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Judge A. Leon Higginbotham

February 11, 2013

The Honorable Judge A. Leon Higginbotham was the first African-American trustee at the University of Pennsylvania. He served for thirty years, from May 1968 until his death. While at the university, Higginbotham also served as a trustee of the University of Pennsylvania Press. He was the former chairman of the Graduate School of Education and the Boards of Overseers of the Law School.

Outside of the university, Higginbotham’s historic landmarks are numerous. He was the seventh African-American Article III judge appointed in the United States. He was first African-American judge on the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed Higginbotham to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. In 1995, Higginbotham received the nation’s highest civilian award, The Presidential Medal of Freedom. His other accolades include the Taoul Wallenberg Humanitarian Award (1994) and the Spingarn Medal (1996), the highest award awarded by the NAACP.

Higginbotham’s commitment to public service extended to both governmental positions (by working in the Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, and Clinton administrations) and democratic efforts in South Africa.  Nelson Mandela commented on Higginbotham’s efforts by saying, “Judge Higginbotham[‘s] work and the example he set made critical contributions to the course of the rule of law in the United States and a difference in the lives of African Americans, and indeed the lives of all Americans. But his influence also crossed borders and inspired many who fought for freedom and equality in other countries.”

President Clinton described him as “one of our nation’s most passionate and steadfast advocates for civil rights.”

More about Judge Higginbotham’s contributions to African-American and American history is available at the New York Times.

Victoria Ford, CAS ’15

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