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An African Legacy

A Law School Library exhibition showcases faculty work on Africa. 


February 11, 2014—In 1958, Erwin Griswold, dean of Harvard Law School (HLS), was invited to observe a South African treason trial of more than 100 anti-apartheid activists and leaders who had been charged with “a conspiracy to use violence” in overthrowing the government.

Among the names of defendants was Nelson Mandela.

While Mandela and all other defendants were eventually acquitted three years later, the experience led Griswold to pen an op-ed to Africa Today in late 1958.

“There are aspects about the case which are disturbing,” Griswold wrote. “Should there be such a case at all? Is it feasible to try ninety-one persons at once on a charge of treason? How far is the case in substance and effect a political trial despite protestations to the contrary?”

Part of the papers donated by Dean Griswold to the Harvard Law School Library, these documents and others are on display in a new exhibit detailing the legacy of work conducted by HLS leadership in Africa. Titled Beyond Cambridge: Two Centuries of Harvard Law School Faculty Work in and on Africa,” the exhibit traces the work of four faculty members—Griswold, Simon Greenleaf, Arthur Sutherland and Roger Fisher—as they dedicated themselves to efforts in Liberia, Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa.

Curated by Ed Moloy and Mary Person, the exhibit is on view in the Caspersen Room in the HLS Library through April. Moloy is curator of modern manuscripts; Person is a rare books cataloger.

“It didn’t surprise me that HLS professors were involved with Africa, but the extent of their efforts is significant,” Person said. “The exhibit is just a glimpse, of course, but you get to read their personal letters, diary entries and drafts...I hope that inspires people to learn more about their work.” 

More than 100 years before Griswold observed the treason trial in South Africa, Simon Greenleaf—appointed HLS professor emeritus in 1848—focused his attentions on the western central side of the African continent as he worked to establish a college in the country of Liberia. In 1848, he co-founded the Trustees of Donations for Education in Liberia with the goal of establishing and maintaining a college in Liberia, corresponding regularly with Liberian educators, ministers and officials.

Greenleaf died five years before the Liberian legislature authorized the establishment of Liberia College in 1851, but the institution still stands today. Now renamed The University of Liberia, it is home to the only law school in the nation.

Perhaps the most direct connection between Africa and HLS is a result of Sutherland’s work to help establish, at the request of the General Legal Council of Ghana and the University College of Ghana, the state of legal education in the country. Working with a committee task force, Sutherland met a practicing Ghanaian lawyer and secretary of the Ghana Bar Association, Kamenev Bentsi-Enchill. Sutherland invited him to study for a year at HLS, which Bentsi-Enchill did in 1961. 

The exhibit is on display through April 27.