OXFORD, Miss. – In January 1970, Constance Slaughter-Harvey became the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Mississippi School of Law.
She was so busy helping others with her new degree, she forgot to come back to the commencement ceremony that May.
“It seems as if I filed a lawsuit a week for almost six months, so it was easy to forget,” she said.
On May 11, Slaughter-Harvey finally got to wear her regalia when she delivered the law school’s commencement address, inspiring a class of 107 graduates to enact change.
“I want to let the graduates know that my education and my experience here at the university prepared me for life, and it prepared me to be the change I wanted to see in Mississippi,” Slaughter-Harvey said.
As a young African American girl who grew up in Forest, Mississippi in the 1950s and 60s, Slaughter-Harvey was discouraged by the separation she witnessed between black and white citizens.
“I was discouraged because state agencies excluded black people from many jobs, as well as all counties excluded black folks from juries,” she said. “I was furious that my father had to pay poll taxes to vote, and I still have his poll tax receipt in 1952 for $2. The dual system of education and public accommodations gnawed at my soul.”
Her parents, Willie L. and Olivia Kelly Slaughter, were both business owners and educators. However, Slaughter-Harvey realized she needed to pursue a law degree to be the change she wished to see in Mississippi.
“I had to challenge the legal system in order to effectuate that change,” she said. “I envisioned a new Mississippi where all players, all of us, understood the game rules.”
She fought through discrimination and the rigors of law school to earn her degree from UM Law in 1970. During her time in law school, she was one of eight students and the only female to serve on the first board of the National Black American Law Student Association. The organization was established after a group of students met in Chicago and determined a need for the organization to assist African American students. Following the meeting in Chicago, she returned to the university and established the BLSA Chapter here. The BLSA chapter is named in her honor.
“We realized we were not the only black law students who didn’t fit in,” she told students at a BLSA event in February. “I came back and we celebrated, because we felt we actually found a place to belong.”
BLSA gave African American law students a home and a voice at the university. Since its founding, 521 students at the law school have been members of the organization.
Slaughter-Harvey has dedicated her entire career to being an agent of change. She worked for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights as a staff attorney and represented the families of two Jackson State University students killed by highway patrolmen in 1970. Slaughter-Harvey was instrumental in changing the state of Mississippi in many ways, including desegregating the MS Highway Patrol, integrating jury pools, challenging conditions at Parchman Penitentiary, integrating state agency employment rolls, legislative and congressional redistricting, as well as and creating mail-in voter registration.
Slaughter-Harvey served as executive director of Southern Legal Rights. She founded East Mississippi Legal Services, an organization dedicated to providing high-quality legal representation for minority and economically disenfranchised people. She served in the administration of Governor William Winter and Assistant Secretary of State for 12 years. She has impacted many through education as well. She served as an adjunct professor at Tougaloo College for 35 years and has mentored many attorneys in the state.
She also founded the W.L. and O.K. Slaughter Memorial Foundation, where she supervised an after-school tutorial and summer enhancement program for at-risk children and youth. She has received numerous awards for her storied career, which still continues. Slaughter-Harvey retired from the active practice but still serves in the Youth Court system. Following retirement, she and her daughter founded Legacy Education and Community Empowerment Foundation, Inc. whose mission is to empower youth and families through mentoring, tutoring, summer camping, and other empowerment tools.
In her commencement address, Slaughter-Harvey challenged law graduates to take a page out of her playbook and become change agents in a world of state, national and global unrest.
“The gifts you’ve acquired here at this law school – namely knowledge, confidence and vision – should accompany you in your daily journey to be the change you wish to see in this world,” she told graduates.
The class of 2019 represented 45 different undergraduate institutions. They performed an estimated 13, 433 hours of public service during law school, demonstrating their strong potential to make a difference in the lives of others.
“We are so honored to have Constance Slaughter-Harvey address our students,” Dean Susan Duncan said. “She is committed to advancing the rights of others and has served as a wonderful mentor and inspiration to our students and attorneys. She continues to bless us and our students in so many ways.”
Graduates also heard from Mississippi College School of Law Dean and Mississippi Bar Association President Patricia Bennett, who wished the graduates success in their future endeavors and the upcoming bar exam. Student Bar Association President Sammy Brown addressed his peers; graduating third-year student Katherine Farese sang the national anthem; and graduating third-year student Jaquon Irby served as the Class Marshal.
Additionally, several faculty members were recognized. Clinical professor Phillip Broadhead was recognized for his many years of service in leading the law school’s Criminal Appeals Clinic and was this year’s recipient of the Ben A. Hardy Faculty Excellence Award. He will retire from his position June 30. Antonia Eliason, assistant professor of law, was recognized as this year’s Outstanding Law Professor. Professor Ron Rychlak was recognized for the 2019 Distinguished Research and Creative Achievement Award, which he received at the university’s commencement ceremony earlier in the day. Michele Alexandre, associate dean, was presented with a gift. She will be leaving UM Law after 11 years to become dean of Stetson University College of Law.