Harvard Law School Celebrates a Rich Tradition of Black History

By Brown, C. Stone | The New Crisis, March/April 2001 | Go to article overview
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Harvard Law School Celebrates a Rich Tradition of Black History

Brown, C. Stone, The New Crisis

Law School Celebrates a rich tradition of black history

On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision that gave some measure of equality in educational opportunities for African Americans. The case was Brown v Board of Education, and it struck down a decision that had stood since 1892-Plessy v Ferguson, which decreed that racially separate public schools were constitutional, as long as they were equal.

in the Brown case, however, the high court reversed itself and declared that "separate educational facilities for minorities were inherently unequal." The ruling mandated that all public schools be integrated. No longer would black and white students attend separate schools that are segregated by law.

"It was the single most important decision in the history of American constitutional law," said Harvard Law School professor and alumnus David Wilkins ('80). "It was that decision that restored the promise of American constitutionalism, and without that decision, none of us would be where we are today."

Last September for the first time in the 183-year history of Harvard Law School, a celebration was held to honor the Brown litigation team and the 1,600-plus black graduates of the school, and to commemorate the school's little known black history. Wilkins, who organized the event, said, "To see this school and all its faculty and all its administration coming out to honor its legacy of g African American law students is one of the most exciting Ungs I've ever experienced."

As part of the celebration, the school awarded a Medal of Freedom to the members of the historic Brown litigation team. The medal was given post-humously to: Thurgood Marshall, who went on to become the first black Supreme Court Justice (his widow accepted the award); Charles Hamilton Houston, the first black special counsel for the NAACP (his son, Charles III, accepted); and William Henry Hastie, the first black Federal Circuit Court judge (his daughter, Karen Hastie Williams, accepted). The medal was also given to surviving team members Oliver W. Hill, Constance Baker Motley, Louis H. Pollack, Robert L. Carter, Jack Weinsten, and Harvard alumni William T. Coleman Jr. ('43) and Charles Duncan ('50).

The medal bears the image of Houston, "whose leadership of the crusade culminated in the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v Board of Education exemplifies the highest ideals of democracy," Wilkins said.

Revising Harvard's history

The history of Harvard Law School is a microcosm of American history. Unfortunately, the school has repeated the American tradition of glossing over the contributions of blacks.

"You cannot separate out the black history of this school from the soul of the school," Boston College Law School professor and Harvard alumnus Daniel Coquillette ('71) told the gathering. "It flows through the arteries and the veins and to the very heart of this institution. From the beginning of the school's life to this day, it's at the very heart of everything that this school was and this school will become."

Coquillette has more than just a cursory knowledge of Harvard Law's black history. He is currently writing a book on a "new" history of Harvard Law School, one that is inclusive of blacks and women, as opposed to previous tomes exclusive to white males. According to Coquillette, the last serious book written about the history of Harvard Law School was Arthur Sutherland's The Law at Hanard., A History of Ideas and Men. In Coquillette's opinion, a more appropriate tide for Sutherland's book would have been A History of Ideas and White Men, noting that even though it was written a good 17 years after the admission of women, there are only two lines about them in the book. He also points out that not one word was written about blacks. And from what Coquillette's research has already uncovered, the missing word was Harvard Law School is becoming "slavery.

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