“This space honors Derrick Bell, who with quiet courage devoted his life to the endless pursuit of justice. Professor Bell’s work has been tremendously influential among lawyers, scholars, and generations of students. His legacy encourages us all to continue to work for justice.”
Dean William M. Carter, Jr., 2013.
A 1957 honors graduate of Pitt’s School of Law, where he served as associate editor in chief of the University of Pittsburgh Law Review, Derrick A. Bell was the first tenured Black professor at Harvard Law School and later one of the first Black deans of a law school that was not historically Black. He was a pioneer in the field of Critical Race Theory and a champion of race and gender diversity in the legal community.
As the The New York Times reported following his death in 2011 at the age of 80, Bell “was perhaps better known for resigning from prestigious jobs than for accepting them.”
For example, Bell left the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice in 1959, after his superiors told him to relinquish his membership in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People because they believed it posed a conflict of interest. He left his deanship at the University of Oregon School of Law in 1986 when the school did not offer a position to an Asian American woman. That woman was Pat K. Chew, who is the Salmon Chaired Professor and Distinguished Faculty Scholar in Pitt’s School of Law. And he took an unpaid leave of absence in protest from Harvard Law School in 1990, vowing not to return until the school hired its first Black woman to join its tenured faculty.
In 1992, Bell joined the faculty of New York University School of Law as a visiting professor. His “participatory learning” pedagogy—that learning is a shared experience between student and professor—empowered his students to learn the law and to teach the law to themselves and to one another.
Bell served as a Distinguished Lecturer and Scholar at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law during the 2005-06 academic year, while Janet Dewart Bell simultaneously held the position of Visiting Research Professor in the school.