Pages Navigation Menu

Supreme Court justice and civil rights advocate

Thurgood Marshall’s early life

Nu Chapter, Alpha Phi Alpha (Thurgood Marshall) at Lincoln

Nu Chapter, Alpha Phi Alpha (Thurgood Marshall) at Lincoln

After graduating Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore, Thurgood Marshall went to all male Lincoln University in Oxford, PA. Among his many fellow classmates was the already renowned poet, Langston Hughes:

Q: And Langston Hughes?
A: Langston was at Lincoln with me. One of the greatest people I’ve ever known. He knew everything there was to be known. He’d been around the world twice before he was 21 on tramp steamers. He studied and he just self studied and then he went to Lincoln. He was a great guy. I liked him.

Q: Did he ever cover you or write about you.
A: No. He just loved poetry.

Q: Do you like poetry?
A: I don’t care about no poetry.

Q: What did you read?
A: Detective stories.

Unable to attend nearby University of Maryland Law School because of their segregation policy, Marshall started Howard University Law School in 1930. There he came under the tutelage of the Harvard-educated dean of the law school, Charles Houston:

Q: Let’s talk a bit about Charlie Houston.
A: Charles Hamilton Houston. That’s right. He went to Amherst, Harvard Law School and he did an extra year in order to get an SJD degree – which is doctor of the science of law. And he came back to Washington and was made vice dean of the Howard Law School. And Charlie ran the school along with the secretary, the clerk of the school, Ollie Cooper who was black. And at that time when he took over, it would be about 1928, around about that, the late ’20s, it was known as dummy’s retreat because the only people that went there were those that couldn’t get in any other graduate school.

And it was a night school and it was really of low caliber. Charlie immediately in a period of some three to five years brought it up to being accredited by both of the accrediting agencies.

The first thing you know with him is the famous story that’s told to all Harvard students and he told it to us, and that is the student body is told, “Each one of you look to the man on your right and then look to the man on your left, and realize that two of you won’t be here next year.” And you immediately start to think well one of you would be bad enough but two is an awful average. So you really get down to business.

The other thing he would say is, “I get no joy out of punching out and failing an average student, but the greatest joy to me is to flunk and pass out a Phi Beta Kappa or a really brilliant student. I love to flunk them out.” And so he really made you study and he said he would not be satisfied until he went to a dance on the campus and found all of his students sitting around the wall reading law books instead of partying.

Now he taught us with emphasis on the Constitution. And basically that you had to be not as good as the average white lawyeryou had to be better because you wouldn’t get a break on an even basis. He would then tell you that the secret was hard work and digging out the facts and the law.

During my first year in law school I managed to come out at the head of the class and so the second and third year I was what is known as a student librarian. That is I assisted the regular librarian in running, and I think I got my full tuitionat least I got a part of my tuition. But the real problem was I couldn’t afford to live in Washington so I had to commute from Baltimore, which meant every day walking to the station and walking to the law school, which wasn’t very helpful but it did give you time to study.

Q: How much did it cost to take the train?
A: I don’t know. On the train, the B&O railroad, you bought season tickets I think it was once a month. I’ve forgotten what it was.

Q: Why did you pick Howard Law School?
A: Because it was nearby I guess. Well I mean I knew I couldn’t go to Maryland. That’s why I knew I had to find some way to do that.

ArmorLine After Howard, Marshall opened a small private law practice in his hometown of Baltimore:

Q: Once you get out of law school you go to live in Baltimore? Were you working for Houston then?
A: No, I had my own office in Baltimore.

Q: What kind of cases?
A: Anything. And the only thing you get at that age is nothing. You see, if you want really to know how smart I am, when I graduated Dean Pound of Harvard offered me a scholarship for a year at Harvard to get an SJD in constitutional law. And the scholarship was enough to pay the living expenses of my wife and me, all living expenses and a little spending money. And I immediately turned it down because I went to law school to get out there and get in the fight and I wasn’t going to be bothered with that. So to show you how smart I was, in my first year I lost $3,500. That shows how smart I was.

Q: Because you couldn’t get cases?
A: That’s right.

My parents went along with me. Certainly. When I opened my office up and we got this second hand furniture for my office and my mother said well you’ve got to have a rug on the floor. And I said we’re fresh out of money. And she took the rug off her living room floor and put it in there.