A few months after the Supreme Court handed down the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in May 1954, the justices set forth a lesser-known milestone within the court building itself (also known as the Marble Palace).
The milestone had to do with the court’s “pages,” young students hired to help justices by retrieving books, delivering water and undertaking other chores during oral arguments and similar duties outside the courtroom. They were trusted by the justices.
After decades of all-white pages, the court issued a press release in July 1954 stating that Charles Vernon Bush, a 14-year-old D.C. Banneker Junior High School student, would be the first African-American page at the high court. In part because of the recent Brown v. Board decision, the news made some headlines.
The New York Times, for example, wrote, “Oddly, this will be, in a way, the first implementation of the Court’s ruling that segregation is unconstitutional.” Bush was also the first minority student to attend the Capitol Page School, which educated pages for the legislative branch as well as the Supreme Court. Because the page school was considered part of the D.C. public school system, Bush was regarded as the school system’s first minority student.
In an article in the Journal of Supreme Court History, court scholar Todd Peppers recounts the life and importance of Charles Bush, and how then-Chief Justice Earl Warren, relatively new to the job, insisted that a black student be recruited as one of the four pages that year. Neither Warren’s 1977 memoir nor Warren biographies appear to mention his effort to find a black page.
Warren always greeted the pages with a hearty “Good morning, boys” when he prepared to take the bench. (The first female Supreme Court page was Deborah Gelin, who served from 1972 to 1975.)
In a 2007 interview found by Peppers, Bush confirmed that Warren pushed to integrate the Supreme Court pages. “His intent was to demonstrate to the world that the Supreme Court was indeed serious about the school integration decision,” Bush said. “And that was important to him because the implementation hearings were occurring in the next [court] session.”
Court staff scrambled to find possible recruits. Marshal of the court T. Perry Lippett recommended Bush. Peppers said that “Charles was an exemplary student who consistently made his junior high school honor roll while juggling a host of extracurricular activities: captain of the debate team; member of the varsity basketball team and the spelling team; class treasurer; actor and director of school plays; recipient of awards in science competitions; member of the National Honor Society; member of the school newspaper’s business staff. And he had a perfect three-year attendance record.”
Bush was welcomed among most but not all court staffers. Bush said, “The messengers and the janitorial staff were tickled pink that I was there.” Another fellow page said of Bush that, “While he was not always treated well by many of us, he maintained the higher ground” and “earned the respect of all and made many friends.”
Bush’s tenure as a page ended in 1957, and he went on to Howard University and Georgetown University, followed by a stint in the U.S. Air Force and then positions in business. He died in 2012.
One friend and colleague of Bush who is still alive is George Hutchinson, of counsel at the Finnegan law firm in Washington. Hutchinson was a page in 1938 and then became an assistant to the marshal, where part of his job was looking after the pages. Later, Hutchinson became the court’s last “court crier” who had the task of gaveling the court to order and shouting “Oyez, Oyez, Oyez.”
Now well into his 90s, Hutchinson told me this week that he remembered Charles Bush well. “I used to supervise him to some degree,” Hutchinson said. “He treated people well and was treated well. He was very smart. A fine person.” Hutchinson recalled that pages were required to wear knickers when they were at the court. The problem was that the young pages grew fast, and they had to acquire new knickers every year at their own expense. “They had to pay for their pants!” Hutchinson exclaimed.