Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Influential People: Spouse

BOND: So you decided that law is going to be your profession. And there are many, many law schools in America. Why Harvard?

OGLETREE: My wife, Pam. I met Pam when we arrived at Stanford in 1971. She was from, she's from Compton. She grew up in Baltimore, but she's from Compton, went to high school there. She is one of a class of three black students from Compton High admitted to Stanford. And her and her three classmates were in the top five graduates of Compton that year. And she was my soul mate from the moment we arrived in 1971, and we've been married now for twenty-nine years, with two wonderful children. Our son, Chuck, who is at Tallahassee, and our daughter, Rashida, is at NYU Law School.

And she is the one who encouraged me to apply to law school. And I applied to Harvard and other places. And I got admitted to Harvard, and I didn't want to go. I had the reluctance. I said, "I can't do what I want to do there." And she challenged me. She's very slick. She says, "Oh, you don't think you can do the work? Is it too difficult?" And she just really sort of turned the tables on me. I said, "What do you mean?"

"Well, I know Harvard's a -- you know, not just anyone can go to Harvard. It's very selective, and may be more than you can handle." And she was picking a fight, and she picked one, and she ultimately won because I decided to go. And I'm glad that I did. And I left Cambridge, we left in the summer -- we left California in the summer of 1975 and headed out from California, heading to Boston, and then to Cambridge to attend Harvard Law School.

BOND: And that had to be a different experience, not only because of law school as opposed to college, but it's East Coast as opposed to West Coast, a whole different culture.

OGLETREE: It was a radically different culture. Stanford is a farm. The weather is wonderful. The campus was glorious. And there's just a whole atmosphere of acceptance and encouraging and nurturing. Harvard is cold, damp, dark, distant -- very structured, very regimented, very impersonal. But maybe that's what I needed. It was a rude awakening that "Here is a different world." And it was a rude awakening in another way. We drove out there and we had heard about the problems in Boston and we wanted to make sure that we didn't encounter them. Well, we made our first mistake on Interstate 93, which you take from Connecticut to get into Boston. We got lost. We got off the highway and I called the landlord and said, "We're here but we're not quite there." He said, "Where are you?" I said, "Well, we're at this street, I can't see it in the dark, but I see something saying, Paddy's Liquor, O'Riley Store, et cetera." And he said, "Get back in the car." I said, "Why?" He said, "Just get back in the car, and you find the police, or drive and look for 93. You're going north."

We got back in the car. And about half an hour later we made it into Cambridge and called him and he gave us directions right to our apartment. And I said, "Why were you so upset?" He said, "Well, you were in South Boston." I said, "What?" He said, "Yeah, that's the place where all the racial hatred and violence has occurred in recent years." I said, "What?" He said, "Yeah, this is the place where we've had resistance to bussing."

This is twenty-one years after Brown, but whites in South Boston are doing everything possible to keep blacks from going to school. And that to me was a realization that as much as I thought I'd passed that burden with Shockley and Moynihan at Stanford, here I was arriving on the first day in Boston and having the experience of race mattering again, and Brown manifesting itself in another way in 1975, twenty-one years after the case had been decided. It was a rude awakening to be at Harvard Law School and trying to study to be a lawyer, but recognizing right within the sound of my voice were black children who were being harassed, who were being challenged, who were being beaten, who had busses vandalized. Where Ted Landsmark a black lawyer in a three-piece suit, coming from city hall was struck with an American flagpole by whites, just because he was black. Where Crispus Attucks gave his life, where the abolitionist movement was in its heyday -- here were people resisting blacks in 1975 from going to elementary schools and middle schools because of their race. I could not imagine that twenty-one years after Brown that the battle ground had moved from the South --

BOND: To the cradle of liberty.

OGLETREE: -- had moved up South and to Boston. And that to me was a rude awakening that I needed to be in law school, but also that I needed to be focused on what was going on right there in my community.