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This Day in Debate History, Lila Fenwick, the first black female graduate of Harvard Law, is born.

Today, we recognize Lila A. Fenwick, lawyer, Human Rights advocate, and first female African American to be accepted and graduate from Harvard Law School. Fenwick was born on May 24th, 1932. Lila A. Fenwick recently passed on April 4th 2020 at her home in Manhattan. She was a victim of the coronavirus. She was 87. Lila A. Fenwick was the first black woman to graduate from Harvard Law and went on to become a human rights official at the United Nations, lawyer, and helped to establish the Foundation for Research and Education in Sickle Cell Disease.

Fenwick was born in Manhattan on May 24, 1932. She graduated from Barnard College in 1953. After college was accepted to Harvard Law School and became the first female African American to graduate in 1956. After law school, she attended the London School of Economics. She then went on to work at the United Nations Human Rights Commission.

At the United Nations she was a specialist on studies about gender, racial and religious discrimination; the protection of minorities and indigenous populations; and the right to emigrate from oppressive countries.

Being the first African American female at Harvard Law School in the 1950s posed many challenges to Fenwick. She stated, “I knew I was going to be a lawyer when I was a little girl,” she told the Harvard Law Bulletin in 2000. “It never occurred to me that there were going to be any obstacles.” In 1954 while she was a student at Harvard Law, the Supreme Court desegregated schools in its landmark supreme court case, Brown v. Board of Education. Fenwick said, “I was delirious,” after learning about the ruling.

Ms. Fenwick graduated from law school in 1956. Ruth Bader Ginsburg started the next school year and the Dean of Harvard Law School asked the nine women in the class of hundreds why they were occupying a place that could have gone to a man. Indeed, “Ladies Day,” became a monthly tradition of professors calling on female students as if they were animal performers.

Patricia J. Williams, Harvard Law class of 1975 and a professor of law and humanities at Northeastern University, said black women there experienced “a particularly virulent form of racism and sexism.” Ms. Fenwick later audited one of her courses. “She was so elegant, a lady in the lovely, old fashioned, full sense of that word,” Professor Williams said. “We talked about the loneliness, what it took to be in a world where you were always different, always the other and never assumed to be part of the power elite.”

“Lila Fenwick was an extraordinary leader who devoted her career at the United Nations to protecting the human rights of all people across the globe,” said John F. Manning ’85, the Morgan and Helen Chu Dean of Harvard Law School. “Her leadership, humanity, and wisdom will be sorely missed.”


New York Times

Harvard Law School Article