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Harvard Law Review breaks barrier with election of black woman as president

ImeIme Umana is the first black woman president of the Harvard Law Review.

Tony Luong/New York Times

ImeIme Umana is the first black woman president of the Harvard Law Review.

The Harvard Law Review is among the most prestigious legal journals in the world, but the 130-year-old publication had never elected a black woman as its president — until now.

That honor has gone to ImeIme Umana, a 24-year-old daughter of Nigerian immigrants who has been voted president by the Law Review’s 92 student editors. Twenty-seven years ago, a Harvard Law School student named Barack Obama was elected the publication’s first black male president.

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Umana is “a brilliant, high-energy young woman with a keen sense of social justice and commitment to service,” said Lawrence D. Bobo, chairman of the Department of African and African-American Studies at Harvard, where Umana earned honors as an undergraduate for her thesis on the adverse effects of voter-identification laws on minority voters.

The Law Review post is considered a key to some of the most coveted doors in the legal profession, but Umana has said she wants to pursue a position as a public defender. The second-year law student was exposed to that work last summer during a stint in the public defender’s office in the Bronx, N.Y.

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“A lot of the clients I worked with that summer and since have looked a lot like me,” Umana told The New York Times. “They are disproportionately represented on the unfortunate end of the legal system, so it struck a little closer to home.”

Her empathy for the marginalized is well known, professors and classmates said. When she graduated from Harvard College in 2014, Umana received the Rev. Peter J. Gomes Prize, which the African and African-American studies department bestows on the student “who best epitomizes social responsibility through public service and potential for distinguished contributions to the public good,” Bobo said.

“Barriers of race and of gender and the places where they intersect continue to crumble, and rightfully so,” he said. “ImeIme Umana is paving a way for future generations of African-American women — indeed, all women of color — as leaders, not just rank and file, in the legal profession of tomorrow.”

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Umana, from Harrisburg, Pa., becomes president at a time when the Review is pushing to balance the makeup of its student editors with that of the law school. She was selected last month in a rigorous competition that included eight women and eight minority students.

Forty-six percent of Law Review editors selected last year were women, an increase of about 10 percentage points from an average of the previous three years, according to The Harvard Crimson. In addition, 41 percent were students of color, an increase of 13 percentage points over the preceding three years.

Alexa Kissinger, managing editor of the Law Review, praised Umana’s election.

“ImeIme has a fierce legal mind, compassion for other members of the team, and unparalleled dedication to this institution,” Kissinger said. “Our class of editors is the most diverse in the history of the Harvard Law Review, and we couldn’t be prouder to have ImeIme at the helm.”

Natalie Vernon, president of the Harvard Women’s Law Association, called Umana “universally beloved” on campus.

“The question comes to mind though: Why did it take so long, till 2017, for a black woman to be elected as president?” Vernon asked.

The campaign for increased racial sensitivity at the law school, the oldest continuously operated one in the United States, has included a successful effort in March to remove the school’s official seal. That emblem contained the family crest of Isaac Royall Jr., a slaveholder who left a bequest used to establish Harvard’s first professorship of law.

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.
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