200 years of race at HLS


George Lewis Ruffin–Class of 1869

The question of race, according to HLS historian Prof. Daniel Coquillette, “has been an issue at this school, like a thread through our 200 year history, from the founding of the school to the present.” The Law School’s first land grant and endowment were provided by Isaac Royall, Jr. in 1779. With the wealth Royall generated from the crop reaped by black slaves, he created the Royall Professorship, held today by Dean Robert Clark.

This thread of challenges posed by race relations has defined the highest and lowest achievements of the Law School, Coquillette asserts. Two-and-a-half years ago, when the Law School held its first convocation of 600 of its black alumni, they first testified to their reluctance to attend, because of less-than-fond memories of a place where traditions seem to stretch beyond their time. At the convocation, the group was told that “this is your school,” and many attendees said that, for the first time, they felt that maybe it was.

A History of Racial Obsession

While Joseph Story opposed slavery, he notoriously enforced the Fugitive Slave Act for the purpose of a United States and a united HLS, where half the students were Southerners. But when a federal magistrate and faculty member, Edward Loring, imposed the same act, the faculty voted to throw him out. The Law School and city of Bostons subsequently exploded in disarray and riots over the expulsion, with Southern students quitting the Law School.

The first black person to be admitted, George Lewis Ruffin (Class of 1869), was the first to graduate any law school in America. Though his treatment at HLS was not triumphant — he was the only law student denied membership to the student’s social organization — his later achievements in Massachusetts politics were groundbreaking.

Other black students suffered similar slights despite obvious intellectual prowess. With HLS’ tradition of blind grading, Charles Hamilton Houston (’23) could not be stopped from graduating first in his class and president of the Law Review. But the Ames Club and all other “white” clubs refused him membership or the right to compete. During this time, Dean Roscoe Pound lectured at Harvard, and refused to admit, even for one lecture, an African-American woman who was elected to the University of Pennsylvania Law Review.

By 1956, Lila Fenwick could graduate the University as the first black woman. Admitted in only the fourth class to admit women, Fenwick, who is now retired from her position as Chief of the U.N. Human Rights Section, was among those to attend the black alumni event in September 2000.

Whether for reasons of internal bias or social banishment, blacks comprised no more than nine individuals in the Law School until the ’60s, despite these breakthroughs.

A Focus on Movements

A growing self-consciousness about discrimination and vilification of racial insensitivity marked the ’60s, as groups freely referred to “white power” structures within and without the Law School.

It was a time when many at HLS freely referred to themselves — students and professors alike — as radicals, and the Law School held programs on “The Radical Lawyer in America,” or on “LSD — Methods of Control,” with Dr. Timothy Leary.

The Law School held many other events about African-American issues such as “The American Negro: Problems and Solutions,” in 1961. In an HLS speech by Malcom X in 1964, the then-defrocked minister argued: “I believe you can’t have peace until you’re ready to protect it. As you will die protecting yours, I will die protecting mine.”

Students agitated for a clear affirmative action policy that set quotas, while freely admitting that quotas were a form of discrimination that was worth tolerating for the ends sought.

Dr. Martin Luther King spoke here too, on “The Future of Integration.” It was the year of Dr. King’s assassination, 1968, that began a new page for blacks at HLS. The tragedy itself was marked by a cessation of classes and the Ames competition. The next fall, enrollment of 82 African American students represented a one-year increase of 25 percent, and capped a nearly tenfold increase over five years, under the regimes of Deans Griswold and Casner. HLS by then had more black students than there were black lawyers in 11 Southern states, including Florida, with its population of five million.

Also that year, African-American students formed the Black Law Students Association, which immediately began to place demands on the administration. They received some quick results. Demands for black professors and courses on social conditions were met more slowly, but progress on many fronts seemed continuous and possible, though bumps along the way raised fundamental questions about the conflicting values of social justice and individual or institutional rights.

Sit-ins, Boycotts, and Faculty Protest

In 1970, 700 students wanted to know what punishment 2L Gregory Pilkington would receive for blocking the entrance to a dean of Harvard College. In a debate in the Courtroom, a sense arose that the cause of racial justice requires extraordinary means and Pilkington’s was not out of line. But many students and faculty, including Prof. Charles Fried, spoke of the need to accept the “tolerably fair procedures” without overreaction. To one student, “the equities seemed to weigh out.” Pilkington was suspended for a semester.

A scandal erupted and recriminations abounded in September of 1982 when BLSA instigated a boycotted against a course, “Minority Issues,” taught by two leaders of the NAACP, to protest the fact that the course was not taught “in its entirety by a black professor,” nor was any other course. Prof. Derrick Bell admitted that the strategy was not wise. Only 16 percent of students supported the boycott, but maintained that the lack of minority faculty was a serious issue. At the time, 90 percent of students agreed that more minority professors had to be recruited.

In 1991, Bell, one of Harvard’s first tenured black law professors, began a protest leave of absence over the faculty’s rejection of several qualified black women for tenure track positions. He promised to return when such appointments were finally made.

While Bell approached the two year limit for a leave, tension pent up over four openings with potentially strong African-American women to fill them. When all appointees were white males, on April 7, 1992, nine students, including the heads of four minority groups, staged a blockade of the Dean Clark’s office. Clark called the police in to seal the hallway with the students, denying them access to food or water. As a result, a hundred students protested and those at the sit-in felt comfortable leaving.

The appointment of Prof. Lani Guinier in 1998 as the first African-American woman to the faculty was momentous, but too little too late for Bell, who severed his ties before then (to return only briefly in 2000 for the September gathering).

Last year’s controversies seem to prove Coquillette’s long view of the story of race relations at HLS. The disputes over disciplinary procedure continued unabated; the line between racial sensitivity and freedom of speech continued to leave students tense. Nor have shortcomings in minority representation across the campus been ignored.

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