Catonsville Elementary School was quite different in the early 1930s. For one, the elementary school was a high school, and, in the age of segregation, black students were forbidden to attend.
But this weekend, Del. Charles Sydnor III, Baltimore County Public Schools Interim Superintendent Verletta White; Larry Gibson, author of “Young Thurgood: The Making of a Supreme Court Justice” and more than 50 others celebrated the school’s history and a pivotal event that occurred more than 80 years ago.
After nearly three years of research and work, Sydnor, who represents areas of Catonsville, Woodlawn and Ellicott City, unveiled a historical marker in front of the school, marking the efforts of Thurgood Marshall and a young Baltimore County family to desegregate schools.
“It’s a part of this community’s history that a lot of us were not aware of,” said Sydnor, who was inspired to create the marker after reading Gibson’s book and doing additional research.
Labeled the “Civil Rights Milestone” and dated Sept. 10, 1935, the marker commemorates the year in which black students Margaret Williams and Lucille Scott were denied admittance to Catonsville High School. At the time, Baltimore County refused public education to black students past the sixth grade and required black students seeking additional education to pass an elementary school exit exam.
If the students passed, the county would pay for their education, but Margaret Williams failed the exam twice, ending her education at the seventh grade. Her family fought back, insisting that the county either create high schools for black students or admit them to county schools.
Baltimore native Thurgood Marshall, an NAACP attorney who later became the first black U.S. Supreme Court Justice, represented Williams and Scott in their case — Williams vs. Zimmerman. They lost the case and subsequent appeal. But experts say the case became a platform for change.
Two years later, the county arranged for the high school curriculum to be taught at three black elementary schools to black students, essentially creating high schools for the county’s black students, and many say it paved the way for Marshall’s success in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, in which the racial segregation of schools was declared unconstitutional.
Descendants of Margaret Williams, including her niece Adrienne Jones, Speaker Pro Tem of the Maryland House of Delegates, and her nephew Barry Williams, director of Parks and Recreation for Baltimore County, were present at the event and expressed their gratitude for the marker.
White said commemorating the history with the marker reflected a message of grit, perseverance and persistence for Baltimore County students, showing them “what it means to really fight for what you believe in.”
“This is a historic occasion to mark a case that really helped define Baltimore County schools and who we are as a school district,” said White, adding that there are currently no disparities in the graduation rates of white and black students in Baltimore County schools.
In 2017, the graduation rate was 89 percent, according to a county release. White described this as a “testament to all of those who have come before us, who really were persistent in their efforts to ensure equity and equality for all of our students.”
Catonsville married couple Marva, 79, and Samuel Williams, 84, originally from Pennsylvania, attended the event. Both said they had been intrigued by the history because where they grew up, “we didn’t have those problems,” Samuel said.
Schools were integrated, but black teachers were rare, and neither learned much about their history — black history — while in school, they said.
“What we learned, we learned from home,” Marva said.
Debbie and Jeff Blair, both lawyers, said they were especially interested in learning more about the case and Marshall’s involvement, but wished there was a greater turnout for such an important part of Baltimore County history.
Their daughter, Victoria Blair, 17, a violinist and senior at Catonsville High School who was invited to perform at the event with members of the Catonsville High School Celtic Ensemble, said she hadn’t known much of the history before the event, but felt inspired and compelled to share the story with her peers.
“It was really memorable, and honestly, eye-opening,” Victoria said. “It’s something that we want to bring attention to at our school.”
Sydnor — humbled by the turnout — said he hopes people are emboldened by the story, which commemorates young students and a young family standing up in the face of injustice. If they hadn’t, “there’s no telling what opportunities any of us would have today,” he said.
“I just hope that people will take the time when they're walking their dogs or taking a little jog, to see that,” he said.