The book, In The Matters of Color: Race and the American Legal Process, by Antioch College alumnus A. Leon Higginbotham Jr. ’49 has inspired group of Purdue University alumni to launch a Change.org petition to rename Elliot Hall at Purdue after Higginbotham.
The building is named for former Purdue University President Edward C. Elliot in 1958 whose administration’s housing policy barred racial integration, housed Black students in inadequate conditions, and actively opposed improvements to the living conditions of Black students. Current students hope that the petition will start a conversation within the administration that filters down through the university’s faculty and students.
Higginbotham enrolled at Purdue as an undergraduate at age 16. In The Matters of Color: Race and the American Legal Process outlines his own experiences as a student under Elliot’s policies which housed Higginboth and 11 other Black students in an unheated attic where they endured freezing temperatures during winter. In 1944, Higginbotham insisted on meeting with administration to discuss the improper living conditions. He was able to set up a meeting with President Elliot who responded “The law doesn’t require us to put you in those dormitories. The law doesn’t even require us to let you in. You take it or leave it.”
Soon after his meeting with Elliot, Higginbotham left Purdue for Antioch College. After completing his studies at Antioch, Higginbotham attended Yale Law School where he graduated with honors. Higginbotham held a distinguished career in law where he fought institutionalized racism in the American Judicial system, beginning his career as a law clerk to Justice Curtis Bok of the Superior Court of Pennsylvania. Higginbotham became the youngest and first African American Distrcit Attorney in the City of Philadelphia, and became a founding partner of the first African American law firm in Philadelphia – Norris, Schmidt, Green Harris, & Higginbotham.
In 1962, President John F. Kennedy appointed Higginbotham to the Federal Trade Commision, making him the youngest and first African American to ever serve on a federal regulatory commission. At the age of 35, Higginbotham was nominated as a federal judge in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania by President Lyndon Johnson, where he became one of the youngest people ever appointed to a federal bench.
Leon Higginbotham played an extraordinary role in the civil rights movement as a member of the National Commissin on Causes and Prevention of Violence, and as an advisor to President Johnson after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And in 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed Higginbotham to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit where he remained for 16 years, serving as Chief Judge and as Senior Judge until his retirement.
One of the petition creators, Purdue alum Rani Amani, said that she was appalled to read Elliot’s words in Higginbotham’s book during one of her classes.
When asked about the goal of the petition, Amani said, “I think the most important thing was wanting to start a conversation and try to do something about this versus just, you know, reading about it and kind of staying silent, because I think that’s how things change. I think having a conversation regardless is important.”
Learn more about A. Leon Higginbotham’s distinguished career, and read an article about the petition in Purdue’s student newspaper which includes an interview with Higgibotham’s nephew, F. Michael Higginbotham, who was featured in Antioch College’s inaugural Honorable A. Leon Higginbotham Jr. Distinguished Seminar Series.