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Harold R. Washington Jr., activist, ground-breaking Harvard professor

By Gil Bliss
Globe Correspondent / September 11, 2011

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In 1968, Harvard University’s Crimson newspaper published the demands of the campus’s black students, among them more courses relevant to black students and more black faculty to teach them.

Nearly 18 months later, Harvard created the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research and named nine new black faculty to teach the college’s first black studies courses.

Harold R. “Hap’’ Washington Jr. was among the ground-breaking instructors, hired during a time of social upheaval in the country. His time at Harvard was among many stops he made during a lifetime of fighting for civil rights and representing society’s downtrodden.

Mr. Washington died July 22 at his home in the Virgin Islands, where he had lived for 20 years. He was 76 and succumbed to complications of coronary disease.

Known ubiquitously as Hap, he was considered a forceful and motivating speaker, in the classroom and the court of law.

His motto, friends and family said, was, “If I don’t say it - who will?’’ and he held fast to that ethic through his latter years, when he served as a public defender in the Virgin Islands, where he had gone on a government grant and liked it enough to stay.

Mr. Washington was born in Manhattan to Harold R. Washington Sr., a tailor and former Negro leagues baseball player, and his wife Ermine (Pearson), a teacher.

He grew up amid veiled racism in New York City, but the family’s move to South Carolina introduced him to the epicenter of blatant segregation, said his former wife, Judith E. (Hawthorne) Washington, of Durham, N.C.

“When he came south, he was dealing with ‘in-your-face’ racism; and you were forced to confront it,’’ she said.

He encountered more overt racism during a stint in the US Air Force, when a racial confrontation with an officer led to banishment in Greenland, according to one of his twin sons, Kevin E. Washington, also of Durham.

“He had a keen understanding about how racism impacted a person’s life,’’ his son said.

By the time he entered Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C., Mr. Washington felt equipped to use his gift of oratory and activist spirit to join the fight for civil rights.

At college, he met his wife, who was studying mathematics. “He was outspoken, and while I was impressed with his intellect and speech, I thought he was too outspoken,’’ said Judith Washington, an attorney for Legal Aid.

“After a while, I learned to appreciate it, and we began seeing each other,’’ she said. They eloped in 1962, moved to the Bronx, and had the twins a year later.

He became more involved in the civil rights movement, was a charter member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and took part in protests and sit-ins.

Mr. Washington earned a law degree at New York University in 1967, while taking a larger role in the burgeoning civil rights struggle.

He represented members of the Black Panther party and fugitive activist Angela Davis, who had been arrested in New York.

Ms. Davis, now professor emeritus at the University of California-Santa Cruz, said in an e-mail from her staff that “she appreciated his contribution to the National Conference of Black Lawyers and specifically the work he did on her case.’’

Mr. Washington used his legal savvy to have her moved from solitary confinement into the regular population, Kevin Washington said, noting that prisoner’s rights remained a strong interest for his father.

Judith Washington said the young family moved to Cambridge when her husband received a teaching fellowship at Harvard, and he used the time to earn a master’s in law degree in 1970.

“He knew that having a Harvard stamp would open doors and give him the opportunity to be an advocate for justice, which was his ambition,’’ she said.

Randall Robinson, a noted social justice advocate, author and Penn State law school professor, took courses under Mr. Washington enroute to a 1970 Harvard law degree.

“I had Hap in a seminar class where we were talking to prisoners who were incarcerated at Walpole [Cedar Junction], and we would help them with drafting appeals and other papers,’’ he said. “He was tremendously engaged, very much a people person who was very much concerned with the general human condition.

“He was perfect for this course because he took law off the page and gave it a human face and did that more effectively than any teacher I had at Harvard Law School,’’ said Robinson, a founder of TransAfrica. “He was a likeable person, and I came to call him a friend. I respected him a great deal, and he contributed significantly to my development.’’

From 1971 to 1974, Mr. Washington taught criminal law and civil procedure at North Carolina Central University School of Law, which catered mostly to the state’s black population. He also commuted to Harvard to teach. While in the Boston area, he served as director of the Roxbury Defenders Program.

Also during the ’70s, he became a tenured and full professor of law at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he taught for many years before he moved to the Virgin Islands.

According to former North Carolina Chief Justice Henry Frye, Mr. Washington “was adamant at helping us stop the state from closing [North Carolina Central University School of Law] to save money.’’

Judge Frye was one of a few black legislators in the North Carolina House at the time and was a graduate and former teacher at the famous black law school. “I remember him as a guy who raised issues about clear cases of discrimination,’’ he said.

“When Hap saw a legal need,’’ Judith Washington said, “he responded to it. He was outspoken but took action, and he was effective. People were not accustomed to an African-American being as outspoken as he was, especially in this area,’’ she said.

While at North Carolina Central University School of Law, he taught law to G.K. Butterfield, now a Democratic congressman from North Carolina, who cites him as a major influence.

“He was our friend, and we believed that he wanted us to succeed,’’ Butterfield said. “I wanted to be a civil rights lawyer, and he taught me that you need to get a basic legal education, learn excellent analytical skills, then decide which way to go.

“The first day in class, he put on his civil rights hat, explained the relationship between the movement and graduates getting an education and then never mentioned civil rights again.’’

Butterfield said Mr. Washington was also involved in the movement to shut down the North Carolina state Eugenics Board and seek reparations for its victims - poor whites and blacks - forced to undergo sterilization.

The reparations fight continues.

Even though the Washingtons parted ways, neither remarried, and they remained friends, co-writing papers and articles.

Judith Washington described him as a fine father, a statement echoed by his other twin son, Kenneth, of Raleigh, N.C.

“He always inspired us to be the best in what we did, because he did the same thing,’’ he recalled. “My Dad had strong beliefs and convictions about a lot of things, and he could communicate on all levels, having the ability to talk to the common man as well as kings,’’ Kenneth said.

He had a wide range of interests, from black history to amateur Egyptology. He was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and was an accomplished tennis player. “Dad was a great athlete, and I wasn’t; but he always said, ‘Don’t worry about it, use your mind.’ ’’

In addition to his sons, Kevin and Kenneth and his former wife, Judith; Mr. Washington leaves his mother Ermine P. and a brother, Robert, both of Charleston, S.C. His father and another brother, Edward, predeceased him.

A memorial service will be held in St. Croix, Virgin Islands, on a date to be determined.

Gil Bliss can be reached at