Oregon Law mourns Derrick Bell, former dean and race scholar
The University of Oregon School of Law mourns the death of former Dean Derrick A. Bell, Jr. who passed away Wednesday, Oct. 5, in New York. He was 80.
Bell was the first tenured black professor at Harvard Law School. He served as dean of Oregon Law from 1980-85, becoming the first African-American dean of the law school. At the time of his death, Bell was working at New York University School of Law.
“The world has lost a passionate advocate for civil rights,” Oregon Law Dean Michael Moffitt said. “In the best tradition of intellectual freedom, Derrick Bell’s ideas and actions will continue to shape our conversations for years to come.”
“Derrick Bell was a great American, and a tremendously important legal-education pioneer. It was indeed a happy day for us at Oregon in 1980 when he agreed to leave Harvard and journey west to be our dean,” remarked Oregon Law Professor Emeritus Jim Mooney. “His passing, on the other hand, is a very sad day for us all; we’ve lost a good friend and a unique and valued colleague. Many of us here in Eugene will miss Derrick, as will many, many more around the nation and the world.”
Bell perhaps is best known as a pioneer of critical race theory, a term that characterizes scholarship on race, racism and power. The theory explores how racism is embedded in laws and legal institutions, even those intended to lessen the effects of past injustice.
An obituary published October 6 by The New York Times states, “Much of Mr. Bell’s scholarship rejected dry legal analysis in favor of allegorical stories. In books and law review articles, he presented parables about race relations, then debated their meaning with a fictional alter ego, a black professor named Geneva Crenshaw, who forced him to confront the truth about the persistence of racism in America.”
Dom Vetri, Oregon Law Professor Emeritus, recalled that Bell opened the eyes of those at the law school at the time to the “subtle and not so subtle forms of continuing racial discrimination.”
“Under his leadership, we developed a much more successful program of minority admissions. He was a remarkable teacher and students flocked to his innovative classes on Constitutional Law and Civil Rights,” Vetri added.
Bell was born in Pittsburgh in 1930. He attended the University of Pittsburgh Law School, where he was the only black student. Following two years as an Air Force officer, Bell worked for a short time at the Justice Department and then began work for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. as head of the fund’s Pittsburgh office.
In 1968, he accepted a teaching position at the University of Southern California, and shortly after joined Harvard Law School.
Bell became dean of Oregon Law in 1980. He resigned five years later in relation to hiring practices at the school with which he disagreed.
He returned to Harvard Law in 1986, and in 1990 he vowed to take an unpaid leave of absence until the school included a black woman on its tenured faculty, something the school had never had. The school refused to extend his leave, thus ending his employment.
A prolific writer on current issues, most notably civil rights in the United States, he was widely published in professional journals, and national magazines and newspapers. He was the author of many books, including a leading textbook, “Race, Racism and American Law,” originally published in 1973 and “Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform.” He also wrote two autobiographical works: “Confronting Authority: Reflections of an Ardent Protestor” (1996) and “Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worthâ (2002).
He was also known for the series of allegorical stories featuring his fictional heroine, Geneva Crenshaw. One of his stories, The Space Traders, from the book “Faces at the Bottom of the Well,â was made into an HBO movie, starring Robert Guillaume, in 1994.
Oregon Law alumnus Hope Dohnal Smith ’81 established a scholarship in former Dean Bell’s name. It is awarded to academically talented minority students based on scholarly interest, achievement, and demonstrated ability.
He is survived by his wife, Janet Dewart Bell, and his three sons, Derrick Albert Bell III, Douglas Dubois Bell and Carter Robeson Bell, from his first marriage to the late Jewel Hairston Bell. He also leaves two sisters, Janet Bell of Pittsburgh and Constance Bell of Akron, Ohio; and a brother, Charles Bell of New York.
This article was complied by Oregon Law staff with excerpts from online news reports. See obituaries in The New York Times and Harvard Law School website.