Renowned Historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. Helps Ropes & Gray Mark Black History Month

In The News
February 14, 2022

Historian, Harvard professor and award-winning filmmaker Henry Louis Gates Jr. joined Ropes & Gray for a February 10 discussion at the firm’s Boston office as part of the firm’s month-long celebration of Black History Month. Professor Gates—one of the world’s preeminent scholars of African American history and literature—spoke on the legacy of Reconstruction, including the post-Civil War period’s connection to contemporary U.S. politics. The event was moderated by Ropes & Gray senior counsel and diversity relationship leader Dennis Coleman

Professor Gates began his talk by showing two video clips—one from his 2019 PBS series “Reconstruction: America After the Civil War,” the other a segment from his popular PBS “Finding Your Roots” genealogy series that featured U.S. Representative John Lewis. The clips served as a launching pad for a discussion about the complicated legacy of Reconstruction and its demise. Professor Gates noted that during the 12-year period following the Civil War, Black people experienced more freedom and rights than at any other time in American history. Those rights were then systematically dismantled during what Professor Gates called an “alt-right rollback … that lasted far longer than Reconstruction itself … and continues to this day.” 

Following his talk, Professor Gates was joined by Coleman for a Q&A on topics that included the history of voting rights, the importance of genealogy, controversies around the teaching of history, the Black migration to Mexico and the surprising history of the slave trade. 

The Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University, Professor Gates has been the recipient of numerous honors throughout his career. He was a member of the first class awarded “genius grants” by the MacArthur Foundation in 1981, and was the first African American scholar to be awarded the national Humanities Medal in 1998. As a literary scholar, his career has been marked by intellectual megaprojects such as the landmark 30-volume Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers and the Norton Anthology of African-American Literature.