The black perspective is crucial in constructing legal history, Evelyn Higginbotham said Monday.
Higginbotham, the inaugural John Hope Franklin professor of American legal history and visiting professor of law, addressed a group of 60 at the School of Law as part of the Robert R. Wilson lecture series. Her speech, titled “A Summons to History: The African American Historical Perspective in the Legal Battle for Racial Equality,” discussed the importance of including the black viewpoint when chronicling the history of civil rights.
Higginbotham paid homage to the late John Hope Franklin, a civil rights activist and historian who died in 2009. Franklin was the James B. Duke professor emeritus of history and taught at the Law School from 1985 to 1992. Higginbotham co-authored the ninth iteration of Franklin’s “From Slavery to Freedom,” which details the history of African Americans. Franklin’s son and daughter-in-law also attended the speech.
“The changes that have occurred in the writing of the history of the Negros are as significant and, in some ways, even more dramatic than the very events themselves that the writers themselves that sought to describe,” Higginbotham said, quoting a piece written by Franklin in 1957.
Law School Dean David Levi, who gave an introduction to Higginbotham’s speech, described Franklin’s social activism efforts. He referenced an image of Franklin providing legal counsel in a makeshift tent for the victims of the Tulsa race riots in 1921. Franklin worked to protect black residents from developers who were preventing them from rebuilding their homes.
“This photograph is a powerful and moving picture of... a legal professor in action doing the everyday work of the law and thereby protecting civil rights,” Levi said.
Higginbotham discussed the importance of other scholars’ literary feats, including those of Carter Woodson, African American historian and one of the founders of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. She added that he is credited for the establishment of the Journal of Negro History, which was the only publication of its time to accept race-related academic articles.
The journal popularized black history and validated the demands for equal rights through the collaborative efforts of scholars, both black and white. Many of the featured articles made readers more aware of racial inequalities in education, such as the federal lawsuit against the segregation of the University of Kentucky in 1948, Higginbotham said.
Higginbotham’s account of the journal brought back memories for some of the audience members, such as Durham resident and retired minister Richard Jones. Jones was an avid follower of black issues and also subscribed to The Crisis, the official magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“What was fascinating about it was that I lived a lot of the history she was talking about,” Jones said.
Higginbotham noted that these writings had a significant impact on the U.S. Constitution. Franklin, for example, contributed to these writings and was part of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which was responsible for clarifying the original intent of the 14th Amendment—particularly the citizenship clause that asserts that African Americans are U.S. citizens.
“The African American historical perspective in the form of scholarship... helped to change the hearts and minds so sufficiently [during] dramatic social, political and economic change in this nation and the world,” Higginbotham said. “The American judicial system would come to understand a new meaning of reasonableness, one that would declare segregation inherently unethical.”
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