Celebrating Black History Month | The first black graduates of Harvard Law School
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Celebrating Black History Month | The first black graduates of Harvard Law School

African-American graduates of Harvard Law School were
very much connected to what was going on in the
United States generally, which was a transition
from slavery to freedom. It was very difficult
for African Americans to be even admitted to the
bar before the Civil War, but after the 13th and
14th and 15th Amendments African Americans
were quickly admitted to the bar in most states and
began to attend law school. DAVID WILKINS: So
George Lewis Ruffin was not just the first black
graduate of Harvard Law School. He was the first black
person in the United States to receive legal education. There had been other
lawyers who had done what you could do
then, what Abe Lincoln did, in fact, which was
read for the bar, which was to study under the
tutelage of a lawyer and then maybe take
an exam or just have a period of
apprenticeship to qualify you for membership in the bar. But no one had
gone to law school until George Lewis Ruffin. ANETTE GORDON-REED: The earliest
black graduates of Harvard Law School would have experienced
extreme isolation being an anomaly in this setting. It was not proper or considered
proper for blacks and whites to mix during that time period. KENNETH MACK: Archibald
Grimke, an 1874 graduate of Harvard Law School. The Grimke family were children
of a South Carolina slave holder. Archibald Grimke has two half
sisters, the Grimke sisters who were famous abolitionists. Grimke himself doesn’t
practice law that much, but goes on to a very
distinguished career eventually becoming one of
the leaders of the NAACP and receiving the Spingarn
from that institution in 1919. Clement Morgan was born
a slave in Virginia. He’s an 1890 graduate
of Harvard College, and he was classmates with
W. E. B. Du Bois, of course, and he and Du Bois were
competitors of sorts. Both of them competed for
an oratory award right before they graduated, and
Morgan beat out Du Bois. He went to Harvard
Law School graduating in 1893, third African-American
graduate of Harvard Law School, and wound up practicing
law locally here in Boston. The fourth
African-American graduate is a guy named William H. Lewis,
a really remarkable figure. And under the rules that
pertained at that point, you could play football
while attending Harvard Law School, which he did. And he was captain
of the football team, and he was an All-American. You have to remember that
back then being at Harvard and playing football was like
being in the National Football League today. He was a tough guy as were
all the early African-American graduates, because
they had to be. They lived in a world
that devalued them. ANETTE GORDON-REED: The earliest
black graduates of Harvard Law School were blazing a trail. They were making a way. And I know this is the way
African Americans think about these things, the
first at various places that there will be
others and others will do even better and better. DAVID WILKINS: If George Lewis
Ruffin arrived to here today, he might have thought that
he had landed on Mars. I’m sure he would be amazed. And he would be
very, very proud. He would be very proud that
people still knew his name and knew what he had done
to lay the foundation for this incredible
legacy that has followed. But he would also remind us
undoubtedly that we still have much work to be done.


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