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BWI's Identity Crisis

Marshall Name Might Confuse Travelers, Some Say

By Elizabeth Williamson and David Snyder
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, April 9, 2005; Page B01

The late Thurgood Marshall perhaps would have sympathized with the debate over renaming Baltimore-Washington International Airport in his honor: As a child, historians say, Marshall thought his first name, Thoroughgood, was too long and trimmed it.

The effort to rename BWI for the first black Supreme Court justice has been hailed as an overdue tribute to the Baltimore native and has stirred sharp passions in the General Assembly and Maryland's black community.

Cecilia Marshall, with Larry S. Gibson, was in Annapolis recently to support renaming BWI. (Matthew S. Gunby -- AP)

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But more mundane concerns over the length of the name -- Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, in the latest proposal -- have stalled the bill, putting a symbolic gesture in danger of losing to the clock.

The bill sailed through the House early last month on an overwhelming vote, then stalled for weeks in the Senate. Yesterday, the measure finally moved out of committee and probably will be debated by the full Senate today. If it passes, the House and Senate versions of the bill must be reconciled and approved -- before the session ends Monday.

Marshall "would have been thrilled" at the honor, said Juan Williams, author of a biography of the justice. Marshall felt "as if his substantial contributions to American history were often overlooked," Williams said.

Marshall's widow, Cecilia Marshall, went to Annapolis to advocate for the bill, and a Senate committee hearing prompted emotional pleas by former transportation secretary Rodney E. Slater and U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.).

"I have been [in Annapolis] for 11 years, and nothing I have done has elicited the kind of outpouring this has," said Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr. (D-Baltimore County). "African Americans hold tightly to their heroines and heroes, both living and deceased, and when you push for the name of one of your heroes . . . it's more than just a dead, dry debate or dry, dead issue."

While few dispute the gesture's merits, the bill stalled over concerns that the name could obscure the airport's destination tag and hurt business.

Yesterday, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said, "Thurgood Marshall, of all people, deserves to be honored, and we will continue to find ways to do so.

"But this is a huge economic issue. . . . Baltimore-Washington International Airport is a franchise name. . . . It's highly marketable."

One of the few state-owned airports in the country, BWI is locked in a near dead heat with Virginia's Dulles International Airport for passenger volume. "We have a truly competitive environment here," Maryland Aviation Administration spokesman Jonathan Dean said.

If BWI were to become simply Thurgood Marshall International Airport, for example, "There certainly is a possibility that customers from other parts of the country and world might be confused," Dean said.

To address that concern, the Senate committee yesterday agreed to an amendment that puts Marshall's name after BWI, rather than before it, as proposed in the House. The airport's international locator code, BWI, would not change. Legislative analysts estimate that a name change would cost the state $2.1 million, most of which would go toward road signs.

BWI has been through this before. The airport was built in 1950 and originally called Friendship, after a nearby church, but the name proved a poor draw for passengers seeking flights to the nation's capital. So in 1973, Gov. Marvin Mandel renamed the airport in an executive order that read in part: "The name 'Friendship International Airport' does not communicate the location of this fine facility to travelers in other parts of the nation and world."

The airport became Baltimore-Washington International, which came to be known as BWI because that name, too, was a mouthful.

Length apparently isn't a problem for the University of Maryland School of Law Thurgood Marshall Law Library. Marshall didn't apply to the law school because the school was not open to black students at the time. But in 1980, the law school library moved into a new building and honored the justice with its new name.

Since then, the institution has been careful to always use the entire name, "in both the written and spoken word," said David Grahek, the library's associate director.

The airport bill's sponsor in the House, Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr. (D-Baltimore County), said he would prefer Marshall's name at the front of the proposed name. But, he added, "you don't get everything you want down here in Annapolis.

"This may be the best we can get."

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