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.
Then why were members of the plaintiff’s race not admitted to the university?
President Pearson glared at his questioner. Negroes were not admitted because—he personally had no objection to their attending the university. It was not a matter of his imposing any sort of race prejudice on the school. It was a matter of state policy, you understand, beyond his control.
It was beyond his control even though he was president of the university and there was not a single law, rule or regulation requiring the exclusion of Negro applicants?
Yes. But this is why the State created the scholarships for them to attend out of state institutions.
The scholarships that were not created until after Mr. Murray’s application had been rejected.
Yes, those scholarships.
Houston dismissed the witness after a withering hour and a half examination. Next he called his colleague to the stand—Roger Howell, dean of the University of Maryland’s law school.
Houston squeezed from his fellow law school dean a series of valuable concessions. Yes, the University of Maryland’s curriculum focused on Maryland state law, which made it unique among the nation’s law schools. Of the school’s eighteen faculty members, twelve were judges or otherwise prominent Maryland attorneys. The school’s preeminence among members of the Maryland bar could scarcely be challenged.
Satisfied that his testimony elucidated the inequality between receiving a paltry scholarship to an out-of-state institution and studying law at the University of Maryland, Houston dismissed Dean Howell. He called several more witnesses, all state officials, who described in detail the inequalities in the education Maryland provided to its black and white citizens. With the latitude granted by Judge O’Dunne, Houston elicited testimony regarding race-based differences in teachers’ salaries, gross inequalities in the size and condition of the actual school buildings, and the fact that the school year for Maryland’s black students was one month shorter than that for white students, a fact that Houston’s young co-counsel knew first-hand….
Rawn James Jr. has been writing and practicing law in Washington, D.C. for 10 years. He is a graduate of Yale College and Duke Law School. Like Houston and Marshall, he is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, and lives with his wife and son a few blocks from the home where Houston raised his family.