The story of Thurgood Marshall’s Baltimore years came together, as biographies do, bit by bit. Like a mosaic, the story came together over years of arduous excavating of public records.
There was, for author Larry S. Gibson, a series of “ah-ha” moments, moments when a document or a letter or a handwritten note certified a bit of folklore.
Gibson had heard that Marshall, as a young lawyer recently admitted to the bar, worked nights at the city’s venereal disease clinic.
First, he found a letter of resignation from that job. Then, he found an employee card issued by the city for that job.
Later, the author found the document recording a name change by hand in 1948 — officially turning Thoroughgood to Thurgood Marshall. As in Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. As in principal architect of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case.
As in Baltimore-born and Baltimore-shaped Thurgood Marshall.
As in “Young Thurgood: The Making of a Supreme Court Justice,” Gibson’s just-published book.
Accumulating the small but poignantly telling bits of a life, Gibson encountered revelations about his subject — and about himself.
Over the 10 to 20 years he worked on the book, he occasionally wondered, what am I in this enterprise? “A researcher, a historian … a pack rat?” he said in a recent interview.
All three, and definitely the latter. He has been, over the years, a leading political strategist in Maryland, most famously engineering the political career of former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.
Gibson had managed several other earlier campaigns in the city. He loved the graphics side of that work, devising lawn and window signs and blanketing neighborhoods so thoroughly, he hoped. that his candidate would seem a prohibitive favorite.
Some doubted the value of this work. He never wavered. “Occupy The Vote,” an effort for President Obama, was the most recent example.
Over the years, his Guilford house became the repository of everything he’s done in politics: every brochure, every election-day handout.
Along the way, Gibson developed an appreciation for photography.
“Moments are fleeting. Someone needs to preserve the record,” he said.
A lawyer, he was always engaged in this question: “Where do the facts lead us?”
He was well-prepared for the book he would write about Marshall.
“His story seemed to me so important that it ought to be accurate,” he said. “I kept seeing things and reading things said about him that were not accurate. Some were minor, some were big matters. But it just seemed to me that the part I could learn about should actually be true.”
Marshall was not always the writer’s ally in the pursuit of accuracy.
“He created some of the inaccuracies. He was a great raconteur. Sometimes, his stories would grow a little,” Gibson said.
There were storytellers in Marshall’s family, and young Thurgood inherited the skill. He was an eager participant in bull sessions at Lincoln University, Gibson said.
“We were mainly sitting around telling lies,” Marshall said, according to Gibson. These young men talked about their weekend exploits. “Very few people came back and said, ‘I struck out,’” Gibson said.
The storytelling went on throughout Marshall’s life.
When he worked as a waiter at the exclusive Gibson Island Club, Marshall would take the bus with other workers. As they waited, he would regale his workmates with stories.
One story he may have propagated involved a club member who verbally abused him — but always left a $20 tip. Marshall’s father, who was the club steward, wanted to know why his son put up with this.
Marshall said, according to the story, that he’d have a different attitude if the $20 bills stopped coming.
Gibson doesn’t think it happened. He said the club’s managers, one of whom became a Marshall mentor, wouldn’t have tolerated the sort of language attributed to the $20 man.
Gibson declined to put the supposed episode in his book. There was no verifiable proof, he said.
Gibson’s dogged pursuit of those aging Baltimoreans who could speak of Marshall’s youth — some of whom he interviewed before he had decided to write this book — probably has no parallel. Readable and scholarly, the book is an estimable addition to the story of a great man, an essential figure in the nation’s history.
C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record Fridays. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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