Book Excerpt: Before Brown v. Board of Education

In an exclusive excerpt from his new book, Root and Branch (Bloomsbury Press), Rawn James Jr. chronicles an early case in the battle against segregation.


In 1935, Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston’s fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, had been working on plans to file a lawsuit to integrate the University of Maryland. Led by its assistant general counsel Belford V. Lawson Jr., Alpha Phi Alpha had asked for and received help from the NAACP’s Washington chapter in conducting research and searching for a suitable plaintiff. Although Lawson was a prominent and respected lawyer, Marshall believed his dean would better handle the case.

Neither Maryland nor the university had laws or rules mandating that the college be segregated. The university’s racist administration excluded African Americans as a matter of policy. That the case was winnable accentuated the imperative that it be won. Nine black applicants had been rejected between 1933 and 1934, nine potential plaintiffs from whom Lawson soon would have his client. Swarmed with work at the law school and for the NAACP, however, Houston had not responded to Marshall’s entreaties about filing a case against the university.

By the opening months of 1934, Thurgood’s tone had become stressed: “Dear Charlie, Trust you had a good Christmas, etc. I hate to worry you so much about this University of Maryland case. When are we to get together on it? Things are very slow just now and I would like very much to get started as soon as possible.” A few months later Alpha Phi Alpha allocated sufficient money to try the case. As Lawson began to wind down his preparations, Marshall implored Houston: “What about the University of Maryland case? B.V. Lawson has been writing me and seems to think that the fraternity is going to try the case along with the local branches of the NAACP. I am up a tree as to just what is going to be done.”

As if sensing his fraternity brother’s anxiety, Lawson invited Marshall to a strategy planning session in Washington. Houston was in Augusta, Georgia on an NAACP mission. Marshall reached him by telegram. “ATTEND LAWSON’S MEETING,” Houston replied by wire. “GET FACTS BUT BE CAREFUL ABOUT COMMITMENTS.” Marshall would be more than careful; he refused to commit himself or the NAACP’s Baltimore chapter to Lawson’s case because he did not want to be a sailor on Lawson’s ship and his Baltimore branch was irked that the Washington branch would file suit in Maryland. Intra-organizational politics it was, but Marshall’s primary concern was that the case be won. Belford Lawson was a formidable attorney but he was not Thurgood’s Dean Houston. Truth be told, as far as the younger attorney was concerned, Lawson was no Thurgood Marshall either. Marshall disregarded Houston’s advice and respectfully declined to attend the meeting.

A week after his Washington strategy meeting, Lawson identified his plaintiff. Donald Gaines Murray was an eminently qualified recent graduate of Amherst College and the scion of a widely respected Baltimore family. He wanted to attend the University of Maryland School of Law. Lawson agreed to represent him and would proceed without the NAACP.