Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : December 2010

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MSBA Executive Director Paul V. Carlin (left) and the Honorable Thomas Upson display the donated portrait of Upson's great-great-grandfather, John Nelson McJilton, the first Superintendant of Schools of Baltimore.

In 1829, Baltimore City initiated its Public School System. In 1832, Male Grammar School #1 was opened at the corner of Greene and West Fayette Streets. That school existed for almost 50 years until it was razed and a new Male Grammar and Primary School #1 was erected in 1880. That structure became the MSBA headquarters, known as the Maryland Bar Center, in 1986.

On August 29, 2010, Baltimore Sun columnist Frederick N. Rasmussen ran an interesting article about John Nelson McJilton, one of the first teachers in that new Baltimore School System and the first Superintendent of Schools of Baltimore. The connection of Mr. McJilton to the MSBA is the fact that in 1835, John Nelson McJilton was hired to be a teacher at Male Grammar School #1, the location of our current headquarters.

While it is exciting to learn more of the history of our site, the more interesting story is the pursuit of Mr. McJilton’s  great-great-grandson, Judge Thomas Upson, of Connecticut, to correct the history which had been posted on the Baltimore City Schools’ official website. It stated that Mr. McJilton had been removed as Superintendent of Schools on January 31, 1868, but without further details. In fact, he was removed after two years as Superintendent and decades as a teacher. However, Judge Upson contends that rather than drawing any negative connotation from that removal, the positive and noble reason behind the removal should be published, i.e. that Mr. McJilton had created two schools for the instruction of African-American children. Unfortunately, he had done so without the approval of the School Board, which gave the Board an administrative, procedural reason for dismissal, perhaps coupled with the political atmosphere at a time shortly after the Civil War.

On November 12, 2010, Judge Upson visited Baltimore and presented both the School Board and the MSBA with a photographic portrait of his great-great-grandfather. The current President of the School Board, MSBA member Neil Duke, was elated to learn of the history of Superintendent McJilton and promised to update the school’s archives. The portrait presented to the MSBA will be hung in our Conference Room to accompany other historical pictures there.

Mr. McJilton was born February 9, 1806, in Baltimore and died April 13, 1875. He was the son of a Methodist Minister. Although trained as a cabinetmaker in his youth, he was a man of many disciplines and is listed as an educator, poet, humorist, lay minister, deacon, rector of two Episcopal churches and the Chancellor of Newton University at 11 East Lexington Street, as well as the author of at least three textbooks used throughout Maryland. He also served as the Editor of the literary publications The Athenaeum and The Baltimore Monument. By 1839, the School Board noted that the instruction at McJilton’s Male Grammar School #1 was “the standard by which other (schools) were judged.” He singled out “public education as the instrument which could be employed to the greatest advantage in laying the foundations for future national success. He hoped that through public education “the people would gain the enlightenment to govern themselves wisely and independently.” His purpose was to improve the lot of the common man through education. His portrait in our Conference Room reminds us and revives these high optimistic aspirations.

Paul V. Carlin is Executive Director of the Maryland State Bar Association.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: December 2010

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