Long before federal judge Damon Keith became known as a “crusader for justice,” he was a new Howard University School of Law graduate working as a janitor while he studied for the bar exam.
It was 1949, and Keith cleaned the bathrooms at the Detroit News, his hometown newspaper. One day, Keith recalled, he was leaning against a wall in the men’s room with a law dictionary in his hands when he was interrupted.
“What are you reading?” a white reporter asked him.
Keith, the grandson of slaves and a World War II veteran, told the reporter he was studying the law dictionary to prepare for the bar exam.
“What for?” the man asked.
“I’m going to be a lawyer,” Keith responded.
The reporter laughed.
“A black lawyer?” he asked incredulously. “You better keep on mopping.”
Keith, now 94 and still serving on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit in Detroit, recounted that story two weeks ago in a Howard University moot courtroom, where students, lawyers, his former clerks and a Supreme Court nominee gathered to watch a new documentary about his life, “Walk With Me: The Trials of Damon J. Keith.”
Howard University School of Law (also known as Howard Law or HUSL) is one of the professional graduate schools of Howard University. Located in Washington, D.C., it is one of the oldest law schools in the country and the oldest historically black college or university law school in the United States.
Today, Howard University School of Law confers about 185 Juris Doctor and Master of Law degrees annually to students from the United States and countries in South America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia. Howard University School of Law was accredited by the American Bar Association and the Association of American Law Schools in 1931.
Howard University opened its legal department, led by John Mercer Langston, on January 6, 1869. The founders of Howard Law recognized “a great need to train lawyers who would have a strong commitment to helping black Americans secure and protect their newly established rights” during the country’s tumultuous Reconstruction era.
The first class consisted of six students who met three evenings a week in the homes and offices of the department’s four teachers. Classes were held in various locations throughout the years before the law school settled into its current location at 2900 Van Ness Street N.W. in 1974. At the time, the LL.B program required only two years of study. Ten students were awarded degrees at the first commencement ceremony, which was held on February 3, 1871.
The school was accredited by the American Bar Association and the Association of American Law Schools in 1931.