BY WALTER ’05)
CAMBRIDGE — This past weekend at Harvard Law School marked the second Celebration of Black Alumni. With projected participation of over 800 Harvard Law School alumni, the Harvard Law School Association declared that conference attendees broke the record of most alumni ever assembled on campus, a record set by the Celebration of 50 Years of Women Graduates at HLS two years ago.
The Celebration of Black Alumni officially began on Friday, September 16th, as the second orchestration of the event first organized by Professor David Wilkins (HLS ’80) in 2000. The co-chairs, Neil Brown (HLS ’78/’79) and Sharon Jones (HLS ’82), assembled hundreds of African-American HLS alumni, (among them CEOs, politicians, corporate counsel, academics, law firm partners, solo practitioners, entrepreneurs, academics, novelist, and entertainers) to address the theme of “Promises to Keep: Challenges and Opportunities in the 21st Century.” The first panel, “A Global Commitment: The Power and Influence of HLS Alumni,” discussed various strategies and shared the success stories of Black HLS alumni, who used both inside and outside influence to help shape national and international policies as well as business practices. Judge George Leighton (HLS ’44,) retired U.S. District Judge, Northern District of Illinois, delivered the luncheon keynote address on Friday. Judge Leighton shared the inspirational story of his success: having left school in the sixth grade to provide financial support for his family, Leighton, a self-educated man, eventually resumed formal studies at the age of 23 and was later admitted to HLS as the third Black student in all three classes combined. The afternoon’s concurrent panels addressed the following themes: Serving the Public Interest, Transitioning from Legal to Non-Legal Careers, Challenges and Opportunities Confronting Fortune 500 General Counsel, and Fulfilling the Promise of Brown. A plenary session followed featuring published HLS authors and the evening concluded with a grand gala at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel.
The second day of the conference began with a presentation and conversation with Dean Kagan. Alumni from both the Celebration of Black Alumni conference and the Alumni Leadership Conference peppered Dean Kagan with questions about the law school, student life, faculty, endowment, and emerging concerns. Later that morning, Professor Wilkins moderated a panel of numerous corporate executives entitled “Lawyers as Leaders: Charting the Course of Corporate America,” which discussed lawyers’ roles as corporate leaders and CEOs and gave career path suggestions to the audience. U.S. Senator Barack Obama (HLS ’91) was the keynote speaker for Saturday’s lunch and recipient of the Harvard Law School Association Award. After an introduction by Peter Bynoe (HLS ’76) featuring a Letterman-styled top ten list of reasons why Senator Obama won his Senate race, the Senator — the youngest recipient ever of this award — addressed issues such as Hurricane Katrina, race, poverty, and the war in Iraq, meanwhile sharing personal stories and vignettes.
Saturday afternoon’s concurrent panels addressed themes such as International Human Rights, Breaking the Glass Ceiling of American Politics, Strategies for Surviving in Large Law Firms, and Shaping [the African American] Image in Music, Film, and Sports. The final plenary session featured students addressing alumni questions and concerns about life at HLS. Conducted mostly in a Q&A format, the students discussed a wide range of issues including housing, financial aid, race relations, and alumni donations. At the evening dinner celebration, Randall Robinson (HLS ’76), the founder of TransAfrica and author of four national best sellers, was given the Charles Hamilton Houston Medal of Freedom, for his work in freeing Nelson Mandela and ending apartheid in South Africa.
The Celebration of Black Alumni concluded on Sunday morning with a Gospel brunch, featuring the sounds of the Central Mass Gospel Choir, while former classmates bid farewell until the Celebration in 2010.