On April 19th, a screening of the Rosenwald documentary in Rockville, Maryland—just outside Washington, DC—focused on the little-known but history changing connection between a Rosenwald school there and Thurgood Marshall’s long road to the 1954 Supreme Court decision overturning school segregation.
In 1936, William Gibbs, a teacher and acting principal of the Rockville Rosenwald elementary school, filed a lawsuit against the county school board over the unequal salaries paid to black teachers. Mr. Gibbs, who received $612 a year, compared to $1,175 paid to a similarly experienced white teacher, was represented by a young Thurgood Marshall—just a few years out of law school. The school board filed a motion to have the case dismissed outright, but the county judge, recognizing the significance of the case, asked two other judges from a neighboring county to join him; ultimately the three-judge panel rejected the county’s attempt to quash the case in June 1937.
“This landmark decision marked the first time that any court in the nation had found that black professionals with the same experience and credentials as white professionals had the right to equal pay,” said Larry Gibson, professor at the University of Maryland (UMD) School of Law and author of Young Thurgood, a biography of the future Supreme Court justice focusing on his early career. The case thus represents Thurgood Marshall’s first legal victory involving public school segregation (he had earlier succeeded in forcing the UMD law school to admit a black student—his first legal victory on the graduate school level). “It all began in Rockville, Maryland,” concluded Gibson, referring to the ensuing legal battle against public school segregation throughout the South.
Following the hearing in the teacher pay case, the county school board agreed to equalize salaries within two years, but William Gibbs was fired over his qualifications to serve as acting principal. Decades later, the county named one of its elementary schools for him.
The April 19 Rosenwald screening was co-sponsored by Peerless Rockville, a nonprofit historic preservation organization, and the Universities at Shady Grove, a UMD branch campus. A total of 17 Rosenwald schools were built in Montgomery County, Maryland—including the first high school for African American students in 1927, next to the Rockville Rosenwald grade school where William Gibbs taught. Neither building remains, but 5 others in the county still stand, including the Smithville Rosenwald School which has been restored as a museum/community center.