After British troops burned the unfinished U.S. Capitol in 1814, citizens constructed a temporary "Brick Capitol" across the street. Congress met there until 1819. For many years it was used as a private school and then a boardinghouse for congressmen. During the Civil War (1861-1865) the Brick Capitol became Capitol Prison, where African Americans seeking freedom were held along with white Confederate soldiers, spies, and other political prisoners until 1862. In the 1920s and 1930s the National Women's Party was headquartered here, and African American women worked with the party to obtain full voting rights for women. In 1935 the U.S. Supreme Court replaced the old building.

Since 1857, when the all-white Court ruled in Dred Scott v. Sanford that African Americans were not citizens entitled to the full rights and privileges of white citizens, blacks have worked through the Court to demand the rights of full citizenship. Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993), the first African American Supreme Court Justice, was still a pioneering civil rights lawyer when he, George E.C. Hayes, and James Nabrit, Jr., successfully argued the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education cases, which declared racially separate education unconstitutional, overturning Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). Marshall served as Associate Justice from 1967 until 1991.

Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, confirmed in 1991 and currently serving, is the second African American to be appointed to the court.

The Supreme Court building, designed by architects Cass Gilbert, Jr. and John R. Rockart, is a completely marble Neoclassical structure. Planning for the building began in 1929 and construction was completed in 1935. Prior to its completion, the Supreme Court met in private homes, taverns, hotels, and in the U.S. Capitol.

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