Bartee didn’t know Marshall personally, but he attended the same primary school — PS103, or the Division Street School.
In Marshall’s time, it was considered the best school for black children in the city. It was while he was a student there that Marshall changed his name from “Thoroughgood” to “Thurgood” – because, he said, he got tired of writing out the longer name.
By the time Bartee attended, the school had fallen behind.
“We were still on the ‘Dick and Jane’ books,” Bartee said.
Like other African-Americans in Baltimore at the time, Marshall lived a life circumscribed by segregation. Discriminatory housing laws meant blacks couldn’t buy houses on majority white blocks. Though they shopped at the many shops that lined Pennsylvania Avenue, they typically couldn’t work there.
After graduating from Howard University law school — he couldn’t attend segregated University of Maryland — Marshall became a community organizer, helping lead campaigns like the 1933 Buy Where You Can Work effort to boycott stores in Baltimore that wouldn’t hire African-Americans. Later, he became a landmark NAACP lawyer, helping to end segregation.
As a student, Bartee experienced firsthand the enormous impact of Marshall’s work on Brown v. Board of Education. After the end of segregation, Bartee left the Division Street School and attended Mount Royal, one of Baltimore’s first integrated schools.
“That was this block,” said Bartee, completing his reverie. “That world yielded a certain kind of respect that no one even knows about anymore.”