Lila Fenwick, Who Broke a Barrier at Harvard Law, Dies at 87

(Those We’ve Lost)

Lila Fenwick, Who Broke a Barrier at Harvard Law, Dies at 87

When Lila A. Fenwick was a student at Harvard Law School in the 1950s, she was doubly invisible. She was a woman and she was black.

Neither of those hurdles meant much to her. “I knew I was going to be a lawyer when I was a little girl,” she told the Harvard Law Bulletin in 2000. “It never occurred to me that there were going to be any obstacles.”

In 1956, she was the first black woman to graduate from Harvard Law, and she went on to become a human rights official at the United Nations, a lawyer in private practice and a benefactor, establishing, with Dr. Doris Wethers and Dr. Yvette Fay Francis-McBarnette, the Foundation for Research and Education in Sickle Cell Disease.

Fenwick died on April 4 at her home in Manhattan. She was 87.

She had been suffering from dementia before contracting the coronavirus, said David Colby Reed, a cousin and her guardian.

Fenwick graduated from law school in 1956, one of a handful of women in a class of hundreds. Ruth Bader Ginsburg started the next school year, when the dean at the time famously challenged the nine women in the class of the future Supreme Court justice to defend why they were occupying a place that could have gone to a man.

Harvard Law first accepted women in 1950, for its class of 1953, but it would be decades before female students felt welcome. “Ladies Day,” the monthly tradition of professors calling on female students as if they were performing bears, as some have described it, was in full, humiliating swing.

Patricia J. Williams, Harvard Law class of 1975 and a professor of law and humanities at Northeastern University, said black women there experienced “a particularly virulent form of racism and sexism.”

In the early 1990s, Williams became one of the first black female professors at Columbia Law School. She said she was moved when Fenwick, whom she had never met, appeared at her office and went on to audit one of her courses.

“She was so elegant, a lady in the lovely, old fashioned, full sense of that word,” Williams said. “We talked about the loneliness, what it took to be in a world where you were always different, always the other and never assumed to be part of the power elite.”

Lila Althea Fenwick was born in Manhattan on May 24, 1932. Her parents, John and Hilda Fenwick, had emigrated from Trinidad. Her father was a well-to-do property owner and landlord in Harlem and the Bronx.

Fenwick graduated from Barnard College in 1953. After law school, she attended the London School of Economics.

In the 1960s, Fenwick worked in what was then the Division of Human Rights at the United Nations, said Bertrand Ramcharan, a former acting U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. She was a specialist on studies about gender, racial and religious discrimination; the protection of minorities and indigenous populations; and the right to emigrate from oppressive countries, he said.

In the late 1960s, she bought an elegant Beaux-Arts rowhouse on West 108th Street where she lived in the parlor and garden floors.

When the division moved its headquarters to Geneva between 1973 and 1974, Fenwick took early retirement so she could remain close to her family. She has no immediate survivors.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times .


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