For Black History Month, each weekday, we feature American and Haitian contributions to the advancement of people of African descent. Each feature pairs two leading figures from similar professional backgrounds.
What is striking is the role legal principles have played throughout America’s history in determining the condition of Negroes. They were enslaved by law, emancipated by law, disenfranchised and segregated by law; and, finally, they have begun to win equality by law. — Justice Thurgood Marshall
A Scholar and a Citizen
As a leader for civil rights and the nation’s first black Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall is one of the most revered figures in American history. Marshall worked through the courts, one case at a time, to help eliminate the injustices of segregation from the law of the land. He won Supreme Court victories that ruptured the color line in housing, transportation and voting rights — including Brown v. Board of Education, which ended the legal separation of black and white children in public schools. The success of the Brown case set in motion a series of hard-fought wins for the civil rights movement.
Marshall was born in Baltimore, Maryland on July 2, 1908. Once he completed high school, Marshall attended Lincoln University, a historically black college in Chester County, Pennsylvania, where he met his first wife, Vivian “Buster” Burey.
Marshall’s father, the son of a former slave, fostered his interest in the US Constitution and the rule of law. In 1930, he applied to the University of Maryland Law School. Marshall was denied admission because he was black. However, he did get accepted into the Howard University Law School, where he met Charles Houston, the mentor who would lead him into a career fighting for civil rights in the courtroom. He followed Houston to New York, and would become the chief counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
After he attained an extraordinary list of successful Supreme Court challenges, including the landmark Brown v. Board decision in 1954, President John F. Kennedy appointed Marshall to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. During his time on the bench, he wrote over 150 decisions including support for the rights of immigrants, limiting government intrusion in cases involving illegal search and seizure, double jeopardy, and right to privacy issues.
In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Marshall to the office of U.S. Solicitor General — he won 14 of the 19 cases he argued before the Supreme Court on behalf of the government. Thurgood Marshall would go on to represent and win more cases before the United States Supreme Court than any other American attorney. Then in 1967, Johnson appointed Marshall to the United States Supreme Court.
In a 1978 speech at Howard Law School, Justice Marshall seized the opportunity to reflect on the legal barriers he helped to break down, and the work that remained.
“It’s a democracy, if we can keep it. And in order to keep it, you can’t stand still. You must move, and if you don’t move, they will run over you.”
In the Name of Democracy, In the Name of Haitian Women
On March 13, 1990, Ertha Pascal-Trouillot became the first woman in history to assume the presidency of Haiti. She served as the provisional President through 1991. In the turbulent aftermath of the fall of the Duvalier regime that saw coup d’etats, military juntas and violence in the streets of the capital, Trouillot steered Haiti through its first major test as a new democracy — free democratic elections.
Pascal-Trouillot, the 9th of 10 children, was born on August 13, 1943, in the prosperous Port-au-Prince suburb of Petionville. Her father, Thimocles Pascal, was an artist who worked ornamental iron, and her mother Louise Dumornay, was a seamstress and embroiderer. Pascal-Trouillot went on to study law at École de Droit et des Sciences Économiques des Gonaïves in Haiti’s state university. The man who would become her husband, Jean-Jacques Dessalines Ernst Trouillot, encouraged her to become a lawyer. He was president of the Bar Association.
In 1971, Pascal-Trouillot was sworn in at the Palace of Justice, and four months later she and Trouillot were married. Though her husband was twenty years older, and played a significant role in her life, Pascal-Trouillot garnered a reputation for being strong and resolute. This would serve her well when claims surfaced that she was a Duvalier sympathizer, because in the early 1980′s, Pascal-Trouillot served as lower-court judge and her husband served as counsel to the National Bank. Those claims were questionable since she had two brothers who were severely impacted by the brutal regime — one was paralyzed from the waist down by a bullet from a tonton macoute, and the other was arrested, then threatened with execution.
Pascal-Trouillot served in several judicial offices until 1986, when she was appointed to the Supreme Court. She became the first woman to serve on the court — and its first woman chief justice in 1988. Two years later, by unanimous consent of the provisionary council of the transition government, Pascal-Trouillot became the first woman president of Haiti. In her inaugural address, Pascal-Trouillot famously said she had ”accepted this heavy task in the name of Haitian women.”
She lead the country in coordination with a 19-member Council of State, and successfully managed one of the most peaceful democratic electoral and constitutional transitions in Haiti’s history. On December 16, 1990, Jean-Bertand Aristide became the first democratically elected president of Haiti. And once he assumed power, Aristide placed Pascal-Trouillot under house arrest, alleging she was a co-conspirator in a failed coup attempt led by Roger Lafontant (a staunch Duvalierist) to remove her from power right before he took office. Pascal-Trouillot was released at the prompting of US President George H.W. Bush.
More than twenty years after Pascal-Trouillot’s brave leadership, Haiti’s nascent and fragile democracy still stands. The Haitian people have lived through two more coups d’etats, economic turmoil and natural disasters. But Haiti has one president who’s served out both his mandates, and participated in two successful transitions of power. That’s the legacy of Ertha Pascal-Trouillot.
Editors’ Note: Several scholars contributed their insights and expertise to the research for these profiles — Millery Polyne of New York University, Mark Schuller of Northern Illinois University, Patrick Sylvain of Brown University and Gina Athena Ulysse of Wesleyan University.