Father and Daughter Bridge the History of the Black Law Students Association
Pickens Patterson never imagined attending Harvard Law School. His daughter never imagined anything else. Their expectations were as different as the times they grew up in, as the societies that defined their hopes. Pickens Patterson ’68 defied those expectations. Staci Patterson ’01 fulfilled hers.
A product of the segregated South, Pickens Patterson attended HLS as the School began the process of integrating black students into the institution. He became one of the founding members of the Black Law Students Association (BLSA), helping minority students adjust to the School, speaking out about the problems of the world around him, and easing the problems for minority students who followed. His daughter Staci now serves as president of BLSA in a school whose minority population has increased, but whose need for a student organization to support and represent minorities remains crucial, she says.
Even though Pickens and Staci Patterson experienced very different school environments, they share an allegiance to Harvard Law School and a commitment to enhancing the environment for minority students. In September, the School held A Celebration of Black Alumni, which brought together hundreds of participants for discussion of their life at HLS and their professional contributions. It is an event Pickens
Patterson could not have foreseen 35 years ago, when he joined all first-year students for orientation sessions and listened as Dean Erwin Griswold ’28 S.J.D. ’29 welcomed the new class to campus. Then Patterson was asked to attend another meeting. He remembers the room full of black students, and a Law School staff member, also black, who announced that everyone in the room—students who had graduated from Harvard College, Stanford, Fisk, Morehouse—needed tutoring. Their education and life experiences were varied, but, for Patterson, the message was clear: “If you’re black, you need tutoring.
He explained this first exposure to HLS to his daughter and other current members of BLSA during the group’s spring conference. He does not condemn the Law School for offering tutoring to its new black students. Indeed, Patterson praises HLS for integrating the School when other universities and graduate schools did not. The offer reflected good intentions, said Patterson, and it also reflected the complexities of the era, which are largely unknown to today’s students, he said.
“Many people came up to me after I spoke, and they were really quite taken aback at the conditions of the Law School at the time I was there. I know just from talking to young people in general that it’s very difficult for them to imagine what the climate was like at that time, Patterson said. “I wanted to let them know how we felt and what we went through at that critical period in Harvard’s development because this was a huge change in the Law School, as well as for black students.
The change began in the summer of 1964, when Professors James Vorenberg ’51 and Frank Sander ’52 spearheaded a program that invited black college students to the School in an attempt to expose minorities to the world of legal education. But news of such efforts had not trickled down to Nashville, Tenn., where Patterson was then a student at Fisk University, a predominantly black college. Patterson, who was raised in Savannah, Ga., instead saw efforts to keep him away from historically white institutions. In fact, the state of Georgia, by legislative act, offered money to him and other black residents not to attend its public university system, paying them the difference between the cost of a University of Georgia School of Law tuition, for example, and the tuition of an out-of-state law school.
Patterson didn’t think he would need Georgia’s money, for he was accepted at Howard University School of Law and granted a full scholarship. His father, however, urged him to apply to HLS. Patterson doesn’t remember the reason his father insisted, but he agreed to apply only after his father promised to pay the application fee of $50. Money wasted, Patterson feared.
“I thought I had no chance to get in, very frankly, because at the time a large number of blacks weren’t being admitted to Harvard, said Patterson. “And with my background from a segregated public school system, segregated society and having been confined to the South basically in terms of my experiences, Harvard was like another planet, just foreign to me, and I’d never considered the possibility that I might go there one day.
He was accepted, and though enticed by the scholarship from Howard, Patterson could not “turn down admission at the finest law school in the country. He received a check from the state of Georgia, as well as HLS financial aid and student loans, to make the decision financially viable. His fellow students, some supportive faculty, and the BLSA made it academically and culturally viable also.
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Staci Patterson is embarrassed. Her father has told the story of her, at 6 years old, threatening to sue her grandfather after he put iodine on her cut. A lawyer from the start. And, her father says, a lawyer with an eye always trained on Harvard Law School.
Staci, who graduated from Howard University in 1998, like her father, eschewed scholarship money from other law schools to attend HLS. For her, Harvard never represented the unobtainable. It simply represented the best.
“I just felt like nothing else was good enough, she said. “I got into a lot of other law schools, but I just didn’t know if I could go [elsewhere]. I wanted to come here.
Her father shaped that interest in HLS and the law by taking his then teenage daughter to his law firm in Atlanta, Thomas, Kennedy, Sampson, and Patterson, where he specializes in real estate and municipal bond work. He also shared his HLS experiences with Staci.
“He’s always applauded the School for its diversity efforts, she said. “And feeling like this is an environment in which you can flourish. Even in the ’60s I think that he felt that the School was very supportive of him.
In 1967 the black students at the School also sought additional support, support from one another and support from a group that could represent their individual concerns. During Pickens Patterson’s second year, ten students formed BLSA to address the issues the administration could not.
“We wanted to serve as mentors to new black law students coming in, to give them the benefit of what we had learned about what it took to pass [courses], Pickens Patterson said. “And we wanted to provide a voice for black students vis-à-vis the administration, to present our views on various matters affecting the Law School and the University community. But we also wanted to speak out on national and international issues as well.
In the group’s first political action, members met with Dean Derek Bok ’54 to air their concerns that no black workers were employed to construct a new building on campus. In addition, BLSA urged the administration to close the School after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Some members of the group also protested the Vietnam War.
Yet BLSA primarily aimed to give black students a “comfort zone at HLS, according to Patterson. The administration and many faculty members helped foster that goal, he said. Patterson cited Clark Byse, Charles Nesson ’63, Alan Dershowitz, and Andrew Kaufman ’54 as faculty members who made a special effort to welcome black students to the School. Many of Patterson’s fellow students also supported the members of the new organization, he said.
In 1968, the Harvard Crimson shows members of the newly formed Black Law Students Association leaving a meeting with Dean Bok about hiring black workers for a campus construction project. Patterson stands in back, center.
BLSA members also faced covert acts of racism, however. They warned each other about classes to avoid because of the treatment of black students; discussed the small number of white students who avoided minorities; and uncovered acts of paternalism, such as the initial orientation session, that tacitly treated black students as inferior.
In this newly integrated campus, not every black student joined BLSA. Some, according to Patterson, feared differentiating themselves from the rest of the student body, or feared reprisals from the administration if they joined. Members of BLSA didn’t condemn them for not being a part of the group. Yet members also knew the value and the necessity of BLSA.
“We felt that, based on our experiences at the Law School, we had very special needs that had to be addressed and views that had to be shared that were different from other law students’ he said.
His daughter feels the same way. Staci Patterson, who became BLSA president in April, said her father’s experience and her desire to shape the group motivated her to assume a leadership role. The number of black students at HLS has increased, and they play a greater role in the school community than before, according to Patterson. Yet the 123 current students in BLSA still need the same kind of support that the 10 founding members needed 33 years ago, she said.
“We need to make sure the interests of black students are taken into account when decisions are made, said Patterson. “We need to make sure that black students are fully integrated into the School. That is the purpose of the organization. And it’s easy for that not to continue. I think that we’re the most integrated that we’ve ever been. But what’s the point in taking the risk of backtracking?
While emphasizing the largely positive environment for black students today at HLS, Staci Patterson also points to subtle signs of racial bias. She said faculty have questioned black students about their undergraduate experience. She acknowledges too a perception that black students are more closely scrutinized in class; she and other black students may respond to that scrutiny by being more cautious in the classroom.
“I think the HLS community has to understand that if you’ve been accepted, you’ve been accepted for a reason, she said. “Because you can do the work. And the admissions committee feels that you’re qualified. Saying, ‘Do you think you’re prepared because you went to a predominantly black college?’ That’s not acceptable to me.
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Earlier this year, Pickens Patterson saw the culmination of BLSA’s efforts. On a business trip, he met Robert Bell, chief justice of the Maryland Court of Appeals, graduate of predominantly black Morgan State University in 1966, Harvard Law School 1969. The chief of the highest court in Maryland thanked Patterson for his advice, his wisdom, and the support that the BLSA gave him. Not everyone, Bell said, would have taken the time to help him understand what was necessary for a young black student to succeed at Harvard Law School in the 1960s.
For Patterson, Bell embodies the success of BLSA, which gives students the tools for success at HLS. And HLS, he says, gives students the tools for success in the world. Patterson’s status as an HLS graduate helped him in the 1970s become a law partner to Maynard Jackson, who would later be elected mayor of Atlanta. “Of course, once you get your foot in the door, you’ve got to perform, he said. “But Harvard opens up so many doors for you in so many different ways.
The doors are open even wider for his daughter, Patterson believes. Staci Patterson someday would like to join her father’s all-black law firm in Atlanta. She knows that when her father graduated, no Atlanta law firm employed a black associate. She knows that her father’s firm still serves an important role in the community. She knows too that she must explore all her options, which, thanks to her father and others that came before her, are limited only by her imagination.
“I’m definitely looking forward to taking the opportunities of larger firms and doing all the things I think that he wishes he could have done during his time, she said. “I mean, his fight would be in vain if I didn’t. That’s what the struggle was all about, to have equal opportunities. And now that we do, I have a responsibility to take advantage of them.”