Celebrating Black History Month: A look back at historic firsts

Annette Gordon-Reed, Kenneth Mack and David Wilkins discuss the legacy of African Americans at Harvard Law School

In this video, Harvard Law School professors Annette Gordon-Reed ’84, Kenneth Mack ’91 and David Wilkins ’80 discuss four trailblazing African Americans who, in the years immediately following the Emancipation Proclamation, became the first black graduates of Harvard Law School: George Lewis Ruffin 1869, Archibald Grimke 1874, Clement Morgan 1893 and William Henry Lewis 1895, all four of whom went on to accomplished careers as lawyers, activists and agents of social change.

Other notable “firsts” for African Americans have followed throughout the history of Harvard Law School. After women were first admitted to the school in 1950, Lila Fenwick was accepted three years later and in 1956 became the first black woman to graduate from HLS. Fenwick went on to serve as chief of the United Nations Human Rights division.

In 1971, Derrick Bell became the first tenured black professor at the law school. He gave up his professorship in 1992 to protest the school’s hiring practices, specifically the lack of women of color on the faculty. In 1998, Lani Guinier, who served as head of the voting rights project for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, became the first black woman appointed to a tenured professorship at Harvard Law School.

Charles Hamilton Houston LL.B. ’22 S.J.D. ’23, considered the architect of the legal strategy behind the modern civil rights movement, was the first black member of the Harvard Law Review. Barack Obama ’91, who served as the 44th president of the United States, was the first black male elected president of the Harvard Law Review, in 1990. And ImeIme Umana ’18 was the first black female president of the Harvard Law Review, elected in 2017.