In the early 1980s, Penn Law’s current Dean of Students, Gary Clinton, was working in the Registrar’s Office. At one point, the files of nearly 80 years of Law School students needed to be moved, and the monotonous task fell to Clinton.
As Clinton moved the files from one room into another, one particular folder struck him. It was the file of a student from the Class of 1924 named Theodore Selden. It read: “Deceased: July 3, 1922.”
Curious, Clinton opened the file and found a newspaper article inside.
The article described a train crash from 1922. One of the many victims of the crash was so badly disfigured that he was only identified by his Phi Beta Kappa key. Because of the key, the authorities first thought that “T.M. Selden / Dartmouth 1921” must have been a white passenger, not one of the African-American Pullman porters.
“I should have pulled the file aside,” said Clinton, “but I didn’t.”
It bothered him for decades. Over the years, he forgot the name of the student and where he had gone to college, but he never forgot the story.
Then, this past summer, someone asked Clinton about a plaque at Penn Law dedicated to John Lisle. After a quick search on the internet, Clinton learned Lisle’s story: the 1910 graduate of the Law School drowned while trying to save the life of another.
The ease with which Clinton found Lisle’s story made him recall the story of the student killed in the train crash. He put the few pieces of information he remembered into Google and began piecing together Selden’s story.
Clinton then got in touch with Dartmouth College; Penn’s archivist, Mark Lloyd; and the Law School’s archivist, Leslie O’Neill, and they all began compiling a history of Theodore Selden’s tragically short life.
Theodore Milton Selden was born on November 22, 1898 in Norfolk, Virginia, to William Henry Selden and Georgie Anna Thoroughgood Selden.
He attended Lincoln University, a historically black university, and graduated in 1919 with a Bachelor of Science degree, finishing first in his class.
After serving as an instructor in chemistry for a year at Lincoln, he applied to transfer to Dartmouth College. He graduated second in the Class of 1921 and earned a second B.S. degree, summa cum laude. He also won the Dartmouth’s Barger Gold Medal for Original Oratory, and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.
Selden began his work in the LLB program at Penn Law in September of 1921, as a member of the Class of 1924. He was one of a small number of African-Americans who attended the Law School between 1888 and 1924.
In his 1L year, he took courses in Agency, Crimes, Civil Procedure, Torts, Property, and Contracts. His grades placed him 40th in a class of 100.
But on July 3, 1922, Selden was working as a Pullman porter on a late-night run from Philadelphia to Atlantic City. The train was misdirected on a curve and left the track at high speed. Selden was one of the seven people killed in the crash. As many as 90 were injured.
Clinton wanted to see if the faculty and administration had marked Selden’s tragic death, so he asked O’Neill, the Law School’s archivist, to pull the faculty minutes from September and October of 1922. But the minutes were missing.
“It’s the only set of minutes that’s missing,” said Clinton, “and it’s been missing for at least 30 years.”
Because the minutes were missing, Clinton didn’t know if Penn Law had ever properly mourned or honored Selden.
“I have no idea whether the faculty ever honored him, whether any mention was made that this great student — this wonderful guy, this very inspiring guy — died,” said Clinton.
Selden was a student of exceptional intelligence and talent, he added. “This man is worth noting.”
Thanks to the efforts of Clinton, Penn Law will properly memorialize Theodore Selden with a plaque on the second floor of Silverman Hall. It will read:
In Honor of
Theodore Milton Selden
LL.B. Class of 1924
Among the first African Americans to enroll at Penn Law
A student of great accomplishment and promise.
He worked as a Pullman Porter to support his education
And died in a train wreck, July 3, 1922,
His body identified by his Dartmouth College Phi Beta Kappa key.
What Might Have Been?