WASHINGTON — Cecilia “Cissy” Marshall sinks into a red wingback chair in her Northern Virginia living room. All around her are memories of her late husband, Thurgood Marshall, the great litigator for the NAACP who helped win the landmark case that ended legal segregation in America’s public schools.
Visitors to the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opens Sept. 24, will find Thurgood Marshall’s image and words featured inside. But Cissy Marshall’s living room is its own museum, featuring front-page newspaper stories, letters from presidents, and a black-and-white photo of Cissy reaching up to help him with his robe as the grandson of a slave became the country’s first African American on the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967.
She had a flower in her hair. He wore his trademark black horn-rimmed glasses and gazed down at her. She was a 4-foot-11 woman of Philippine descent married to a black legal giant.
“He was 6-foot-2. He would always say, ‘How’s the weather down there, gal?’ I’d say, ‘Same as up there, man!’ I’d keep telling him: ‘I don’t care how tall you are. I could still beat you up. I’ll get on a chair,’ ” she says, laughing.
She relishes telling stories about the man she married when she was 26 and he was 46. He would come home from the nation’s high court in the evenings and cook fabulous meals for her and their two sons.
“Chicken. Chitlins. He would use every pot in the kitchen,” she recalls. “I learned early. I would be right behind him in the kitchen, with a rag cleaning up. He was a great cook.”
They had one car — a Cadillac.
“Ever since he was a young man, he wanted a Cadillac,” she says. “He needed room.” By contrast, she had to sit on pillows to see over the steering wheel.
At 88, Cissy Marshall has been a widow for more than two decades. Thurgood Marshall retired from the court in 1991 and died in 1993. She visits his grave at Arlington National Cemetery as often as possible. At their home, he remains ever present.
She’s sitting where she and Thurgood used to spend their evenings watching television. Well, she watched TV. He was usually thinking about cases, she says, though he never discussed the court’s inner workings or decisions with her.
“Sometimes, I’d say, ‘Why did you do that?’ ” He would raise his hand. “He would say he couldn’t even discuss it with me,” she remembers.
It’s a hot afternoon in Falls Church, Va., where they moved more than 30 years ago. At the time, they were the only nonwhite family on their block, she says. The floor-to-ceiling curtains in her sunroom are pulled apart, and she has a view of Lake Barcroft across the street. Her sons, Thurgood Marshall Jr., a lawyer who served in the Clinton White House, and John W. Marshall, a former Virginia secretary of public safety and U.S. Marshals Service director, live in the area.
Cissy’s journey here was an unlikely one. Born in Hawaii to immigrant parents, Cecilia “Cissy” Suyat moved to New York after her father balked at her marrying a Filipino whose family spoke a different dialect.
“For my father, that was a no-no,” she said. “Imagine that? Another dialect, instead of another race?”
“So he said, ‘You go to New York with your aunt and uncle and take some business courses. And if you still love him in a year, come back and marry him.’ ”
Instead, she says, she decided she wanted to stay in New York. Her father agreed but told her, “You’ve got to support yourself.”
She went to the employment office.
“The clerk, she saw my dark skin, and she sent me to the national office of the NAACP,” she says. “That is the only reason I can think of that she sent me to the NAACP for my first job. And to this day, I thank her, because had it not been for her, I wouldn’t have known anything about a race problem.”
She also wouldn’t have met Thurgood Marshall, the head of the NAACP’s legal team.
In 1948, she started working as a stenographer, then was promoted to be the secretary to the director of the NAACP’s branch offices. She earned $35 a week and played a supporting role in the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision.
The NAACP’s legal department spent four years honing its arguments. Cissy typed and retyped briefs.
She would take notes as the lawyers practiced their oral presentations, both in New York and in Washington at Howard University Law School.
“We would have mock court trials. They’d have so-called judges sitting there, and lawyers would argue their cases as though they were arguing before the Supreme Court, so they could get hints as to where to improve, what to say, what not to say and how to say it better, right there at Howard University. We would work until midnight.”
The legal team argued the case for the first time before the Supreme Court in 1952 and again in 1953.
Thurgood Marshall led the arguments on behalf of black children denied access to all-white schools, challenging the “separate but equal” legal doctrine that stood since 1896 with the Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson.
In her wingback chair, she opens a book to a page showing the famous black-and-white photo of him running up the steps to the Supreme Court, rushing to hear the Brown ruling. It was May 17, 1954.
Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered the unanimous ruling that forever changed the country: “We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
The triumphant NAACP lawyers flew back to New York later that day. “Everybody celebrated in the office,” Cissy recalls, though she doesn’t remember any toasts with sparkling wine. “I don’t think anybody had any money for champagne.”
After a couple of hours of jubilation, Thurgood headed back to his office. He knew the fight to desegregate schools was just beginning, Cissy says.
“ ‘I don’t know about you fools,’ ” she says he told his co-workers, “ ‘but I’m going back to work. Because our work has just begun.’ ”
Nine months after the Brown decision, his first wife, Vivian “Buster” Burey, died of cancer at the age of 44. One of the country’s most accomplished black men was suddenly a widower.
He soon began courting Cissy, who resisted when he proposed. “I said, ‘No way. No way. People will think you are marrying a foreigner,’ ” she says. Her own family would raise objections, too.
“He said, ‘I don’t care what people think. I’m marrying you.’ He was so persuasive. So we got married. And, actually, there was no repercussion because people knew me.”
On Dec. 17, 1955, Roy Wilkins, then executive secretary of the NAACP, gave her away at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Harlem. At their New York apartment, the couple’s visitors included the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed Thurgood Marshall to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson named him solicitor general.
Cissy picks up a faded photo from that day.
“This is the photo with Justice Hugo Black swearing him in,” she says. It was ironic because Black, she notes, had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan when he was young. “Then when he got into the court, he turned out to be one of the most liberal justices.”
Thurgood Marshall joined Black on the Supreme Court in 1967. The morning of his swearing in, Cissy chose a pink linen suit and put a flower in her hair. The Marshalls drove to the White House in their Cadillac.
“I was numb,” she remembers. Her husband was making history again.