Rosenwald Documentary Has Screening in Rockville, Maryland

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.

William Gibbs – courtesy of Peerless Rockville

Thurgood Marshall in 1936 –
Courtesy of Library of Congress

“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.

Larry S. Gibson – courtesy of Larry S. Gibson (website)

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.

Gibbs Elementary School today – courtesy of Montgomery County Public Schools

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.

Rockville Rosenwald school – courtesy of Peerless Rockville

MTSU’s Center for Historic Preservation Program Helps Save Historic Sites Like West Bemis Rosenwald School

Middle Tennessee State University’s (MTSU) Center for Historic Preservation is accepting proposals for its Professional Services Partnerships program. According to the Center, the partnership provides communities with an opportunity to take advantage of their staff and assistants’ knowledge and expertise at no cost. Proposals will be accepted annually, with the first deadline coming on June 1, 2017. Apply here.

The West Bemis Rosenwald School is a recipient of the CHP Partnerships. The school is considered the oldest Rosenwald School in Tennessee.

The West Bemis Rosenwald School in Jackson, Tennessee, built in 1916 to serve African-American students, stands tall after its supporters worked with the MTSU Center for Historic Preservation on a heritage preservation plan. (Photo courtesy of the Center for Historic Preservation)

Read the story by the Daily News Journal here.