Not Pale, Male, or Yale: A Portrait of Constance Baker Motley

Illustrated by: Minji Reem

In the Muckraker’s first issue, we wrote about diversifying the portraits on the walls of Jerome Greene. Since that time, the Student Senate has started a Student Art Contest to solicit student photography that will replace the art posters on the first floor of JG and a new oil painting of Constance Baker Motley has been commissioned for the third floor.

The Muckraker sat down to find out more from Professor Michael Graetz, who has been instrumental in bringing together alumni, former clerks, the Black Law Student Association (BLSA) and more than 45 faculty to contribute to underwriting the Motley portrait, which will be painted by artist Sam Adoquei. Professor Graetz says he is looking forward to seeing the portrait hung on the third floor in the company of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. When will that be? “2016 is the 70th anniversary of her graduation from Columbia Law School,” he noted, “and this year is of course the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, so sometime between now and then seems the right time.”

Constance Baker Motley graduated from Columbia Law in 1946 and went on to become the first female attorney at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund where she wrote the original complaint for Brown v. Board of Education. She was the first female African-American New York State Senator and Manhattan Borough President. President Lyndon Johnson appointed her to the SDNY in 1966, making her the first African-American woman federal judge.

How did the idea to commission a portrait of Constance Baker Motley come about?

For a book I’m writing I was researching the period when African-Americans were first admitted to the public universities of the south.  Of course I knew who Constance Baker Motley was, but I did not know that she was a graduate of Columbia Law School until I was doing this reading.  As you go through the people who ended up being admitted to and integrating the Southern public universities, she represented virtually all of them in one form or another. She was certainly in the courtroom a lot. And among the books I read was one by Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who described Constance Baker Motley in the courtroom in a way that I found compelling. And so it occurred to me that there was no portrait of her and I had called around and her son had pointed out to me that the little collage to the right of the reference desk has a little silhouette of Constance Baker Motley and Jack Greenberg on the steps of the Supreme Court so that’s the one iconic example of her presence at the Columbia Law School. She graduated in ’46 and she got an honorary degree in the early part of the century and it seemed to me like we ought to have a portrait of her, and I thought there would be enthusiasm for that among the faculty.

Are you going to go on and think of more portraits that should be painted?

I’m hoping to get out of the portrait business [laughing] but this one’s been so successful, and obviously the law school could use more portraits of more folks that were important people of one sort or the other.

I think it’s important to have people of all sorts on the walls. And as your article points out, the history of, I think, all law schools — and I think it’s something law schools have to be conscious of — is that their history is dominated by people who look a certain way. So, it’s nice to have the building reflect the diversity of the graduates. There are lots of very successful people of all sorts who come through here so I’m hoping adding more portraits continues, but this is a good one and she was a great woman and it’s important to have someone like that honored. You know a woman going to law school and graduating in 1946 was unusual and African-American woman going to law school and graduating in 1946 was exponentially unusual.

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