Neither Separate Nor Equal: How Thurgood Marshall’s Challenge of Baltimore County’s Segregated School System on Behalf of an RMG Partner’s Relative Relates to Baltimore’s Current Racial Inequality, and Informs RMG’s Efforts to Address It
In 1935, my great aunt, Margaret Williams, then a teenager from Cowdensville, a tiny all-Black enclave in southwest Baltimore County, was denied admittance to Catonsville High School.
This was not unusual.
To discourage Black migration from the City, Baltimore County refused to provide an education to Black students past the seventh grade. Black pupils seeking to continue secondary school were forced to take an exam administered to Blacks only. If they passed, the County would pay for them to attend a segregated high school—in Baltimore City.
Angry at the injustice of this system, Margaret’s father hired a young, up and coming attorney, Thurgood Marshall, who had recently moved back to his native Baltimore after graduating from Howard University Law School. In one of his earliest cases, Marshall filed a lawsuit against the County. He argued that the precedent established in the Supreme Court’s infamous decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896) upholding racial segregation as long as it was “separate but equal” meant that the Court should require Baltimore County to either create a Black high school in the district or allow Margaret to integrate Catonsville High School.
Marshall, however, lost the case against Baltimore County, and the subsequent appeal. Reading the Court of Appeals’ decision in Williams v. Zimmerman, 172 Md. 563 (1937) as a first-year law student, I was struck by the Court’s observation that that “the allowance of separate treatment [of the races, results in] some inequalities” that were inevitable and unobjectionable. The Court not only conceded that separate was not equal, but was unbothered by that hypocrisy and, in fact, diminished it.
Today, eighty-five years after my Aunt’s interaction with Baltimore County’s segregated and discriminatory school system, we know Black Americans continue to face “some inequalities.” Understanding protesters’ rage and frustration in the wake of the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd requires acknowledgement they were not aberrations in an otherwise equal system of justice. Rather, they are the latest examples of our nation falling short of the ideals enshrined in our Constitution—a Constitution that promised its people liberty and justice and equality.
We, in Maryland, fall short of those ideals as well.
As a zoning attorney working on development projects throughout the Baltimore region, I see how all levels of government have historically employed policies explicitly intended to promote and sustain segregation and how many of Baltimore’s present-day racial disparities can be traced to them. As the grandnephew of Margaret Williams, I see how Baltimore County’s denial of her access to a secondary education fits into that broader narrative. As an American, specifically a Black American, I see that we must understand these policies and reverse their effects.
It is increasingly well-known that Baltimoreans pioneered the use of racially-restrictive zoning laws and covenants to institutionalize housing discrimination. Yet, the most pernicious pro-segregation policies were arguably those that deliberately kept Black families from areas like Baltimore County. The Federal Housing Administration barred suburban subdivision developers from qualifying for subsidized construction loans unless the community excluded Blacks. Baltimore County worked aggressively through the 1970s to keep Blacks out—with tactics like expulsive zoning that reportedly led to the elimination of twenty Black-suburban enclaves by rezoning their land for industrial and heavy commercial uses and requiring realtors to notify police of any sales to Blacks—to the extent that the County willingly forfeited millions in federal housing grants for violating the Fair Housing Act.
Baltimore County’s practices to expel Black residents and prevent new in-migration from the City were so effective that while the County’s overall population in the postwar decade from 1950 to 1960 exploded by 82% (270,273 to 492,418), Baltimore County’s Black population actually fell from 18,026 to 17,535. A 1974 report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights summed up how Baltimore County, like many suburban areas around the country, used its zoning powers to purposefully block the construction of moderately-priced housing for workers, creating a “white noose” concentrating Blacks in the City.
It’s clear how these development policies led to present-day racial disparities in Baltimore’s economic development. Black families prevented from participating in the post-WWII housing boom could not accumulate equity from appreciating real estate, thus losing a primary vehicle to generate wealth and the collateral necessary to start businesses. Redlining affected the loan and insurance rates entrepreneurs might receive, and the general decline in population undermined municipal efforts to raise tax revenues. With the City unable to provide adequate public services, concentrations of crime in disadvantaged neighborhoods made business harder to conduct or attract.
A grim irony of the hard-won gains of the Civil Rights era is that it empowered the exodus of the nascent Black middle-class to suburban areas formerly off-limits in the late-1970s and 1980s, and inadvertently compounded the issues of urban poverty by leaving behind those who could not afford to escape in disadvantaged neighborhoods in increasingly concentrated pockets of poverty. With working class jobs being relocated to the new shopping centers, office parks, and distribution facilities popping up in the suburbs along newly built federal and state highways, inner city Blacks were left with little meaningful employment nearby.
As federal and state investment was diverted toward building out suburban infrastructure like new water, sewer, road, and school facilities, less money was left for inner city schools, and thus, less funding for education and training was available to prepare City students for the increasingly higher-skilled jobs that remained local. The cycle of poverty was reinforced as the gradual departure of those Blacks who could afford to leave not only hurt the local businesses that depended on the resources of middle-and-higher income groups, but also undermined social organization in the City as the leaders and volunteers who ran local institutions like churches, PTAs, and civic clubs were living in the County. The decline of these social institutions combined with rising unemployment in disadvantaged neighborhoods, meant that the residents left behind had even fewer ties to those who were employed in the formal labor market who could provide information on and access to job opportunities.
One way to address present-day inequality in the City’s disadvantaged communities is to expand economic opportunities within them. A little assistance can be huge.
Despite the bad result for my Great Aunt, the ruling in Williams v. Zimmerman led to significant breakthroughs. Scholars contend the Court’s acknowledgment that “separate” was never going to be “equal” helped shape the NAACP’s legal strategy that led to the Supreme Court striking down the doctrine of “separate but equal” two-decades later in Brown v. Board of Education. After Margaret’s passing, the Sun’s obituary quoted a professor opining that “[i]n a sense, Margaret Williams, not the children of Topeka, sowed the seed of the Brown decision.”
But while the victories of the civil rights era toppled the edifice of institutionalized discrimination, they could not eliminate the constraints on Black economic opportunities. Providing equal access to opportunity requires serious commitment to integration, racial redress, and fair play. To that end, my law firm launched a program that I hope will lead to expanded economic opportunities in Baltimore. Through Rosenberg|Martin|Greenberg’s Building Black-Owned Businesses in Baltimore initiative, we will provide a group of small Black-owned businesses with free legal support to help them overcome some of the unique barriers they face, like limited access to capital and the absence of a business support network.
The magnitude of the underlying structural problems in Baltimore created by a century of public policy designed to segregate its Black population will require federal and regional assistance, and the support of all individuals able to contribute. We at RMG recognize this is just a small step. But while eighty-five years ago, the highest Court of our state, tasked with upholding fairness and equality, was unbothered by “some inequalities,” in the treatment of its citizens, we are not. This is the start of our efforts to ensure the inherent rights of the Constitution are applied equally to all people.