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Feb. 19, 2009
Former Justice Duncan Speaks at Black History Event

Former Justice Duncan speaks at the Supreme Court of Ohio's Black History Month Celebration.The first African-American to serve on the Supreme Court of Ohio, former Justice Robert M. Duncan, delivered keynote remarks today at the Ohio Judicial Center during a Black History Month Celebration.

Justice Duncan discussed important events and people that impacted black history from before Ohio gained statehood to the recent election of President Barack Obama. He also recounted his personal experiences of growing up in segregated times and the incredible changes he’s witnessed in his lifetime.

Born in Urbana, Ohio, on Aug. 24, 1927, Justice Duncan said his childhood was devoid of black role models in professional careers. He said everything in his hometown was segregated except for the public schools and the library. Only after he became a lawyer much later in life did he learn that his great-great-grandfather was prominent citizen, landowner, operator of an Underground Railroad stop and respected Teamster in Champaign County.

Those segregated experiences continued at the Ohio State University where he enrolled in 1945. He said there were no blacks living on campus, all of their activities were confined to the old Spring Street YMCA, and he never had an African-American professor. Comparing his first experience at Ohio State to becoming chairman of the board of trustees during the 2006-07 academic year, Justice Duncan termed it as an “absolutely amazing American odyssey that I lived.”

Justice Duncan spoke of the Tuskegee Airmen and the impact they had on the eventual desegregation of the military, which he termed “American’s best application of the concept of affirmative action.” He said he experienced no racial problems at all for three years upon entering the military in December 1952.

On the election of the country’s first African-American president, Justice Duncan said he wasn’t one of the doubters who thought it wouldn’t happen in his lifetime. However, he said he thought it would come about in a different way by serving as vice president then ascending to the presidency. He said he thought perhaps this person would have been former Secretary of State Colin Powell, whom he had been impressed with ever since Powell served in the Nixon administration.

Justice Duncan brought along his personal library of books about black history. He said black history is important to him because it’s enjoyable and fun, it gives him a sense of pride in his heritage and it helps to create a better future by learning about the past. He also vouched for the importance of reading and encouraging children to read.

Justice Duncan served on the Supreme Court from Jan. 2, 1969 to Nov. 26, 1971. He was appointed by Gov. James Rhodes and elected in 1970, becoming the first African-American to win a statewide election. He later went on to serve as a judge on the U.S. Court of Military Appeals and U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio. Two of the more important cases he participated in included the My Lai massacre trial of Lt. William Calley and writing the opinion that desegregated Columbus Public Schools.

Of his time on the Supreme Court, Justice Duncan said, “Serving on the Ohio Supreme Court was probably the most wonderful experience I’ve ever had.” He recalled the great collegiality and help he received from senior managers at the court. He also said he was more worried about performing his work as a judge according to the law rather than the distinction of being the first African-American on the Court.

Contact: Chris Davey or Bret Crow at 614.387.9250.