Marshall was born July 2, 1908 to ambitious and determined parents. His brother, Aubrey, was two years older. Marshall's mother, Norma, was strong and protective; she worked as a schoolteacher. His brash, outgoing father, Willie, was a railroad porter and a steward at a fashionable Maryland country club. With his light complexion and blue eyes, Willie Marshall was sometimes mistaken for being white. But the Marshall boys were raised to be proud of their race and, on Willie's orders, to fight anyone who called them racist names.
Marshall at age 2
Marshall: My father had a lot of sayings about, what would I say, the real problem in race, as race. For example, it would be nothing for him to say ... Say I would do something good, my father would say, "Well, that's right black of you." You've always heard, "That's very white of you." You understand what he was saying. And another favorite statement of my father's was, "Ah, that's the white man in the wood pile."
He would tell jokes, too. But he felt it. He felt it doubly because he was blond and blue-eyed and he could have passed for white, and a lot of times, he would get in a big fight because somebody would think he was white. But those are the arguments we'd have: race and everything in general, very loud.
Well, my mother, believe it or not, my father was the noisiest and loudest, but my mother was by far the strongest. My mother was a schoolteacher. She worked like just all get out. And her only fault was that she was with you, if you were in the family, she was with you, right or wrong. I mean she would just defend you. And I know some people are with you if you're right, but my mother was -
And I know of one time when we had a little rough time in college, and everybody was out of money; and I remember two interesting things. One, we wanted to go to a football game, with Howard University, and my mother and father said, "We just don't have the money for either one of you."
Then the morning of the game, my mother called and said, "Go on, we'll have the money."
Well, we found out afterwards that the night before, my dad says, "Norma, how much money do we have, total?"
She said, "Six dollars."
He said, "Give it to me."
She said, "What are you going to do with it?"
He said, "Just give it to me."
And he went down to a gambling joint, and ran that six dollars up into about $150 [laughter].
That was a good one.
Then the other one, I've forgotten what it was, but we wanted some money for something, and it wasn't there, and later on my mother says, "Here's the money." And we never found out until years later, she pawned her wedding ring and her engagement ring. Well, you can't ask for more than that. And incidentally, by the time she got the money to get them back, they'd been gone. You know, they'd been sold.
Thurgood Marshall liked to tell people he was born way up South in Baltimore, Maryland. On the southern rim of the Mason-Dixon line, Maryland was a slave state but sided with the Union during the Civil War. Here Marshall speaks about his family history and slavery.
Marshall: This great-grandfather was picked up by a group of Maryland people who were on safari, and he followed them back to the boat. He was a youngster and they brought him on over. He worked as a slave and eventually he reached a point where his owner said that he was such an ornery cuss by not doing what he was supposed to do and being obedient enough, that he would have to get rid of him. In good conscience he couldn't sell him to another slaveholder and so he would turn him loose, provided he would leave the county and leave the state. So he turned him loose and he didn't leave the county or the state; he stayed right there. I'm proud of him.
Although there was a thriving black business district and a well-organized black middle class, the Baltimore of Marshall's boyhood was rigidly segregated.
Marshall: A study was made by the Urban League around 1930, which showed that segregation in Baltimore was more rigid than any other city in the country, including Jackson, Mississippi. I know this is almost unbelievable, but it's true.
In the department stores downtown, a Negro was not allowed to buy anything off the counters. As you went in the store, you were told to get the hell out.
Another thing I remember very well was that there were no toilet facilities available to Negroes in the downtown area, and one day I remember, I had to go, and the only thing I could do was get on a trolley car and try to get home. And I did get almost in the house, when I ruined the front doorsteps. That gives you an idea what we went through.
But I never had any hatred of white people as such, because there were some that touched my life, who I considered to be very good. I knew, for example, a man by the name of Mr. Schoen. I worked for him during my high school period, as a delivery boy. Mr. Schoen had a very elite dress shop on Charles Street, the biggest street.
There are two stories I remember about him. One was that he promised my brother and I, who were two of the four delivery boys, that he would put both of us through college.
And I'm sure he would have, had he not died before we went to college, and had his son [not] thought more of a chorus girl than he did of helping people out.
The other thing I remember was: one day in the afternoon, when I had a whole lot of hats in boxes to be delivered, I was getting on a trolley car, and joined the people getting on; a man grabbed me and pulled me back and said, "Nigger, don't you push in front of white people!"
And my dad had always taught me that when anybody called me a nigger, to have business with them then and there, so I did. I was arrested, and Mr. Schoen came around to the police station, and I apologized to him, because the five hats were wrecks and it was a complete loss to him, and he said, "Forget about them, what about you?"
I told him. And he asked the man, how much was the bail money, or what have you, and the Sergeant said, "Well, Mr. Schoen, it's up to you." Mr. Schoen got his lawyer, and that was the end of that.