February is Black History Month and I want to briefly share the stories of two black women — both professors — who played a pivotal role in my development as an attorney with the hopes that perhaps you’ll take a moment and think about those people who have influenced you. In doing so, we can capture some of the spirit of Black History Month.
When I was in college, I had the good fortune to have some classes by Mary Frances Berry, who went on to Chair the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. She’s received over 35 honorary doctoral degrees and many awards including the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins Award. She’s the author of over 12 books, including most recently, “Five Dollars and a Pork Chop Sandwich: Vote Buying and the corruption of Democracy.”
When I was a student at the University of Pennsylvania, I ended up as a Diplomatic History major (What’s “diplomatic history”? A story for another post) and Professor Berry taught classes that weaved in some of my favorite stories of American history. Since then, Professor Berry has written prolifically on systemic racism; one of her quotes that has stuck with me is:
The time when you need to do something is when no one else is willing to do it, when people are saying it can’t be done.
But it wasn’t just the classes that she taught; she provided a recommendation for me for law school. While I was hardly the model “A” student elsewhere, I thrived in her classes. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that her recommendation helped me get into Washington University in St. Louis law school and started my journey to becoming a lawyer.
It’s her accomplishments, however, that have always made her a role model to me. She served the public good and helped others too. Watch her interview with Trever Noah here.
And at law school, I had the good fortune of running into another woman I want to recognize. It was at law school that I took a class on Torts in my first year. (What’s a “tort”? A story for another post as well) That class was taught by a relatively new professor to the school who had only graduated law school 7 years before that — Kimberly Jade Norwood.
She has a number of career accomplishments but here are two that she proudly cites:
1) Organizing the first international colorism conference on U. S. soil. Global Perspectives on Colorism, supported by the Whitney R Harris World Law Institute, was held at the law school in April of 2015; scholars from around the nation and world came to share their scholarship on skin color preferences and discriminations throughout the world.
2) The creation and development of a unique high school to law school pipeline course (for which she has won several local and national awards) where judges, lawyers, law students, and high school students work closely together for a semester on various educational matters and legal experiences. The semester ends with oral arguments in the courtrooms of the judges and personal evaluations by the judges on the performances of the high school students.
I enjoyed her class so much that when she approached me about helping her out during the summer after my first year, I jumped at the opportunity. She hired me to do research into a law review article was she writing called — thrillingly — “28 U.S.C. Section 1658: A Limitation Period with Real Limitations”. You can still read it here; don’t skip the footnotes.
I learned a lot that summer on the importance of doing the research and getting the details right. I went through every citation and doubled checked it to ensure that the citation was correct, but also that it was factually accurate. It’s a lesson I use frequently when citing to cases — always make sure you are being true in your citations. You can’t skip hard work.
But if it weren’t for that summer, I am confident in saying my life would be completely different. While working in the library, I also got to know another student who was clerking for another professor. We started dating that summer and nearly 30 years later, we’re still married.
Since that time, Professor Norwood has spoken to my firm on several occasions about implicit bias and we even got a chance to catch up at an ABA meeting in Austin, Texas right before the pandemic hit, and pictured above. (Long-time readers may also remember some columns (such as here and here) where I’ve talked about her before.)
Black History Month is more than just recognizing the struggles that those before us went through. It’s also about recognizing their remarkable successes.
Here’s to two women who have had remarkable careers. Let’s continue to share the stories of others during this month.