The late Thurgood Marshall was rejected for admission to the University of Maryland School of Law in his hometown of Baltimore, so the oft-told story goes, simply because he was black.
The rejection fueled his quest for racial justice and became the stuff of legend, a part of the city's folklore that endures in the nation's history.
But increasingly, students of the life of the late U.S. Supreme Court justice are coming to the conclusion that he may not have applied to the Maryland law school. In so doing, these scholars are challenging conventional accounts of a small but significant episode in the civil rights movement.
Even if he did not, the greater truth remains. Because of his race, Mr. Marshall would not have been admitted even had he tried.
Although the way Mr. Marshall often spoke of that time encouraged the belief that he had sought admission, three scholars said Mr. Marshall told them he had not.
"I thought he had applied. I was hunting to find his application papers," said Washington Post writer Juan Williams, who is working on a biography of Mr. Marshall. Mr. Williams is one of a handful of observers who believe the aspiring attorney did not apply to Maryland because of Jim Crow laws then in effect.
"He and every other young black person in Baltimore in this time period, in 1930, knew that the University of Maryland law school did not accept black students," Mr. Williams said. "At best, it would be defying the state and simply registering your refusal to accept this racist system.
"In that sense, it doesn't make much difference," Mr. Williams said. "But so much of this Marshall stuff is folk legend. People are touchy about it because they feel you are toying with the legend."
Many people maintain firmly that Mr. Marshall did apply.
That is the version offered in a 1993 biography by syndicated columnist Carl T. Rowan, a chronicler and champion of the civil rights movement. Two of three other biographies about the justice state the same. So do standard reference books, a slew of news organizations over the years (including The Sun) and University of Maryland lawyers defending the need for a merit scholarship for black students at University of Maryland College Park.
But some Marshall scholars now question that account.
In a 1994 book on Mr. Marshall, Georgetown University law professor Mark V. Tushnet wrote tersely: "Barred by Maryland's segregation laws from attending the state university's law school in Baltimore, Mr. Marshall began law school in 1930 at Howard [University]."
Mr. Tushnet said recently that he chose that phrasing so that he would not have to take sides on the issue.
"I wrote that carefully," said Mr. Tushnet, a former Marshall law clerk who interviewed him in the mid-1980s. "He told me, as I recall, that he didn't apply because it was silly, because he knew he would have been turned down. Enough people asserted that he was turned down that I was uneasy at relying on his recollection 55 years after the event."
Although it admitted a handful of black students in the late 1880s, the law school had not enrolled even one after it became part of the public University of Maryland in 1920. In all other respects, Maryland would have been an ideal place for Mr. Marshall to attend law school -- a short trolley ride from his home, as more than one observer has pointed out.
Instead, he woke up early every school day to board a train for the hour's trip to Howard University Law School in Washington. In 1933, he graduated first in his class.
A 1935 lawsuit forced Maryland's law school to admit Donald G. Murray, a black Amherst College graduate from Baltimore. It was Mr. Marshall's first major victory, one that led to a series of battles against discrimination and segregation in education.
The grandson of slaves, Mr. Marshall would go on to win 29 of 32 cases argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, and he became the first black jurist to sit on it. But he never hid his bitterness toward the Baltimore campus he had longed to attend.
As journalist Mr. Rowan wrote in his 1993 biography:
"Nothing preoccupied young Marshall to the point that he muted his anger toward the University of Maryland law school. 'The sonsabitches turned away the guy who finished number one at a better law school -- Howard,' Marshall said at many social occasions when his memory and anger had been refurbished by cocktail or two."
In 1980, when the Maryland law school sought to honor one of Baltimore's brightest stars by naming its library after him, Mr. Marshall refused to attend, sending Associate Justice William J. Brennan Jr. in his stead.
The reason, those who knew him said, was self-evident: Mr. Marshall was returning the rejection he received at the hands of the University of Maryland as an applicant five decades earlier. That anger had been spurred further by his 20-year battle with UM to get black students accepted on its whites-only campuses.
"You don't walk away from that without some scars," said Baltimore Afro-American Editor Jim Williams, a former spokesman for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The way Mr. Marshall often talked about the school's treatment of him promoted the belief that he had sought admission to the school. "It was common knowledge that he was formally turned down -- that he did make an application," Mr. Williams said.
If Mr. Marshall did apply, the law school has no record of it. That's not unusual, however. Files on rejected applicants are not kept longer than a year, said the law school's admissions director, Jim Forsythe. (The law school is now part of the University of Maryland at Baltimore.)
A thorough search of the Marshall papers and the NAACP collection at the Library of Congress turned up no mention of Mr. Marshall's application. The collections include hundreds of letters filled with personal remarks about and by Mr. Marshall, many of them about court challenges to segregation in Maryland.
Four years ago, Maryland law student Laura Champlain, now an attorney for the National Security Agency, was working on a law review article on the Murray case. Curious about his personal motivation for taking the case, she called the Supreme Court in November 1991 to talk to Mr. Marshall.
He would not take the telephone, she recalled recently.
So Ms. Champlain asked his secretary to relay her question about whether he had applied. His answer, punctuated by expletives and boomed in a hearty voice from the next room, told her otherwise. "I actually heard him, even though I did not actually speak to him," Ms. Champlain said.
According to Ms. Champlain, Mr. Marshall said he did not apply, adding that he "knew better -- that they did not accept Negroes." Ms. Champlain said she read the quotation back to the secretary to make sure she had heard it right. She had.
That exchange appears to match comments that Mr. Marshall made in a 1977 interview for the Columbia University Oral History Collection.
"Of course, I couldn't go to the University of Maryland because they wouldn't take Negroes," Mr. Marshall said, according to a transcript of the interview.
"It's entirely conceivable the accounts would have indicated that he did not apply," said Thurgood Marshall Jr., the justice's older son. His mother, Cecilia Suyat Marshall, married the then-NAACP general counsel in 1955.
Last month, the younger Mr. Marshall asked his mother whether his father ever brought the subject up. "She doesn't recall for sure -- but for what it's worth, she thinks that he thought about applying and chose not to," the son said.
The firmest account that Mr. Marshall did apply to Maryland comes from Mr. Rowan, whose biography was based in part on interviews with the justice.
Mr. Rowan's book cited a letter written by an aide to University of Maryland President Raymond A. Pearson to Mr. Marshall "to tell him, in effect, to drop dead. Maryland and all the professional schools of all Southern state universities rejected black applicants."
Mr. Rowan continued, "In fact, Thurgood's application provoked Pearson later to draw up a form letter to be given to black applicants," informing black Marylanders they should attend the two-year program at Princess Anne Academy, which is now the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. The state would pay for subsequent schooling at the then-private Morgan College or outside Maryland.
Asked recently where he found the letter to Mr. Marshall, Mr. Rowan said it was held in the collections of the Library of Congress. No such correspondence from Pearson to Mr. Marshall could be found there by an archivist and a reporter, although that does not prove that Mr. Rowan is mistaken.
But there are copies of similar-sounding letters sent by Mr. Pearson and University of Maryland Registrar W. M. Hillgeist to Murray -- Mr. Marshall's client in 1935. Mr. Marshall did not once mention his own application during the extensive and often personal exchange of letters with his mentor, Howard Law School Vice Dean Charles Houston Jr., or others involved in the case against the Maryland law school.
Mr. Rowan brushed aside the notion that Mr. Marshall did not apply to Maryland.
"That's nonsense," he said recently. "There's no question but that he tried to get into the law school. Let me say this: This is the first I've heard of anybody questioning the efforts of Justice Marshall trying to get into the law school of the University of Maryland. The evidence is replete with his efforts to do so.
"Pearson did everything he could to keep Marshall out," Mr. Rowan said. "I interviewed him [Mr. Marshall], and when he talked about exacting his revenge for getting Donald Murray in, he was asked, does this make him feel good, or words to that effect. He said, 'To no end.' "
The Murray case, won with Mr. Houston's help, became the first in a long string of battles waged by Mr. Marshall against discrimination, first in Maryland and then throughout the South.
On Jan. 17, 1936, after winning a late round in the Murray case, Mr. Marshall responded to a congratulatory letter from T. Henderson Kerr, a Baltimore pharmacist. "Be assured," Mr. Marshall wrote, "that this is but the beginning of our campaign in this state."