The late professor Derrick Bell is best known for becoming the first Black professor at Harvard Law School, but that distinction only scratches the surface of his achievements. Professor Bell was a staunch advocate for diversity in academia, and used his platform to both challenge and examine racism.
Bell was born in Pittsburgh, Pa. in the city’s Hill District. Though he received a scholarship to Lincoln University one of the two HBCU’s in the state, Bell ended up at Duquesne University after being unable to get enough financial aid. He earned his degree in 1952 and then entered the University of Pittsburgh Law School. As a member of the school’s Air Force ROTC, Bell eventually became part of the full-time branch of the military arm and fought in the Korean War.
The two-year period in the service interrupted his Pittsburgh Law studies but he returned to earn his law degree in 1957. Bell worked for the Justice Department right after school, but left the post after the agency advised him to cut his ties with the surging NAACP. Thurgood Marshall eventually recruited Bell for the Legal Defense Fund and he worked on several cases in Mississippi. In his time with the LDF, Bell assisted with over 300 school desegregation cases.
Teaching was next on the horizon for Bell. He joined USC’s law school and then worked as the director of its Western Center on Law and Poverty. In 1969, after student demand, Bell joined Harvard Law’s faculty. He achieved tenure just two years later. Bell created a civil rights law course and released his 1973 book Race, Racism, and American Law, still used in classrooms today. This gave rise to “critical race theory,” which Bell is considered one of the originators of.
Bell left Harvard to become the first Black dean of the University of Oregon Law School in 1980. In 1985, he left the post after the school wouldn’t hire an Asian-American candidate for a faculty position. He went back to Harvard the following year, leaving in 1992 after protesting the lack of minority women in faculty posts. The public protests divided the school and Bell was accused of using the media to manipulate his aims.
In the early ’90’s, President Barack Obama was a student of Bell’s and praised him as a mentor and inspiration. It was around this time that Bell took a visiting professorship position with New York University in 1991, and remained with the school after leaving Harvard until the end of his career.
Bell passed in 2011 after a long bout with cancer. He has left behind a number of scholarly writing and books, along with his science fiction writings. One of his stories, “The Space Traders,” was adapted for HBO’s 1994 three-part anthology, Cosmic Slop.
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