LAW LIBRARY OFFERS INSIGHT INTO KEY BLACK POLITICAL FIGURES OF STATE'S PAST

THE BALTIMORE SUN

I felt as if I had gotten to know two of Maryland's political celebrities, Thurgood Marshall and Lena K. Lee, after spending a few hours this week at the University of Maryland's law library, which is named in the former Supreme Court justice's honor.

I'll begin with Lena K. Lee, among the first black women elected to the Maryland General Assembly in the 1960s. Lee, who died at age 100 in 2006, donated her extensive papers to the library, which is making an overview of her life available on the Internet through its African Americans in the Law collection.

Delegate Lee, who represented West Baltimore and lived for 60 years on Madison Avenue, must have been a careful saver. She retained her old hand-drawn campaign signs, telegrams, letters and political documents. There are also digital links to an oral history wherein she claimed to "infuriate 25th Street," a reference to her teaching superiors at the city's Department of Education - by wanting to exit the classroom and enter politics. Once separated from the teaching profession, she succeeded in winning millions of dollars for school renovations and improvements.

If ever there was a person who seemed to love politics - meeting people, making friends, listening to constituents - it was Lena Lee.

"I see people squirreled away in basements drawing these posters for her," said Maryland librarian Bill Sleeman, imagining the hand-drawn posters. He worked to assemble this material.

What the library has put together - and made easily available to anyone with a computer - is the equivalent of spending an afternoon going through old trunks and cartons, without the dust. There is a complete digital photo album of Lee, but alas, none of the invoices for the fabulous hats she wore.

How was she elected? My guess would be through the voters who filled the pews of West Baltimore churches. The women's division of the Sharp Street Methodist Church once praised her as a "Christian citizen" and "a gentle lady."

I also spoke at length with Maryland law school professor and political insider Larry Gibson, who is also fascinated - some would say obsessed - with the Thurgood Marshall story. There is also a Marshall collection, but the law school also has a number of bulletin-board panels that reveal much civil rights history that involved this legendary advocate.

It is an interesting note that many of the lawsuits and legal cases of the 1930s to 1950s are aimed at the University of Maryland, the very institution that fought racial integration under then-school president Harry Clifton "Curley" Byrd.

Through Gibson, I learned of the Banneker Building, a Pleasant Street rowhouse just east of the Woman's Industrial Exchange, where many of Baltimore's early black attorneys (about 1910) had offices. Apparently the laws of segregation did not apply - in this instance - to business and commercial property. It is an interesting conundrum to consider, that while Baltimore's African-American community would have routinely been denied service and sales consideration at nearby restaurants and select clothing shops on Charles Street, their legal community was free to do business at the Banneker Building.

Gibson would also like to know more about the Phoenix Building, where a young Thurgood Marshall rented a law office and worked his earliest rights cases. This compact structure on East Redwood Street (it might have been a hotel at one time) sat just behind the current Bank of America Building. The Phoenix was torn down about 60 years ago. Gibson believes he knows the name of its owner, Adolph Ginsburg. Does anyone know Ginsburg, so that some parts of the Thurgood Marshall story can be completed?

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