More than 80 years after Harvard Law School (HLS) awarded a degree to the nation’s first black law school graduate, a group of defiant attorneys led by Harvard’s own Charles Hamilton Houston ’22 launched a lengthy and contentious court battle that would eventually topple the notorious “separate but equal” doctrine segregating blacks from whites in the nation’s public schools.
Surviving members of that litigation team responsible for the historic Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision, along with Mrs. Thurgood Marshall and other relatives of deceased team members, will be presented with the first Harvard Law School Medal of Freedom during “A Celebration of Black Alumni” festivities at HLS this weekend.
“The Law School decided that it wanted to have a way of formally recognizing and honoring those who have dedicated their talents to upholding the core values of our legal system of freedom and equality and justice,” said celebration organizer David B. Wilkins, the Kirkland and Ellis Professor of Law at Harvard.
“This whole group [of black HLS graduates] really owes its existence to these legal pioneers of Brown v. Board of Education who opened up the doors of opportunity that these later graduates were allowed to walk through and flourish,” Wilkins said.
“For over a century Harvard Law School has been a leader in training African Americans,” said HLS Dean Robert C. Clark. “Among the ranks of this unprecedented group are CEOs and general counsels of Fortune 500 corporations, influential partners in major law firms, leaders on Wall Street, prominent politicians and social advocates, federal and state judges, academics in every discipline, successful entrepreneurs, novelists and entertainers, and a host of other leaders in their chosen fields.
“The School looks forward to celebrating the accomplishments of this very impressive group. We are proud to have more African-American graduates than virtually any law school in the country [with the exception of Howard Law School],” Clark said.
Alumni are invited to attend any of a number of roundtable discussions during the weekend celebration. Discussion topics range from “What Should the Black Community Expect from Black Lawyers?” to “New Careers in the New Economy” to “Bridging the Racial Divide in Entertainment, Media, and Sports.” Harvard President Neil Rudenstine will participate in a panel session titled “A Century of Progress, A New Century of Opportunity.” Kenneth Chenault ’76, American Express CEO designate, will deliver the keynote address and receive the Harvard Law School Association Award during a luncheon on Saturday afternoon.
Wilkins expects a large turnout for the event, which concludes on Sunday. “This gathering is destined to be one of the most important events ever held at Harvard and will set the tone for how America addresses issues of race, law, and educational opportunity for years to come,” he said.