Northwestern University hosted DREAM Week in January, celebrating the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Joyce Hughes, professor of law, began her career at Northwestern in 1975, after four years of teaching at the University of Minnesota Law School. When she received tenure in 1979, she became the first African American woman to be tenured in any department at Northwestern University. Hughes says she long defied what society deemed accept- able work for women, let alone a Black woman—sometimes to the dismay of men who tried to discourage her along the way. “I ended up going to law school because I was angry at a recruiter from Columbia Law School who suggested I could not be a lawyer,” she said. “This man made me so mad.” Hughes decided to prove her doubters wrong.
We spoke with Hughes about her journey to Northwestern, the importance of representation, and what inspires her work today.
Q: Tell us about that moment that inspired you to become a lawyer.
I went to Carleton College, which is considered a premier liberal arts college. [Law schools would] come to that college to recruit students. I actually was not interested in signing up for an interview, but the director of placement signed me up. I was so incensed with [the recruiter from Columbia]. He thought that I could not be a lawyer. And that’s when I decided. But also, what helped was that the University of Minnesota Law School had established a scholarship for a Carleton student and they awarded it to me. Probably if it had not done that, I wouldn’t have been able to go to law school.
Q: You’ve written extensively about Black women in law and the intricate balance it takes to express both strength and composure. How did you navigate that when you were starting out?
I was not so much concerned at the beginning of my career with balance. If I had been concerned about getting tenure, I might have been more circumspect, but at the time I didn’t plan on being a law professor forever.
Q: What did you plan on doing instead?
I intended on going back to practice law. I didn’t have that mentality of ‘I’ve got to please these people.’ But now, I do think it’s very important for Black law professors, in particular Black women, to make sure that they get tenure…that’s an important point.
Q: How do you feel about being called a “trailblazer”?
Initially I thought, ‘well you know I just lived my life.’ But someone said [to me], “you have to realize that usually when people think of trailblazers or pioneers, they’re thinking about people who are dead and have been for a long time. But you’re still alive so you have to not only embrace it, but remember to constantly tell people so they know you’re still above ground.” So now I agree with that label. Obviously, there are other people who could have done what I did, but they just didn’t have the opportunity. It just happened to be the time that I lived.
Q: Who are some of the other women who were doing this work before you?
A Black female at an ABA accredited Black law school [North Carolina Central University Law School] was a tenured law professor 20 years before I started teaching law in 1971. [Sybil Marie Jones Dedmond] was on that faculty from 1951 to 1964. Also, the first woman law professor at any law school was Black. Lutie Lytle taught in 1897 at the Central Tennessee College in Nashville, Tennessee, which closed in 1922. While I appreciate being honored, I do not want to forget those who came before me.
Q: When you joined the faculty at the University of Minnesota Law School, you became the first Black woman tenure-track law professor at a predominantly white institution, which you wrote about in a book chapter in Neither a Whisper Nor a Shout. What was that like for you?
After Martin Luther King was assassinated, all of a sudden law schools looked around and said “Oh, there [should be] Black people going to law school.” So, they recruited the students. Then students looked around, and said “Where are the Black professors?” That was the impetus for schools to go and recruit Black professors. Someone said to [University of Minnesota], you have a graduate of your own who is Black and who has all the credentials that were then considered essential for a law professor. The University of Minnesota law school then recruited me into teaching.
Q: This year, all of Northwestern is celebrating 150 Years of Women—commemorating and celebrating the 150 years since women could enroll as undergraduate students. What are some things that you are most proud of when it comes to progress for women at the Law School?
Clearly there’s been change since I’ve been here. For example, I had a woman [in class] recently who was pregnant and about to deliver. When I started teaching all my students were male and pale. That’s all I had. I had [another] woman who came to school recently with her toddler son because something happened to her babysitter. Women are now about half the law school, so there has clearly been progress for women.
Q: What still needs work in order to be more inclusive?
My sense is that white women are going to reach parity before Black women do. I still maintain my focus on Black women. I do think white women opening some doors helps Black women, but there’s still a difference and I don’t want people to overlook that difference.
Q: How important is it for women to see other women in positions of power?
Judge [R. Eugene] Pincham, who is a 1950s graduate of the Law School, gave me the phrase: “You can’t be what you can’t see” and it totally hit me. I don’t have to do anything. Just my being here means that people can see me and think “Oh, I can do that.” When I think about my own history, believe it or not, as a teenager I had NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyer, later the first Black woman federal district court judge, Constance Baker Motley hanging on my wall. She worked with Thurgood Marshall, the first Black supreme court justice. I did not have him as a pinup. I had her because she was a female. I think it’s very important.
Q: What are you working on now?
My article Muhammad Ali: The Passport Issue is going to be published in the North Carolina Central Law Review, and the reason I am very happy about that is because North Carolina Central was the school that had the first Black female law professor at any law school in the country.
Q: What inspires you today?
To be a tenured law professor serving as a subliminal message to students. I think that is what keeps me going.
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