Evelyn Higginbotham visits Duke as inaugural John Hope Franklin Chair

August 23, 2010Duke Law News

Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, the Victor S. Thomas Professor of History and of African and African American Studies and Chair of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, is the inaugural holder of the John Hope Franklin Chair in American Legal History at Duke Law School during the 2010-11 academic year.

Higginbotham holds the chair on a visiting basis. While at Duke, she is teaching a course on Race, Law, and Civil Rights History and a seminar exploring, through a study of biographies and autobiographies, how personal life experiences might influence the actions and works of lawyers and judges.

“We are delighted that Professor Higginbotham has agreed to serve as the inaugural holder of the John Hope Franklin Chair,” said Duke Law Dean David Levi. “It is only fitting and proper that Professor Higginbotham should be the first holder of this chair. Not only is she a distinguished historian of civil rights, but she is also Dr. Franklin’s close friend and co-author of the new edition of his important work, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. Our students and faculty are eager to welcome her to Duke for the coming year.”

A renowned scholar
Higginbotham is a leading scholar of African American religious history, women’s history, civil rights, constructions of racial and gender identity, electoral politics, and the intersection of theory and history. One of her most cited and reprinted articles is “African American Women’s History and the Metalanguage of Race,” winner of the best article prize of the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians in 1993. In addition to co-authoring the ninth edition of From Slavery to Freedom, which she substantially revised and rewrote with Franklin’s blessing, Higginbotham is the co-editor, with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., of the African American National Biography, which presents African American history through the life stories of more than 4,000 individuals.

Higginbotham is the recipient of numerous awards. She is a member of the American Philosophical Society, and she is the recipient of the Carter G. Woodson Scholars Medallion from the Association for the Study of African American Life and History and the Legend Award from the Urban League.

“John Hope is a hero to me, so I can’t overstate what it means to be the inaugural John Hope Franklin Chair,” said Higginbotham. “To say that I’ve taught at such a wonderful law school, and to teach under the title of his name, for me, this is a historic moment. I only wish I could co-teach the course with him.”

History for lawyers
Higginbotham has designed two unique courses for her time at Duke Law: African American Lives in the Law, which she is teaching during the fall semester, and Race, Law, and Civil Rights History, to be taught in the spring.

African American Lives in the Law focuses on biographical and autobiographical writings in a historical examination of the role of the individual in the American legal process. The course examines the ways in which the lives and accomplishments of African Americans, as lawyers, judges, and litigants, serve as a “mirror to America” and how personal experience informs individual perspectives on the law and justice.

The course identifies each biography or autobiography with a specific theme; for instance, the biography of lawyer Charles Hamilton Houston, known to many as “the man who killed Jim Crow,” will be studied under the theme of “Social Engineer”; the autobiography of lawyer Pauli Murray--the first African American woman to earn a JSD at Yale and to become an ordained Episcopalian priest--highlights the theme “Feminism Unveiled”; and a biographical treatment of the black physician Ossian Sweet, who stood trial for murder in the 1920s, emphasizes the theme of the “Politics of Respectability.” The course also examines writings by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and, of course, John Hope Franklin.

Race, Law, and Civil Rights History focuses on the struggle for racial equality in America by examining landmark civil rights cases in the 19th and 20th centuries with attention not only to the language of judicial opinions but also to the importance of social context, community activism, and the claims made by individual historical actors themselves.

In both courses, Higginbotham aims to help students see the stories behind the people and cases they’ve studied.

“I teach about the law, but I teach from a different perspective,” she said. “I want my students to understand the context of the cases that have played such important roles in our history, to understand what was going on at the time and who the people were who were there. All these details are so important to understanding what these decisions were really about.”

Higginbotham particularly uses close readings of cases and related materials to help create a fuller sense of the times and circumstances that influenced the course of a case.

She notes, for example, that a close reading of testimony and arguments made in Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 case in which the Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of “separate but equal” policies, reveals that Plessy refused to say he was a black man. “His lawyer,” Higginbotham says, “continuously says his client is seven-eights white, and that he has rights in his whiteness.

“So many of these important cases were actually test cases,” Higginbotham says, adding that activists were very careful to select cases that they thought could bring the force of the law to bear on the cause of civil rights. “All that detail is so important as we try to understand what these cases are about and the impact they had. Dealing with a post-race conversation about 19th-century America has a lot of resonance today. We still talk about the social construction of race and the genetic construction of race.”

To help students gain a fuller understanding of legal history, Higginbotham highlights little-known but pivotal cases. The Montgomery Bus Boycott is one example; Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her bus seat in December 1955 is legendary, but it was actually the lesser-known case of Browder et al v. Gayle that ultimately brought about legal change. In that case, four women--two were teenagers--challenged their arrests, in separate incidents prior to Parks’ arrest, under segregated bus laws. After the bus boycott began, the women filed a civil action lawsuit to protest bus segregation. In June 1956, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama found that bus segregation violated the 14th Amendment, and the Supreme Court later affirmed the decision.

“The lawsuit of Browder and the three other women, just like the story behind the Plessy decision, highlights the relationship between social activism and legal change,” says Higginbotham.

The John Hope Franklin Chair
The John Hope Franklin Chair was established in 2009 to honor the late Franklin and his tenure as a professor of legal history at Duke Law School from 1985 to 1992. Gifts from Duke Law alumnus William Louis Dreyfus ’57, The Duke Endowment, and several other donors helped to endow the chair. The Law School will award the chair on a visiting basis each year to a distinguished scholar until a permanent appointment is made.

Perhaps best known for his leadership of President Bill Clinton’s 1997 task force on race, Franklin is credited with bringing the field of African American history into the mainstream. His book From Slavery to Freedom, first published in 1947, remains the definitive account of the black experience in America. Franklin began his career as an instructor at Fisk University in 1936; he went on to teach at Howard University, Brooklyn College, and the University of Chicago before joining the Duke University history department as the James B. Duke Professor of History in 1982. He passed away in 2009 at the age of 94.
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