Black Lawyers and the Black Letter: A Legacy of Community and Resilience at Harvard Law School

1988 Special Edition BLSA Memo

In anticipation of the Harvard Black Law Students Association’s 50th Anniversary Celebration in April 2018, the Harvard Journal on Racial & Ethnic Justice (formerly the Black Letter Journal) is coordinating an archival research project to discover the historical links that bind these two organizations. Through this research, JREJ and HBLSA have revealed common threads that transcend time. Whether one studied here in the 1970s or in the present day, Black law students at Harvard have forged an enduring legacy, sharing the same values, frustrations, and hopes for a brighter and more just future.

Harvard has made an indelible mark on Black History. For well over a century, Black students have braved innumerable systemic injustices to attend and excel at this elite academic institution. Harvard Law School, in particular, has seen its Black alumni ascend to the pinnacle of nearly every industry, trade, and profession, including leadership in national and international governments. Long after their departure from Cambridge, Black alumni have relied on the communities and networks that were nurtured during their time as members of the Harvard Black Law Students Association (HBLSA). As Black History Month concludes, and as we prepare to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of HBLSA, it is fitting to reflect upon the Association’s significant contributions to Harvard Law School and society writ large, principally the Black Letter Journal.

Harvard Black Law Students Association, c. 1977

It was in 1967 that Black students at Harvard came together to create the HBLSA that we see today. Over the next 20 years, HBLSA created support systems that fostered a sense of community amongst the Black law students in residence. In 1975, the first edition of the Blackletter served as an internal newsletter for Black students. More than a review of relevant legal developments, the Blackletter chronicled the successes of HBLSA intramural sports teams, celebrated Black students who earned coveted clerkships and law firm placements, and strategized for institutional change from Harvard to Capitol Hill. By HBLSA’s 20th Anniversary in 1988, the newsletter had become a guidebook for incoming Black law students. Nestled between pages of political commentary and professorial wisdom was a list of Black-owned establishments in the Greater Boston area: beauty salons and barbershops, radio stations and roller rinks, nightclubs and churches. In the absence of institutional support, Black law students at Harvard relied upon their HBLSA community for emotional, financial, academic, and professional support.

Harvard Black Letter Journal, 1992

In 1984, The Blackletter became the inspiration for Harvard Law School’s first journal dedicated to issues of racial justice in the Black community: the Black Letter Law Journal. Given the few available opportunities for Black law students to develop their scholarly and academic writing skills in a racial justice context, the Black Letter Law Journal paved the way for critical legal theory on topics ranging from affirmative action to state-sanctioned violence. The Journal created space for a new generation of Black scholars, whose arguments found no home in the more traditional law journals of the time. In articles celebrating the 10th and 25th anniversaries of the Journal, faculty advisor Professor Charles Ogletree, Jr. hearkened back to the Journal’s origins as the Blackletter[1] while challenging the notion that our first Black president had ushered in an era of post-racialism.[2] Black students continued to flock to the journal, including, most notably, First Lady Michelle Obama (née Robinson). By 2010, the Black Letter Law Journal had given way to the Harvard Journal on Racial & Ethnic Justice, the name itself manifesting a commitment to the intersectional legal challenges facing Black people and people of color broadly. The Journal has gone on to feature articles rooted in critical race theory, addressing issues that impact racial and ethnic identities at the margins.

“Black letter Journal Makes Its Debut” Harvard Law Record, vol. 79, no. 3, October 1984

Many things have changed in the 50 years since the creation of HBLSA. In the past two years alone, we have celebrated Black law students who have taken on leadership of some of Harvard Law School’s most prestigious organizations. Today, Black law students do not suffer the caliber of macroaggressions that past classes once faced. Indeed, Black law students are better equipped today, and have opportunities to pursue careers that were once unthinkable, even for Black law students at Harvard.

“A Salute to Black Women” Flyer
1988 Special Edition BLSA Memo

Still, many common threads have endured over time, creating new iterations of the same challenges faced by Black law students over the past half-century. Institutional critique and calls for structural changes to legal education are no less fervent with the passage of time. Demands for increased faculty diversity and culturally responsive course offerings ring out eerily through the halls of Harvard Law School, echoing the same sentiments expressed by Black law students across decades. Professor Derrick Bell’s scathing refutations of law teaching and the legal professoriate are no less true today than they were 30 years ago. The weathering of emotions, the numbness invoked by case law without context: both are sentiments expressed by Black law students of the past and the present, though neither has been redressed. Advice given by third-year Black law students in 1988 is no less valuable to a first-year Black law student in 2018.

“Black Awareness and Black Unity Surging Forward at Law School”,
Harvard Law Record, vol. 47, no. 2, September 1968

Now more than ever, understanding our history is essential to our future. Through this archival research project, we seek to tap into the collective memories of HBLSA and JREJ, realizing the invaluable knowledge that can be attained by looking back in time. Where there is shared frustration, there is also a shared sense of hope and a commitment to build upon the work of past classes. Though JREJ is no longer affiliated with HBLSA, we are proud to celebrate the Association’s 50th anniversary, the legacy that it has forged, and the continued evolution of the organization as a community of Black law students at Harvard.

JREJ and HBLSA are preparing a showcase of various documents and images found as a result of this archival research project, to be displayed in April 2018.

Special thanks to Micha Broadnax, Jess Farrell, and Jane Kelly in Langdell Archives. Thanks also to members of JREJ and HBLSA for their research support: Kennedi Williams-Libert, Libby Bova, Bryan Payton, Mike Banerjee, Glory James, Arabella Okwara, Brandon Hill, and Charmaine Archer.

[1] Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., The Harvard Blackletter Journal: Celebrating a Decade of Excellence—Preparing for the Future, 10 Harv. Blackletter J. 1, 4 (1993).

[2] Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., From Dred Scott to Barack Obama: The Ebb and Flow of Race Jurisprudence, 25 Harv. BlackLetter L.J. 1 (2009).

Cameron Clark is a 3L. He is the Managing Editor of the Harvard Journal on Racial & Ethnic Justice.

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