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National Park Service considers including Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall’s West Baltimore school in park system

The National Park Service is studying whether the West Baltimore elementary school attended by late Supreme Court Justice and civil rights legend Thurgood Marshall could qualify for designation as a new National Park unit.

The special resource study into Public School 103, or P.S. 103, could take years and is based on a defined set of criteria that evaluates a site’s historical significance, uniqueness, size and cost to include, said Carrie Miller, a project manager at the National Park Service. It follows a 2019 directive from Congress to study the site.

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Park service representatives will hold a presentation and open forum for the public Tuesday during a virtual meeting with Baltimore’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation.

The schoolhouse, also known as Henry Highland Garnet School, already is being redeveloped into a multiuse community gathering site, legal resource center and museum. Marshall, who successfully argued the landmark “Brown vs. Board of Education” segregated schooling case on behalf of the NAACP, attended the school at 1315 Division St. as a boy starting in 1914.

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A three-alarm fire burned parts of the vacant structure in the Upton neighborhood in April 2016.

The historic P.S. 103, also known as Henry Highland Garnet School, where Justice Thurgood Marshall attended elementary school in West Baltimore, is being redeveloped into a multiuse community gathering site, legal resource center and museum. Photo by: Kenneth K. Lam 2/18/20
The historic P.S. 103, also known as Henry Highland Garnet School, where Justice Thurgood Marshall attended elementary school in West Baltimore, is being redeveloped into a multiuse community gathering site, legal resource center and museum. Photo by: Kenneth K. Lam 2/18/20 (Kenneth K. Lam)

About 25% of the sites that are studied by the National Park Service for inclusion in the parks system receive a “positive finding” that allows them to move forward in the evaluation process, Miller said. Only members of Congress are legally able to establish a park unit, and while they do not need a study to do so, it can help them make the decision, she said.

“We take it step-by-step, and we make each evaluation as thorough as possible,” Miller said. “Right now, we’re diving deep into determining whether P.S. 103 or other resources in the neighborhood meet the national significance criterion.”

A component of the park service’s study hinges on public outreach, which can help project managers gather new information about the subject or better understand a site’s importance to a local community.

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Lauren Schiszik, historic preservation planner with the city’s Commission for Historic and Architectural Preservation, said Tuesday’s briefing will “signal boost” the moment’s significance to Baltimore.

“This is a big deal to get a new National Park unit, particularly one in West Baltimore, focused on Thurgood Marshall,” Schiszik said. “It is a designated area, but in a living community. People think of natural environment without people in them when they think of National Park units. But it’s also cultural landscapes.”

Fort McHenry is the only National Park unit currently in Baltimore.

In Maryland, there are about a dozen such sites, including the Clara Barton National Historic Site in Glen Echo; the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park in Church Creek; and Antietam National Battlefield in northwestern Maryland.

The nearly 150-year-old school building, blighted after years of vacancy, served as a springboard for Marshall, the first African American associate justice to sit on the Supreme Court. It also served several other children who grew up in West Baltimore who would go on to make a difference both locally and nationally.

Larry S. Gibson, author of “Young Thurgood: The Making of a Supreme Court Justice,” said the schoolhouse represents a crucial piece of the justice’s formative years. Few other physical structures that played a part in Marshall’s early life still stand, Gibson said, and this one remains mostly intact.

He also said P.S. 103 served as the most prestigious elementary school for young Black Baltimoreans at the time — a testament to the Upton community’s history as a flourishing neighborhood.

“To have a building in that community, in that structure, preserved, would be important, even just because of the long history of the building,” said Gibson, a professor at University of Maryland School of Law. “And then when you factor in Thurgood Marshall’s eight years there, I would have difficulty thinking of a parallel, more worthy location.”

It opened in 1877 as a school for white children and was converted into a school for Black children in 1910. As demographics in the surrounding neighborhood changed, the building was later named for Garnet, an abolitionist and preacher who had been born into slavery on the Eastern Shore.

The school was integrated after Marshall won the Brown vs. Board of Education case before the Supreme Court in 1954. It was closed as a school in the early 1970s, then served until the 1990s as the Upton Cultural and Arts Center. It’s been vacant ever since.

But the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development last year awarded Beloved Community Services, a community development nonprofit, the rights to rehabilitate the building. The group’s president, the Rev. Alvin C. Hathaway Sr. — senior pastor of the nearby Union Baptist Church — said he has raised about $4 million of the $8 million needed for construction so far.

The coronavirus pandemic has slowed his fundraising, but Hathaway said he hopes to raise the remaining capital by the end of the year.

“To think we have this possible in Baltimore, in a primarily African American district, would really just be a game-changer for West Baltimore,” Hathaway said. “I think it could be catalytic for the future.”

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