Eugenie Fitzhugh, groundbreaking black federal court reporter; at 91
For Eugenie Fitzhugh, even Halloween provided chances to teach and learn. While everyone else in her Brockton neighborhood handed out candy, she offered little puzzles and calculators, giving children a chance to stretch their imaginations and ask questions.
“She just wanted to do something different and use Halloween as an opportunity to do more than just pass out candy, to get kids thinking, and just as an opportunity to reinforce the importance of education,” said her son, Michael A. Fitzhugh, an attorney who lives in Brookline. “It was about that more than anything.”
Mrs. Fitzhugh always valued education. As a young black woman who dreamed of becoming a court stenographer, she had to overcome racial discrimination to accomplish her goals, her son said. After a typing school in Washington, D.C., told her in the early 1950s that it would not accept black students, she found other ways to learn the necessary skills.
“The lesson was, if you get on the playing field, eventually you’re going to win,” her son said. “The point is you have to get on the playing field. You have to get in the game. You have to be in the fight.”
Mrs. Fitzhugh, a groundbreaking black federal court reporter who transcribed the court proceedings for the Boston school desegregation case and an educator who established a court reporting program at Massasoit Community College, died Dec. 29 in Stafford Hill Assisted Living in Plymouth. She was 91 and lived in Brockton before moving to Plymouth in 2011.
Her educational path was never easy. As a sophomore at Howard University in Washington, D.C., she fractured her spine, which hospitalized her for months. As soon as she was able, she went back to school, working three jobs to pay her way through college.
That was a lesson she passed on to her son: Don’t let anything get in your way. She believed that “if you did anything, you had to do it to your utmost. No shortcuts, no compromises or anything,” Michael said. “My mom was not going to be dependent on anybody.”
Eugenie Harris Fitzhugh was born in Boston, the only child of Eva Eugenie and James Bland. Mrs. Fitzhugh’s parents divorced after she was born and her mother remarried James T. Harris, whose last name Mrs. Fitzhugh took as a child.
Growing up at first in Cincinnati, Mrs. Fitzhugh was a child when she moved back to Massachusetts with her family, and she went to school in Williamstown. At Howard University, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and then attended stenotype school in Chicago.
Mrs. Fitzhugh loved to learn, her son said. She studied French and Spanish at Williams College in Williamstown and attended Suffolk University Law School for two years. Fluent in five languages, she was trained as a certified reporting instructor through the National Court Reporters Association.
“Aunt Genie instilled that drive in all of us to make your mark, to make an impact, and really wouldn’t accept anything less,” said her nephew, Clifford Harris of North Falmouth.
Harris said his aunt was a mother figure for him and his sister and “a role model for not just black women, but myself.”
“In the Harris side of the family, they made it a point that you knew where you came from, who were your relatives, what they owned, what they achieved. You were expected to take pride in your name and make something of yourself,” he said. “She used to say, ‘When you put your name on something, make sure it’s the best you can do.’ ”
Mrs. Fitzhugh worked as a court reporter for nearly 30 years, starting as a staff court reporter in Chicago, where she lived after marrying in 1951 and having a son, Michael.
When her marriage ended several years later, Mrs. Fitzhugh moved back to Massachusetts, where she worked in Superior Courts in Berkshire, Franklin, Hampshire, and Hampden counties.
She started in the federal court system in 1966, when she was appointed by US District Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. to serve as his official reporter. She reported and transcribed court proceedings for a number of groundbreaking cases over her 20 years working under his leadership, including the desegregation case in the 1970s.
“She knew from her own struggles that the courtroom was also a critically important institution to protect peoples’ rights and opportunities,” said Michael Keating, a Boston attorney who worked as a law clerk in Garrity’s office.
Keating said Mrs. Fitzhugh was ambitious and had great technical skills.
“Eugenie was someone you knew took what she did very seriously and that tended to motivate other people. There is a strength about her,” said Keating, who added that to meet Mrs. Fitzhugh was to realize that she was “a person of seriousness of purpose.”
She retired in 1986 but continued working as a freelance court reporter, while spending more time as an educator.
Mrs. Fitzhugh taught seminars on court reporting for associations across the state, and worked as a visiting lecturer at Johnson & Wales University, Massachusetts Bay Community College, and Springfield Technical Community College. She also served on several committees, including the advisory committee for the court.
She served two terms as president of the Massachusetts Court Reporters Association and co-edited the book “8,000 Soundalikes, Look-Alikes, and Other Words Often Confused.”
In addition, she was a trustee at Massasoit Community College, where she had helped formalize and launch the court reporting academic program, an educational course of study.
To acknowledge her commitment to the community, The Enterprise newspaper named Mrs. Fitzhugh a “Champion of the City” in Brockton in 2005.
A service has been held for Mrs. Fitzhugh, whose son is her only immediate survivor.
As an educator, she inspired young students, her family said, and as a court reporter, she was always ready for additional transcript orders and new freelance work. Committed and proud of her work, she was relentlessly hard-working, according to her relatives, and was a force to behold while sitting at her stenotype machine.
“I don’t know how those keys put up with it,” her nephew said. “It was just like machine gun fingers on those keys.”