Justice Marshall’s Legacy, in Bronze

A blog post by Director of Collections and Exhibits Joanna Church. To read more posts by Joanna click HERE.


Justice Thurgood Marshall with artist Reuben Kramer in Kramer’s studio, Baltimore, October 1977. Gift of Reuben Kramer. JMM 1994.89.2 

In 1977, the City of Baltimore commissioned a statue of U.S. Supreme Court Justice – and native Baltimorean – Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993) for the exterior of the Edward A. Garmatz Federal Courthouse. After a nationwide competition, local sculptor Reuben Kramer (1910-1999) was awarded the commission.

The project, from studies to miniature models to clay-over-wire to casting in bronze, took three years, during which time Justice Marshall came to Kramer’s studio for several sittings. In April 1980 the statue was installed, under Kramer’s close supervision, outside the Garmatz building, on Pratt Street.

Statue of Justice Thurgood Marshall newly installed on Pratt Street, Baltimore, April 1980. Gift of Reuben Kramer. JMM 1994.089.032

On May 16, 1980, the eight-and-a-half foot bronze sculpture was dedicated at a ceremony attended by State and City officials, five other Supreme Court Justices, and Marshall himself. Music was provided by the band and choir of Baltimore’s Douglass High School.

Program from the dedication ceremony, May 16, 1980. Gift of Reuben Kramer. JMM 1992.197.32

When Justice Marshall came to Baltimore to model for Kramer in October, 1977, a reporter for the Baltimore Sun interviewed him in the sculptor’s studio. The Justice related unpleasant memories of Baltimore’s segregation and racism during his youth – including a fight, started by a white man shouting racial slurs, after which teen-aged Marshall was arrested and the instigator was let go. He recalled being denied admission to the University of Maryland Law School, and his victory some years later when, in 1935, he won a legal case forcing the university to accept another Black student. His home state did not figure kindly in his memories, it seemed. Nonetheless, he returned in 1980 for the statue’s dedication (though some years later, his widow Cecilia Marshall recalled that he’d jokingly told her he wouldn’t).

It is worth noting – as, indeed, several people did note at the time, and have noted since – that the statue is not in front of the Garmatz Federal Courthouse. It is on Pratt Street, behind the courthouse. Many people were not impressed by this less than prominent placement by the “back door,” and throughout the decades there have been suggestions that it be moved; indeed, when the Sun reported that the statue had been “rededicated” in 1997, at least one reader assumed that it must have also been moved, “to where it can be better viewed and enjoyed.”

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The question of who deserves to be memorialized in statue form is not a new one, but it is rightfully top of mind right now. Last week, the Baltimore Sun reported that Senators Cardin and Van Hollen have introduced a bill that would replace the U.S. Capitol’s bust of Roger Brooke Taney, noted Maryland racist, with one of Thurgood Marshall. Both men were native Marylanders who became U.S. Supreme Court Justices, and whose legacies are associated with important cases related to the rights of African Americans, but there the similarity ends. Taney wrote the Dred Scott decision (1857) that cemented slavery as the law of the land (until the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865), while Marshall, later appointed as the first Black man to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court (1967-1991), argued successfully against “separate but equal” schools in Brown v. Board of Ed (1954).

This is not the first time that statues and other commemorations of Taney have come under scrutiny (or been removed), and Marshall is an eminently suitable replacement – as well as being more than worthy of memorialization in his own right, as state leaders have recognized in recent years. In 1994, when a design competition was announced for a statue of Marshall to be placed in Annapolis, Neil A. Grauer suggested in the Sun that “a perfectly superb one already exists – and is in dire need of proper placement,” which could be rectified by making a copy of Kramer’s design for the statehouse. Nonetheless the competition went forward, and a new statue of Marshall was added to State House Square in 1996, following a nationwide competition won by Maryland artist Toby Mendez. Several law schools and colleges around the country are named for Marshall, and in 2005 Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport was also named in his honor. Hopefully we’ll soon have another representation of this important figure, this time in the U.S. Capitol.

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Though the original plaster model of Kramer’s sculpture was given to Douglass High School, the JMM is fortunate to have one of the original plaster busts from Marshall’s modelling sessions, as well as a plaster maquette of the final statue (made in 1986 to replace one that had broken). We also have several of the reference photographs Kramer took of his subject, and two of the handmade calipers he used during the three year process. Some of the artist’s friends noted that he was extremely proud of the Marshall sculpture, in part because of its technical achievement – he invented a wire armature to support the clay from which the bronze was cast – but also because of his own commitment to civil rights, and because of the friendship he formed with Justice Marshall during what friend Esta Maril called the “many sittings it took to achieve the perfection and likeness that would please both men.”

Left: Plaster maquette of the finished sculpture, 1986. Right: plaster study, 1977. Both stand about two feet tall. Gift of Reuben Kramer. JMM 1992.170.1, 1995.18.5

Justice Marshall was not one for mincing words. In his remarks at the 1980 dedication, Marshall paraphrased from his dissent to the Bakke case (1978), telling his audience, “The dream of America as the great melting pot has not been realized for the Negro. Because of his skin color he never even made it into the pot.” He added, pointedly, “When you see this statue, I hope you won’t think this is the end of it. We’ve got a lot more to do.”

Justice Thurgood Marshall speaking at the dedication of his sculpture behind Baltimore’s Garmatz Federal Courthouse, May 16, 1980. The artist, Reuben Kramer, leans forward at right. Gift of Reuben Kramer. JMM 1994.89.35

Articles referenced include:

“Thurgood Marshall, the model, recalls a Baltimore boyhood,” Baltimore Sun, Oct 24, 1977

“Symbolic Snub?” Letter to the Editor, Baltimore Sun, April 14, 1980

“Marshall honored at dedication of statue as ‘symbol of progress,’” Baltimore Sun, May 17, 1980

“Black, White and Bronze,” Baltimore Sun, May 18, 1980

“Thurgood: ‘Still much to be done,’” Afro-American, May 24, 1980

“The Docket Sheet”, Supreme Court of the United States, Vol. 17 No. 4, September-October 1980

“Bronzing Marshall,” Baltimore Sun, April 15, 1994

“Marshall Statue is Rededicated,” Baltimore Sun, May 15, 1997

“Reuben Kramer is the sculptor,” Letter to the Editor, Baltimore Sun, 1997

Reuben Kramer obituary, Baltimore Sun, September 27, 1999

“Consider new site for Marshall statue,” Letter to the Editor, Baltimore Sun, October 29, 2007

“Thurgood Marshall bust would replace one of Roger Taney in U.S. Capitol under legislation introduced by Maryland senators,” Baltimore Sun, June 4, 2020


 

 

 

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