A once segregated West Baltimore school where future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall received his early education is set to receive a $6 million makeover, turning it into a legal resource center and museum space for the surrounding community.
Historic Public School 103 in Upton, also known as Henry Highland Garnet School, is a nearly 150-year-old civil rights landmark that lost its luster years ago amid encroaching blight. The elementary school was a springboard for Marshall, who as a lawyer successfully challenged segregated schooling nationwide and was the first African American associate justice on the Supreme Court.
Plans for its redevelopment include space for legal advocacy offices, gun violence prevention work and job training, according to partners in the project. It will include interactive exhibits that showcase the history of prominent leaders such as Marshall, as well as a recreated campaign office of the late U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, who died last year, to serve as a setting for programs to encourage people to vote.
“It’s going to be an amazing, interactive place,” said the Rev. Alvin C. Hathaway Sr., senior pastor of the nearby Union Baptist Church and president of Beloved Community Services Corp., the community development nonprofit behind the project. “It should be a source of pride for people that we have the ability to restore our community, from within our community."
Michael Braverman, the city’s housing and community development commissioner, plans to announce Friday the selection of Hathaway’s group to spearhead the project. The group submitted its winning proposal in response to a request for redevelopment ideas the city put out last year.
Beloved Community Services was selected for its experience with historic preservation and building and longstanding presence in the community, but also for its plan for capitalizing the project, which will cost about $6.1 million and largely be paid for using federal, state and local tax credits, Braverman said.
There also will be a $500,000 outlay in state funding in the form of a bond bill, and the city could chip in by reducing the $330,000 purchase price in its finalized land disposition agreement with Hathaway’s group, Braverman said.
The new community center will be part of a much larger “transformation” planned for the surrounding Upton neighborhood, Braverman said.
The community was once home to a cluster of black luminaries who changed the course of American history, including Marshall and husband-and-wife attorneys Clarence Mitchell Jr. and Juanita Jackson Mitchell, who fought alongside Marshall to desegregate public spaces in America.
The hope is to see the neighborhood returned to greatness in part on the strength of its storied past and architectural anchors like P.S. 103, Braverman and Hathaway said.
“Momentum is starting to swing this way,” Hathaway said. “And this is going to be a big push of the pendulum.”
The pastor is full of ideas for further work around the neighborhood, such as restoring vacant homes on the same block of Division Street as the school into affordable housing. Braverman said the city will announce redevelopment plans soon for the Upton Mansion, which dates to the 1830s, and is working with community leaders to find new purposes for the former home and law offices of the Mitchell family, which are both in the area.
P.S. 103 opened in 1877 as a school for white children. It was converted into a school for black children in 1910, as demographics in the surrounding neighborhood changed, and was later named for Garnet, an abolitionist and preacher who had been born into slavery on the Eastern Shore. Marshall started school there in 1914, according to the Baltimore Heritage Area Association. He lived three blocks away on Division Street, according to Baltimore Heritage Inc., a nonprofit historic and architectural preservation organization.
The school was integrated after Marshall won the landmark 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.
A few years back, a fire badly damaged the building. The city stepped in to replace the roof and stabilize the building, but until now had not found a new use for it, despite convening a commission to study its potential moving forward.
Among the hopeful tenants working with Hathaway is the retired U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams, who hopes to establish a new branch of his University of Maryland, College Park-based Center for Education, Justice & Ethics there. Williams said he is still working on developing a funding plan — and expects to need about $500,000 a year — but he hopes to conduct research and provide legal advice and juvenile diversion programming in the office.
“I’ve got a lot of ideas,” Williams said. “Just to be part of that whole Thurgood Marshall heritage and legacy, that’s just exciting.”
Hathaway, who grew up in the neighborhood, said he’s also in talks with local law firms and law schools to provide pro bono services in the center, and to have a program that works with shooting victims at local hospitals expand into the space, as well.
Over the next four months, a feasibility and capitalization study will be conducted, he said. Then, it’ll be off to the races.
“If all goes well, this time next year we should be open,” Hathaway said, as he looked around the half-abandoned block one recent afternoon. “It’s always been a place that’s been in my heart.”
Baltimore Sun research librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.