The Harvard Law School and the Road to Brown: A Legacy of Justice on Display

In 2004, the Harvard Law School marked the 50th anniversary of the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision. Throughout the School, scores of seminars, lectures and special events commemorated this extraordinary milestone in the history of civil rights in America. This focus on the Brown decision made for an exciting time at the Law School as it is clearly an event whose ramifications, not only in the legal arena, but also in the broader political, social and philosophical spheres, continue to reverberate to this day. There is much to be examined, much to be debated, and much to be learned from such an examination.

The momentous Supreme Court decision, however, did not take place in a vacuum. Here at the Library, Head of Special Collections, David Warrington, took the opportunity to mount an exhibition highlighting not only the 1954 decision itself but attempting provide valuable historical context. Using materials from the Library’s Historical & Special Collections, David laid out a timeline highlighting the role that Harvard Law School graduates have played in developing the legal bulwarks that support racial equality and civil rights in America today.

The exhibition began with none other than our own Joseph Story, appointed to the Supreme Court in 1811. Although, as a Federalist, he did uphold the Fugitive Slave Act, two other decisions in which he participated were clearly broadsides against the institution of slavery. The text of those decisions, some in their original 19th century printed versions, were displayed in the Caspersen Room.

The chronology continues in a series of cases arranged clockwise around the room. In it one can read the writings of Charles Sumner, an 1832 graduate and one of the Law School’s first librarians, who, as a result of his vociferous opposition to slavery, was literally beaten on the floor of the US Senate. On display were some of Sumner’s handwritten notes for a case, in many ways a prescient foreshadowing of Brown v. Board, in which he defends a black child attempting to enroll in the Boston Public Schools.

Going further, one could see photographs and read the opinions of Justice Benjamin Curtis, a valiant dissenter in the infamous Dred Scott decision, a dissent that apparently caused such bitter acrimony within the Court that Justice Curtis later resigned.

The display continued up to the 20th century, highlighting Harvard Law School graduates’ involvement in the founding of the NAACP and the stewardship of the Howard University Law School. Directly relating to the Brown decision, one could see Justice Felix Frankfurter’s typed notes, complete with handwritten corrections, as well as other materials he created while debating the historic decision.

All told, it was an impressive exhibit that can offer new insight and perspective to all who continue to grapple with the legacy of the Brown decision and the ongoing struggle for equality in America.