Judge Higginbotham was a self-described “survivor of segregation” who become one of the country’s most prominent Black judges.
A 2003 portrait by Garth Herrik honors the Honorable A. Leon Higginbotham Jr. at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School.
A longtime Trustee of the University of Pennsylvania and Adjunct Professor at the Law School, Judge Higginbotham was a self-described “survivor of segregation” who become one of the country’s most prominent Black judges.
Judge Higginbotham grew up in Trenton, New Jersey during the Great Depression. As an undergraduate at Purdue University, he was one of just a handful of Black students in a student body of thousands and was not permitted to live in the dormitories with white students. Judge Higginbotham recalled staying in a ramshackle converted house in West Lafayette, Indiana, the only place in town that would rent to Black people.
“We slept in an attic where they had no heat, where snow would come through the rafters, where you went to bed with earmuffs and three-or four-pairs of pants and heavy socks,” he said.
When he confronted the university administration about the situation, Judge Higginbotham was told, “You take it or leave it. The law doesn’t require us to have Blacks in the dormitory.”
After transferring to Antioch College, Judge Higginbotham went on to graduate from Yale Law School. Despite his strong academic record, when Judge Higginbotham accepted an invitation for an interview at one prominent Philadelphia law firm, the receptionist was surprised to see a Black man when he arrived. The interviewing lawyer told him that, while his resume was impressive, “Of course, you know there’s nothing I can do for you.” By the time he reached the lobby of the building, he was in tears.
Judge Higginbotham later became a civil rights advocate and founding partner of the first Black law firm in Philadelphia. In 1964, he was appointed to the Eastern District of Pennsylvania at the age of just 35. He was the seventh Black judge ever appointed to the federal bench, and he served as a distinguished trial judge until 1977, when he was appointed to the Third Circuit. He served as Chief Judge of that court from 1990 until his retirement.
A respected scholar as well as a jurist, Judge Higginbotham published more than 100 law review articles and two books over the course of his career. In the Matter of Color traced the evolution of legal and racial attitudes during the slavery era. Shades of Freedom explored the interaction between racism and the law from colonial times through the 20th century.
Delivering a commencement address in 1996, Judge Higginbotham told the graduating class that he had two requests to make: “[A]lways attempt to see those human beings who become invisible to most people, and … always try to hear the pleas of those persons who, despite their pain and suffering, have become voiceless and forgotten.”