Pitt Law Dean William Carter Jr. (seated left) with Janet Bell (seated right) declared a portion of the school’s library the Derrick A. Bell Constitutional Law Commons. Read the full story here.
This story was originally published in The Pitt News on 3/21/2013.
Written by Megan Trimble, Assistant News Editor, The Pitt News
As Pitt law students study civil rights on the fifth-floor of the Barco Law Library and leave its comfort to engage with the community, they will have a steady reminder of the history behind their missions.
Legal scholar and Pitt Law alumnus Derrick Bell’s memory was honored Wednesday afternoon as the Black Law Students Association officially renamed their annual legal clinic — which provides legal assistance and resources to lower-income members of the community — the Derrick Bell Community Legal Clinic. During a surprise announcement, Pitt Law Dean William Carter Jr. declared a portion of the school’s fifth-floor library the Derrick A. Bell Constitutional Law Commons. Bell died from carcinoid cancer on Oct. 5, 2011 at the age of 80.
About 30 students, faculty, members of the Bell family and Bell family friends gathered in the Alcoa Room of the Barco Law Building to witness BLSA’s presentation of the honor to the Bell family and the unveiling of the commons-area memorial.
Bell was the only African-American in his graduating law-school class of 140 students in 1957, was one of just three black students in the school at the time and acted as associate editor-in-chief of the University of Pittsburgh Law Review. In 1971, Bell became the first tenured African-American professor at Harvard University Law School.
As a law professor, Bell received acclaim as one of the leading critics of traditional civil rights discourse, as well as through his engagement in civil disobedience during his time at Harvard and the University of Oregon law schools. He published several books over the course of his lifetime, including “Race, Racism and American Law,” which has become a fundamental textbook in law schools.
Janet Bell graciously accepted the dedications and said her husband’s legacy was one of “serious scholarship and a dedication to the law as a means to achieve social justice.” Above all, she said Bell was focused on students during his almost 50-year teaching legacy.
“He never saw teaching as a one-way street,” she said. “He always viewed it as a shared learning enterprise and participatory learning.”
Janet said that while this places a lot of the learning responsibility on students, he always said he knew they were up for it.
Derrick Bell spent the majority of his teaching career at Harvard Law, but Janet said her husband always thought of Pitt as his “home school” and had a “long and loving relationship” with the University, to which he later returned as guest lecturer.
Derrick A. Bell III said he was pleased that his father’s memory was honored and said the family was proud of his father’s accomplishments.
“He did real well, and he was sort of pioneering for the people of the future,” the younger Bell said.
Dean Carter said the commons area will act as a “permanent and lasting reminder” of Bell’s interest in civil rights and social justice.
Chris Carter, a second-year law student and BLSA vice president, presented a memorial token to Janet Bell and spoke from experience on the impact that Bell has on law students.
Chris Carter said his father always taught him about race conflict and African-American history. When he decided to pursue law, his father suggested he learn about Bell. Because Bell was from the Hill District and Carter grew up nearby in Homewood, the current law student felt a connection to the activist’s story and ultimately chose to attend Pitt Law.
“I said, ‘I’m going home. I just have to,’” he said.
Chris Carter shared some of Bell’s activism history with the group.
Bell protested on behalf of those who, he felt, were unfairly treated. In 1986, he resigned from his position as Dean of Oregon Law in protest of the school’s refusal to hire an Asian-American female professor. Upon returning to Harvard Law, he conducted a five-day sit-in until the school acknowledged two female minority professors for tenure positions.
“He put his entire career on the line and the students stood by him,” Chris Carter said. “That speaks volumes of his legacy’s impact on students.”
The Bell family made a monetary gift to the law school, and Dean Carter said the University will use the gift to continue Bell’s work. Among several proposed initiatives, Dean Carter said the school will work to build upon the gift, encourage the matriculation of diverse students to study social justice and develop a research fellow position in law to work closely with a faculty member to explore the ideas in which Bell took interest.
Vice Chancellor of Public Affairs Robert Hill said he has been friends with Janet Bell for years and knew “she’d do something special for the University” to honor her husband’s legacy. Hill said he hopes students will honor it, as well.
“I hope [students] read about him and read his work,” he said. “[Bell] was committed to nothing if not social justice, and students ought to learn practical applications as observed through his work.”