Diana Lee ’14 Researches Historic Court Cases of African Americans

Diana Lee ’14 at Millennium Park in Chicago

Diana Lee ’14 at Millennium Park in Chicago

The American Bar Foundation this year selected Diana Lee ’14 as one of its four 2013 Montgomery Summer Research Diversity Fellowships in Law and Social Science. The national fellowship is designed to introduce promising, diverse students to the rewards and demands of a career in law and social science.

As part of her fellowship, Lee, a history major, helped Northwestern University Professor of History Dylan Penningroth by contributing research to his book. Penningroth is writing about African Americans’ experiences in local civil courts from the end of the Civil War to the beginning of the Great Migration.

Lee recently answered some questions about her summer fellowship.

Bowdoin Daily Sun: How did you contribute to your mentor’s research?

Diana Lee: Under Prof. Penningroth’s guidance, I analyzed hundreds of pages of U.S. appellate and trial court records. These cases primarily involved blacks suing other blacks for property. The litigants in these disputes claimed that they were the descendants of former slaves who were now deceased, and argued that they had a right to inherit their deceased ancestors’ land. Since it was often unclear whether the litigants were the legitimate children or grandchildren of the former slaves, these cases quickly became very complex.

Her story reminded me of the importance of encouraging diversity among women and minorities in the legal profession.”
—Diana Lee ’14

BDS: What was the most valuable or enlightening part of the summer?

D.L.: Throughout the summer, I had several wonderful conversations with Prof. Penningroth regarding my research findings and the progress of his book. These discussions helped clarify my own research interests and the types of sources that I would like to consult for my senior honors project, such as legal documents and court records. During this fellowship, I was also immersed in the world of law and legal academia. In addition to my research for Prof. Penningroth, I had the opportunity to visit legal institutions and meet with many legal scholars and attorneys. These experiences introduced me to the variety of ways in which I can use a J.D. degree, and confirmed that I would like to attend law school in the future. In addition, after our seminars and site visits, the other summer research fellows and I often discussed our potential career paths in the context of the impressive work these individuals were doing. It was enormously helpful to spend two months reflecting on my postgraduate life and future career.

BDS: What was the best moment of the fellowship for you, and why?

D.L.: There were several highlights of this fellowship. I particularly enjoyed meeting with Laurel Bellows, president of the American Bar Association. She spent two hours with us discussing her career path, her love for law and her community activism. Ms. Bellows also gave us a healthy sense of perspective on life, reminding us that we can’t plan every aspect of our careers 10 or 20 years down the road. I also enjoyed meeting with Judge Bernice Donald, a federal judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. Judge Donald was the first African American woman to serve as a bankruptcy judge in the United States. Her story reminded me of the importance of encouraging diversity among women and minorities in the legal profession. I continue to be surprised by the scarcity of women and people of color in top legal positions in both private practice and governmental positions.

BDS: How does this experience fit into your broader goals?

D.L.: As the first person in my family to seriously consider law school, I entered this fellowship without a clear idea of what being a lawyer involves. I was also disheartened by media reports of rising unemployment among law school graduates. By introducing me to the world of law, this fellowship deepened my interest in legal advocacy and research, and confirmed my interest in attending law school. I am now also considering a career in legal academia.

See more stories about the summer adventures of Bowdoin students around the world on our #BowdoinMap.

thumb:Bowdoin students aboard the Arctic schooner Bowdoin