You can’t change the past But history always changes and as a discipline this is what makes it so exciting History changes through revelations about the past revealed by the emergence of new evidence, and it changes through a reassessment of what we already know We change our view of historical events based on the evidence we deem relevant to our investigation and the evidence to reject History presents itself too, perhaps a little too easily, like « stories » to which we are attached
My heart beats a little faster reading the word « story » and many Gazette readers I know feel the same So for the curious among us, hurray for Black History Month, which should have a special connection with our study of law and the legal profession, and the history of both There are testimonials and data for which not enough time was spent reviewing and publishing.If you love history and are interested in the law, it means we are at the start of an exciting time This is a process rightly described as « unforgettable » by comedian Lenny Henry in a recent documentary.
There is a celebratory theme to some of what is done each October in Black History Month People with accomplishments, including « firsts » are made public This is important – a rebellion against the condescension of a posterity of very uniform appearance
An important starting point for many could be the material collected in Debo Nwauzu’s Black Lawyers Directory (BLD) project.There is, in its history section, a list of people who have succeeded against the fierce headwinds. of racially unequal contexts
Here we can forget Thomas Morris Chester (pictured), the son of an escaped slave born in the United States in 1834, who is said to have been the first African American to qualify as a lawyer in England He was admitted to the Middle Temple in 1867 and called to the bar in 1870 Or Christian Frederick Cole, son of a Sierra Leonean minister, admitted to the bar in 1883
The predominance of independent Indian rulers, shaped by Cambridge Colleges and Inns, and lawyer Nelson Mandela, is better known And there are black lawyers who have achieved the « firsts » of my life Paul Boateng, black prime minister of the cabinet is one Patricia Scotland, first black attorney general (and first woman), is another
And if it is not important to mark the lives and achievements of people, why are the great buildings of law so filled with expensive portraits? Why does the Wildy’s boutique showcase promote lawyer biographies?
Such publicity also serves the story Post a list and more names emerge – often related In this vein, the BLD, mostly made up of current high-profile lawyers, started out as a slim volume In 2015, it had hundreds of entries Better data, more links, more stories
Work on the complex relationship between race and the law itself has seen a wave of good work published This year, the murder of Nicholas Rogers on the Middle Passage, The Trial of Captain Kimber concerns the trial of five hours in 1792 of Captain John Kimber for the murder of a slave (he was found not guilty) At the University of London, the « Slave Property Database » and Research on the Slave Compensation Commission (echoes heard in the Department of Justice’s penchant for « compensation portals ») seem important
The story Rogers tells is a theme that comes up over and over again The great promises of our justice system – the fine words of Magna Carta – seriously depend on a system where key players and established laws are in place. conflict with the guiding aspiration This disconnection informed the arguments of the activists for the independence of the Empire, as well as the lawyers (black and white) who fought apartheid
To complete the picture, there is some good work to be done on the history and significance of the networks and associations that connect and sit behind the people we celebrate as having achieved ‘firsts’ Academic work in-depth look at the centenary of women in law shows how networks and activism precede progress towards equality
The Black Solicitors Network is therefore an important part of this story, as is the more recent Black Barristers Network. Networks focused on the work of MP David Lammy, which advocate professional and legal and judicial reform, will be seen as essential.The establishment of the Law Society’s Ethnic Minority Lawyers Division in 2015, replacing an informal forum, is a recognition that networks and activities are both a precursor of progress and a means of defending it
Data collected by the SRA and the Department of Justice on the composition of the legal profession, by gender, race and social origin, adds to the exciting evidence for future historians This was done relatively recently, but the data gives context to the testimonies It seems so far to show progress in access to the profession, especially over the past decade, but a checkered record in promotion matter equal thereafter
When the Society’s library reopens, I would also expect a careful check of the Gazette’s non-digitized archives to yield surprising and interesting reports, as has happened to our women in the centenary of law cover The past doesn’t always explain the present – it’s a casual assumption But our knowledge of history – in this case, the role of law and lawyers – tells us about our worldview and, to some extent, about how we act about it
Leslie Thomas QC told me earlier this year, as we were discussing the Black Lives Matter movement and events since the death of George Floyd: “There was something different here… it’s not in dying «
I can’t think of a better time to be curious about history – and the law, lawyers and the role of the legal profession in it
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Black History Month, African American History, Black Lives Matter
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