A small victory for civil rights


THE CITY school board meeting of Sept. 2, 1952 was by any definition an extraordinary gathering:

Sixteen African American students were seeking admission to the demanding, pre-engineering "A" course at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute at a time when segregation was still the law of the land.

The board had been asked to consider whether setting up a similar course at the segregated black Douglass High School would satisfy the separate-but-equal test under the U.S. Supreme Court's 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson ruling permitting separate facilities for blacks and whites.

One of the students' spokesmen was Marshall Levin, then an attorney representing the Baltimore Urban League (now a city Circuit Court judge).

Representing the NAACP was another Baltimore native, Thurgood Marshall, who would later become a Supreme Court justice.

Roszel Thomsen, a future federal judge, presided over the four-hour discussion. Perhaps sensing the import of the meeting, he asked all present to "invoke God's guidance."

Then he explained the issue before the board and reviewed the precedents of the Maryland Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court.

"It seems to me," he said, "that the only real question before the school board is whether the proposed curriculum in one of the Negro schools. . . . will be substantially equal under the City Code then we must continue a policy of separate schools.

"If it will not be substantially equal," Thomsen continued, "then under the Constitution of the United States we must admit the boys to the Polytechnic "A" course, or abolish the curriculum."

Mr. Levin pointed out that the "A" course had been functioning for many years, had national recognition, veteran teachers, great influence and distinguished alumni. A new course at Douglass, he argued, could not possibly offer these "intangibles" and therefore would be inherently "unequal."

Robert H. Roy, an assistant engineering dean at Johns Hopkins University, pressed the point by stating that equal facilities aren't offered "by creating something identical in form but not in spirit."

Marhsall was only 43 years old but already enjoyed a reputation as a brilliant lawyer in the civil rights struggle.

He pointed out that in the several cases pending before the Supreme Court, "there is expert testimony from the best child psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists and psychologists, all of whom testify that children who are segregated in the public schools are harmed by segregation. It is impossible for them to obtain an education on the same basis as in a mixed school."

Forty-three years later, Judge Levin still recalls that, "Marshall was not at the hearing very long. He came in like a tornado, argued like a tornado and left like a tornado."

There were counter-arguments as well. School officials testified that they could replicate the "A" course at Douglass without difficulty.

Another citizen declared: "Negroes should have advantages and should have a proper education, but I think the Negro will do better trying to be a Negro and don't ape the whites. If I were colored and I had a son, I would be in favor of that boy going to Douglass High."

The vote was 5-to-3 in favor of admitting the black students to Poly.

As chairman, Thomsen did not vote, but he later said that he would have voted with the majority.

And so the young men were admitted. (The board later declined to admit black girls to Western, however, ruling that the advanced courses at Western could be replicated at Douglass.)

The Poly victory in Baltimore came two years before Marshall and his colleagues won their greatest victory -- the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown decision that overturned segregation in the public schools.

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