CAMBRIDGE, MA – On Saturday, September 17, 2011, Savannah native Dr. Walter Leonard received the Harvard Law School Medal of Freedom, the school’s highest honor.
Leonard received the award during a gala dinner that served as the culminating event of the Harvard Law School’s 3rd Celebration of Black Alumni. After receiving the award from Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow, Leonard and fellow recipient, former Harvard University President Derek Bok, shared their memories of diversifying the law school’s student body in the 1960s and ‘70s and designing protocols that would go on to become the blueprint for affirmative action in higher education across the country.
A leading educator and scholar, Walter Leonard was born on October 3, 1929, in Alma, Georgia. His early education was in the Savannah, Georgia public school system and later at Savannah State College. He went on to study at Morehouse College, Atlanta University’s Graduate School of Business, Howard University School of Law and Harvard University Business School.
Leonard has served as Assistant Dean of both the Howard University School of Law (1968-69) and Harvard University Law School (1969-71). As Assistant Dean and Assistant Director of Admissions at Harvard Law School, he is credited, through the use of conferences, recruitment, and outreach programs, with the education of more minority and women lawyers than almost any other administrator in the United States.
In 1971, Leonard was appointed to the position of Special Assistant to Harvard University’s President, Derek Curtis Bok. There, Leonard was the primary force behind the Harvard Plan, a blueprint for establishing equal educational and employment opportunities in higher education. The Plan was cited approvingly by the United States Supreme Court in the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke decision and adopted by hundreds of colleges and universities nationwide. Leonard also chaired the committee that established Harvard University’s W.E.B. DuBois Institute for Afro- American Research.
He served as visiting professor or lecturer in law at many of the nation’s finest schools, including Virginia, Kansas, Howard, Pennsylvania, Boston College, Temple, Harvard, California (Davis) and Maryland. As Assistant Dean and Assistant Director of Financial Aid at Harvard Law School, he is credited, through conferences, recruitment and outreach programs, with the education of more “minority” and “non-minority” lawyers than almost anyone else in the country.
Perhaps, his most aweinspiring moment was in 1978, when, as president of Fisk University, Leonard used a $1.5 million insurance policy on his life as collateral to obtain a loan to keep the school from closing. Fisk was nearly bankrupt when Leonard assumed the presidency in 1977. Over the course of his seven-year presidency, Leonard managed to raise more than $12 million dollars for Fisk University.
In addition to his prestigious academic assignments, Leonard has found time to serve as board member or consultant for many of America’s most eminent policy-making organizations, including: the Ford Foundation, the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Department of Commerce, the Atlanta Office of Economic Opportunity, the College Board, the United Negro College Fund, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the National Urban League, the Association of American Law Schools, the American Council on Education and the American Bar Association Commission on Education and the American Bar Association Commission on Public Education and the Law, and the Board of Visitors of the United States Naval Academy (chairman 1982 – 1983). He is director emeritus of Beatrice Companies, Inc. (formerly Beatrice Foods Co. of Chicago). He was also a participant in the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the King Center.
Leonard has published numerous scholarly articles on such topics as the First Amendment, black capitalism, the student protest movements in the universities and affirmative action. Two fellowships were created at Oxford University in his honor.
He is also a recipient of the Harvard W.E.B. DuBois Medal and recently named a national History Maker by the History Makers Foundation. The Kuumba Singers of Harvard College have named their Annual Arts Festival The Walter J. Leonard Black Arts Festival.
This year’s Celebration of Black Alumni, the third such event in the history of Harvard Law School, was attended by over 600 Black alumni and hundreds of their family and friends.
The event takes place on the Harvard Law School campus every five years, and provides an opportunity for Black alumni to network, reconnect and mentor current students. Previous Celebration of Black Alumni attendees have included Harvard Law School alumni such as President Barack Obama, American Express CEO Kenneth Chennault and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan.
This year, Merck Pharmaceuticals CEO Ken Frazier, Black Entertainment Television CEO Debra Lee, TIAACREF President and CEO Roger Ferguson, actor and author Hill Harper, star litigator Ted Wells and Savannah native Monica Parker were among the participants.