Print Page   |   Contact Us   |   Sign In   |   Join BAMC
President's Message
Share |

Do not seek to follow in
the footsteps of the wise.
Seek what they sought.
--Matsuo Basho

When I leave one of the courthouses in Rockville, I usually walk back to my office through the Rockville Town Square.  That path requires me to walk down, or at least across, Gibbs Street.  Named in honor of William B. Gibbs, Jr., this street stands as a constant reminder of both the pain of discrimination and the triumph of the rule of law in one of our own courts.

On June 15, 2017, I was privileged to attend the swearing-in ceremony of Judge Patrick L. Woodward as the Chief Judge of the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.  Those in attendance had the good fortune to hear the remarks of Professor Larry Gibson, a professor of law at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law.  Professor Gibson noted that July 2017 marks the 80th anniversary of the 1937 ruling of the Circuit Court for Montgomery County in Gibbs v. Broome -- described by Professor Gibson as the second step on the road toward Brown v. Board of Education.

Notably, the “first step” toward Brown also took place in the State of Maryland.  In January 1935, Donald Gaines Murray applied for admission to the University of Maryland School of Law.  Mr. Murray, an African-American and 1934 graduate of Amherst University was, other than his race, a well-qualified applicant for admission.  His application was orchestrated by two attorneys with the NAACP, future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and his mentor, Charles Houston.  His application was, of course, denied.

It would probably be difficult to overstate the motivation enjoyed by Thurgood Marshall in pursuing this case.  Marshall’s own application for admission to the University of Maryland School of Law had been rejected years before (for those of you who have not seen it, I commend to you Laurence Fishburne’s phenomenal and highly-entertaining portrayal of Justice Marshall in his one-man play Thurgood, filmed live at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, in which he describes how he had “a score to settle” with the University of Maryland).  The trial court ruling issued by Baltimore City Court Judge Eugene O’Dunne in Murray v. Pearson was the first in the nation ordering the desegregation of a school.  His ruling was unanimously affirmed by the Maryland Court of Appeals in January 1936.

Having tasted success in Murray, Marshall and Houston began taking up the cause of under compensated black teachers beginning in 1936.  Mr. Gibbs was a victim of Maryland’s version of this particular type of discrimination.  While the Maryland Code provided that no white teacher at a public school in Maryland could be paid less than $600 per year, a “teacher regularly employed in the public schools for colored children” could be paid as little as $360 per year.  Repeated legislative efforts to equalize teacher compensation dating back to the 1920s had failed and, as of the 1930s, black teachers in Montgomery County were paid just 48% of the amount paid to white teachers.

In November 1936, Marshall and Houston identified Mr. Gibbs, a school principal, as an appropriate plaintiff.  His salary of $612 per month was a fraction of that earned by white principals (who averaged $1,475 per month).  In January 1937, a petition for writ of mandamus was filed in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County.  The case was assigned to Judge Charles W. Woodward (Chief Judge Woodward’s grandfather) who issued a show cause order to the Board of Education.  The defense countered by filing a demurrer challenging the legal basis for the claim.  Judge Woodward decided that the demurrer would be considered by the trial court sitting in banc, a most unusual occurrence in his courthouse.  In a June 20, 1937 order, Judge Woodward, joined by the other two circuit court judges, ruled in favor of Mr. Gibbs and overruled the demurrer.

Shortly thereafter, the Board of Education negotiated a settlement.  The agreement required the equalization of teacher pay within a year, immediately increased the salaries of fifty black teachers in the county and authorized the payment of back salaries.  The strategy employed by Marshall and Houston in Montgomery County would go on to be employed in courts around the country as the NAACP prosecuted many other teacher compensation cases over the course of the four years to follow.

It is humbling to contemplate the fact that giants of the legal profession such as Thurgood Marshall and Charles Houston once argued in our courts and secured rulings that helped to pave the way toward Brown v. Board of Education.  Those same courts, albeit in different buildings, continue to provide a forum for justice today.  But, while we walk the same streets and pass the courthouse where the victory in Gibbs was won, none of us can truly walk in the footsteps of Marshall and Houston.  The bravery and innovation that they exhibited during their fight for racial equality occurred at a time in which pursuing those goals could literally be a life-threatening endeavor. 

We are fortunate not to live in that world anymore.  But, while we can’t retrace their steps, we continue to seek what they sought -- justice and the triumph of the rule of law.  And, if passing in the shadows of the old courthouses in Rockville isn’t sufficient inspiration for you, I suggest you add to your summer reading list Professor Gibson’s book, Young Thurgood - The Making of a Supreme Court Justice, which provided the historical information above.  I hope that each of you has the opportunity during the summer months to relax, recharge and read at least one good book.

Jim Mood