A community effort: Historic segregated school to transform into Justice Thurgood Marshall Amenity Center

·3 min read

Standing inside the surprisingly well preserved center hall of the Baltimore City public school built in 1877 and discussing its renovation, Rev. Al Hathaway looked relieved when he said, “And construction begins July 5.”

Once restored, the school, which Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall attended from 1914 to 1921, will be on track to become a place of cultural tourism and host community activities, including a University of Maryland program.

A groundbreaking ceremony for the Justice Thurgood Marshall Amenity Center will be held Saturday in observance of Marshall’s July 2 birthday. Hathaway and his committee want the school’s restoration to be completed in time for Marshall’s birthday in 2023.

The Henry Highland Garnet School, also known as PS No. 103 and designed by George Frederick, the architect of Baltimore’s City Hall, sits squarely in the midst of the historic African American neighborhood of Upton.

Consider the sweep of time: Marshall, the Baltimore-born lawyer, who pressed the fabled Brown v. Board of Education case, will be honored with a $12 million restoration of the segregated school where he learned to read and write.

“The restoration is costly, but it’s the right thing to do,” said Hathaway, the former pastor of Union Baptist Church.

He’s energized now and wants to acquire adjacent properties to make an impact — and help stabilize this West Baltimore neighborhood, which is rich in 19th century buildings ready for an infusion of preservation investment.

Hathaway relates that Baltimore was a pioneering city in racial desegregation. The school system, south of the Mason-Dixon Line, integrated by the middle 1950s, he said.

Opened in 1877, the school was first called the Male and Female Grammar School No. 6. Students came under the jurisdiction of separate male and female principals.

The building is a fine example of the kind of public school built during the administration of Ferdinand C. Latrobe, who was elected mayor on seven occasions.

The school, fitted in Baltimore County limestone, was conceived by Baltimore’s favorite municipal architect Frederick, who also designed pavilions in the city’s parks and other educational institutions, including a version of Baltimore City College on Howard Street.

The school’s first pupils in the 1870s were white, often of German ancestry. Many of these families moved to other areas and Black families began moving to the neighborhood. By 1910, the city’s school administrators designated the building as segregated and African American.

Its named changed too — it became the Henry Highland Garnet, who was born into slavery in Kent County and was an educator and minister.

Children filled the school’s numerous surviving classrooms until 1965. Even then, the aging structure was not done serving the neighborhood, becoming the Upton Cultural and Arts Center.

If you stand on the school’s unshakable granite steps at 1315 Division St., the Marshall family grocery store (since demolished for a playground) is just down the way at Lanvale Street. The Marshall family home is three blocks north along Division.

The homes of Clarence and Juanita Jackson Mitchell stands just to the east of the school on Druid Hill Avenue. Adjacent to the school is the imposing Bethel AME Church.

As a sure sign of how the preservation spirit is taking hold in the neighborhood, a construction crew has built a scaffold around the tower of what was Booker T. Washington School, a junior high school at McCulloh Street and West Lafayette Avenue.

The Thurgood Marshall school’s interior was accidentally preserved by layers of sheetrock when it was made into the Upton Center. When the plasterboard was yanked away, the strikingly original movable glass walls of the classrooms were revealed.

Hathaway said the school had a guardian angel. Although vacant for the last several decades, its roof survived and protected the interior. The school was damaged by a fire in 2015, but he notes the city had an insurance policy that paid for repairs.

This a community effort. Upton residents showed their muscle last week then they showed up for a block clean-up to make Division Street presentable for today’s ribbon cutting.