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Artist Shawn Theodore with his mural of A. Leon Higginbotham Jr.
Photo: James Molloy
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Shawn Theodore, an award-winning Philadelphia artist, was chosen for the mural project. The mural design is displayed behind him on a special truck with a digital screen.

Memorial Mural Celebrates Larger-Than-Life Jurist A. Leon Higginbotham Jr.

In 1978, Wendella Fox CW’73, L’76 received a copy of Judge A. Leon Higginbotham Jr.’s new book with an inscription she’ll never forget.

“To Wendella Fox, with fond memories of a superb student and with admiration for a superb lawyer,” the judge wrote in the just released In The Matter of Color: Race and the American Legal Process.

Fox was and remains astonished by his generosity. “I was a young whippersnapper back then, and he felt that way about me?”

Fox developed a lifelong friendship with Judge Higginbotham after taking his class on race and the law as a Penn undergraduate. The judge gave her a recommendation for law school and signed a certificate for her admission to the Pennsylvania bar.

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Shawn Theodore, an award-winning Philadelphia artist, was chosen for the mural project. The mural design is displayed behind him on a special truck with a digital screen.
In mid-July, forty-four years after his message to her, Fox — who recently retired as the Regional Director of the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights in Philadelphia — joined a throng of officials and the judge’s friends, family and former students for the unveiling of the design of a mural celebrating his life.

The 19 x 22-foot mural, located above the entrance to the Mercy LIFE medical facility on the 4500 block of Chestnut Street, commemorates, in larger-than-life fashion, Judge Higginbotham’s stature and unparalleled achievements in jurisprudence and racial reconciliation. The completed mural will be unveiled this fall.

The University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, the lead funder, partnered with Mural Arts of Philadelphia and The Philadelphia Citizen to bring the project to fruition. Judge Higginbotham taught courses on race and law at the Law School for more than 20 years. His portrait hangs in the Law School.

“Murals capture people’s spirit in a way that is rather unique. I’m hoping that people will feel his presence,” said Jane Golden, Executive Director of Mural Arts of Philadelphia, reflecting on the effort to accord the judge proper recognition nearly a quarter century after his passing.

With his six-foot-five frame and booming voice, Judge Higginbotham projected authority. His credentials were such that he earned a mural on a Philadelphia wall in the vicinity of other African American heroes: the famed World War II military pilots Tuskegee Airmen and actor-singer-activist Paul Robeson, in what is being called the “Social Justice Corridor.”

Judge Higginbotham, a native of Ewing, New Jersey who died in 1998, lived in West Philadelphia for many years. During his epic life, the judge served as Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, memorably helped draft the post-apartheid Constitution in South Africa under the leadership of President Nelson Mandela, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the United States.

Earlier in his career, he amassed a number of firsts: he was the first Black District Court Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, the first Black appointee to a federal regulatory body (Federal Trade Commission), and a Partner at the city’s first Black law firm, Norris, Schmidt, Green, Harris & Higginbotham.

Former Law School Dean Mike Fitts came of age with Judge Higginbotham as a role model. Fitts took a year off from law school to help the judge research and write In the Matter of Color, and then clerked for him from 1979 to 1981.

“I was extremely fortunate to have Judge Higginbotham as a mentor,” said Fitts, now President of Tulane University. “He shaped my way of thinking about the law as an instrument of change. I always stood in awe of him, and I am thrilled to see him woven into the landscape of a city and university that he loved.”

At the July ceremony, the judge’s nephew, F. Michael Higginbotham, described his uncle as “the Rocky Balboa of the legal profession” who overcame numerous obstacles to rise to the top.

“The family has always been inspired by Leon’s story. This project is so important because now even more people will be inspired,” said Hig­gin­botham, the Laurence M. Katz Professor of Law at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

Following the ceremony, Hig­gin­botham said the entire family— including the judge’s widow Evelyn (former history professor at Penn and current Victor S. Thomas Professor of History and of African and African American Studies at Harvard) and his son Kenneth Higginbotham C’89 — is actively supporting the mural project.

The mural is the product of a years-long discussion that gathered steam and support over the last year. Larry Platt — former editor of Philadelphia magazine and Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director of The Philadelphia Citizen, a solutions-­oriented news site that advocates for civic improvements — approached Golden about creating a timeless tribute to a man he considered an unsung hero.

“He spent his whole life speaking truth to power even after he became powerful, which is not always the case,” Platt said in an interview. ”He was at the nexus of almost every inflection point of the 20th century.”

Like the city of Philadelphia, the Law School became a kind of second home to the judge. The Law School co-hosts with Penn’s Center for Africana Studies The Honorable A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr. Memorial Lecture. Via their pro bono commitment, a group of Penn Carey Law students are working with students at Motivation High, a magnet preparatory school in West Philadelphia. Together, the Penn and Motivation High students will use some of Judge Higginbotham’s most important legal decisions to examine constitutional issues.

He commanded the classroom, but he also made plenty of room for us to voice our perspectives.”
The Honorable Stella Tsai L’88
Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas
“Judge Higginbotham was a compelling figure, a colossus in the world of law who imparted his wisdom to a generation of students at the Law School,” said Ted Ruger, Dean and Bernard G. Segal Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School. He and Chair of the Law School Board of Advisors Osagie Imasogie LLM’85, PAR’17 spoke at the design unveiling ceremony.

The Honorable Anne Chain L’76 was among the legions of students influenced by Judge Higginbotham. She took his class on “Race, Racism and American Law” and then served as his research assistant (she spent a year working with Dean Fitts gathering materials for In The Matter of Color) and his clerk on the District Court of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

She also co-taught the judge’s graduate-level class with him called “Race and the American Legal Process,” and later, when the judge turned it over to her, taught the class on her own as an Adjunct Professor.

“I had an extraordinary opportunity to work with him at many levels and I was very blessed to have that relationship,” said Chain, a former federal administrative law judge. “I can’t tell you how much respect and admiration I have for him.”

“I think it’s great that we’re going to be coming down Chestnut Street and looking up at him.”

Larry Shiekman W’68, L’71 also clerked for Judge Higginbotham when he was on the District Court. “He was a real legal scholar,” said Shiekman, Senior Counsel at Troutman Pepper. He remembers the judge as a craftsman, unfailingly meticulous in his opinions, always searching for more research to buttress his conclusions.

In one instance, Shiekman recalled, the judge labored over the opening sentence of an opinion in a case involving rival hockey leagues, writing that it was not about the “speeding puck” but rather how “to maximize the available buck.”

The Honorable Stella Tsai L’88 of the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas studied with Judge Higginbotham.

“He commanded the classroom, but he also made plenty of room for us to voice our perspectives,” Judge Tsai recalled. “And he impressed on us the importance of never forgetting that slave laws once existed, and of ensuring that we honor the struggles of those who came before us as we carry on the endeavor to make real the self-evident truth that all people are created equal.”

Shawn Theodore was commissioned to create the mural. He is an award-winning photographer in Philadelphia who has mounted numerous exhibitions including at the city’s African American Museum, The Barnes Foundation, and the University of the Arts. Tayler Daniels L’23 and Chris Wailoo, Associate Dean for Business Affairs and CFO at Penn Carey Law, served on the selection committee.

Mural Arts, the largest public arts program in the nation, was established in 1984 to combat Philadelphia’s growing graffiti problem. Since then, the organization has completed 4,200 murals, according to Golden, who said public art in aggregate paints an autobiography of Philadelphia. She said the Higgin­botham mural is the first associated with a Penn Carey Law figure.