An audience of roughly 300 people gathered for a lecture on the history of race and the law in Harrisburg recently when city native and Harvard Law Professor Kenneth Mack delivered the second-annual John L. Gedid lecture.
Mack spent an hour discussing W. Justin Carter, the first attorney of color to practice in Harrisburg and how he transcended race when it came to life in the courtroom. The Feb. 14 speech was something of a homecoming for Mack, who grew up in the Allison Hill area of Harrisburg and attended Harrisburg High School before graduating from Central Dauphin East.
Mack, one of the country’s leading scholars on the history of the civil rights movement and the history of African-American lawyering, explained that when Carter began practicing law in Harrisburg in the late 1800s he had an opportunity to show white people something they would otherwise not see outside court: a black attorney being treated as an equal to white attorneys. “In an era of segregation what was quite jarring about a black lawyer was he was allowed to go into court and do what black people were not allowed to do – question white witnesses,” Mack said. Carter was very good at his work and many white clients sought his services.
“His role as a lawyer allowed him to cross racial barriers,” Mack said. Still, Carter suffered a stinging rejection in 1904 when the Dauphin County Bar denied his application for membership. Carter was a founding member of the Niagara Movement, which was a predecessor to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Widener Law began the John L. Gedid lecture series in April 2007. The event honors Gedid, who has been a leading figure on the Harrisburg campus since it opened in 1989, and who currently serves as the campus vice dean. The lecture series is designed to shine a spotlight on the work of up-and-coming legal scholars. This year’s speech was presented by the Law School with sponsorship from Aspen Publishing and the Historic Harrisburg Association.
Widener Associate Professor Wesley Oliver, who coordinated the lecture, presented Gedid with a historical binder on the lecture series, which includes photographs, brochures and signatures of all the speech makers and will be updated yearly.Photo:
Widener Law Dean Linda L. Ammons welcomes the crowd to the second-annual John L. Gedid Lecture at the Pennsylvania State Museum. Seated from left are Widener Associate Professor Wesley Oliver and Harvard Professor Kenneth Mack.
Harvard Law Professor Kenneth Mack speaks to the crowd.
From left, Carol Gedid, Widener Law Professor John L. Gedid, Harvard Law Professor Kenneth Mack, Widener Law Associate Professor Wesley Oliver and Widener Law Dean Linda L. Ammons.