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Guide to the Derrick A. Bell, Jr. Papers MC.138

New York University Archives
Elmer Holmes Bobst Library
70 Washington Square South
10th Floor
New York, NY 10012
(212) 998-2641

New York University Archives

Collection processed by Marilyn H. Pettit and University Archives staff, with additional edits by Alison Lotto and Salome Jeronimo

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on June 29, 2017
Finding aid written in English.

 Updates by Andrea Kutsenkow to include materials from Series VI: Course Materials and Books (Accession 2017-016)  , June 2017

Scope and Content Note

The Derrick A. Bell, Jr. Papers contain materials that document both the personal and professional career of civil rights attorney, legal scholar, political activist, and professor Derrick Albert Bell, Jr. (1930-2011). Materials date between 1922 and 2011, the bulk of which dates between 1960 and 2011, and include personal correspondence, business correspondence, course materials, unpublished articles and manuscripts, and books Bell used for his research, writing, and teaching. These materials are described in greater detail by series below. Series I: Correspondence, 1950 - 1991, 20 linear feet (20 records boxes), arranged chronologically; Series I contains Prof. Bell's personal and official correspondence for the whole of his career through 1991, i.e., from the period of examination for the bar in 1959 through his leave of absence from the faculty of Harvard Law School in 1990-91. (Note that Box 1: 1-20 (1950 - 1969) are office files; Box 4: 7-17 (1959 - c. 1974) are personal materials.) The papers reflect a career that spans the entire cycle of the modern Civil Rights movement including his employment by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York, 1960-1966, where he conducted research and also traveled in the South, investigating voting abuse and making speeches through his career at Harvard Law School, 1969-1980, his position as Dean of the University of Oregon Law School, 1980-1985, his second period at Harvard, 1987-1990, and his highly-politicized unpaid leave of absence from Harvard from 1990-1992 and his visiting professorship at NYU Law School during the 1990-1991 academic year. The correspondence indicates that Bell stayed in touch over the course of decades with friends and colleagues from the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, and expended some effort to remain in discourse with friends and colleagues with whom he had experienced disagreement in policy or programming. Occasional personal expressions are present: a rare response to hate mail (letter of November 30, 1987, Box 19:12); and a formal note to Harvard's Law Dean Oliver Sacks in 1975 on the responsibilities imposed by Bell's presence at Harvard, the resulting high volume of correspondence, and the consequent need for secretarial staff: Box 6:6.

Some notable correspondence:

  • * DAB to Constance Baker-Motley regarding a conference proposal, May 24, 1975 (Box 6:5); DAB to "Connie," September 23, 1975 (Box 6:8); DAB to C.B. Motley, August 26, 1971 (Box 4:13) recommending two student as law clerks; Nov. 29, 1976 (Box 7:12);
  • * Candid descriptions of his "Harvard experiences;" DAB to Prof. Henry J. Richardson, III, March 29, 1975 (Box 6:3);
  • * DAB acted as voluntary mental health legal advocate for a Harvard student. Referred to "psychic burden" on black students in higher education, June 25, 1975 (Box 6:6);
  • * DAB to Napoleon B. Williams, Jr., NYU law professor re: minority problems with the New York State Bar Exam, October, 1975 (Box 6:10);
  • * DAB to Charlayne Hunter, May 24, 1975 (Box 6:5);
  • * DAB to Alice Walker, September 11, 1979, informing her of a canceled trip to San Francisco (Box 4:10); DAB to Alice Walker, October 16, 1979 supporting parole for black militant Imari Obadele (Box 11:10);
  • * DAB to Christy Hefner, Feb. 12, 1981, advising her to get a law degree to prepare her for the responsibilities of administering a large publishing firm (Box 13.6);
  • * March 15, 1983 memorandum to faculty and staff of University of Oregon Law School regarding the "budget battle" and declaring his intention to resign (Box 15:7);
  • * personal letter of apology for intemperate language from Paul Olum, President, University of Oregon, November 8, 1984 (Box 16:15);
Box 9 represents DAB's trip to mainland China in May, 1977 as a member of the Black American Judges and Lawyers. The China Study Tour occurred shortly after the normalization of U.S.-China relations in 1972-74. This collection yielded several photographs, some memorabilia, and undated background reading materials.

As Bell's correspondence grew more and more voluminous in the mid-seventies, the files grew increasingly complex and will present some challenges to the researcher. Before 1975, copies of student recommendations and critiques were filed in the monthly correspondence files. Isolating sensitive documents into separate files was not an option because of the great volume of materials and because this action would have been invasive of other evidentiary values; hence, sensitive and restricted documents have been left in their normal sequence with other correspondence. As of 1975, student recommendations were filed separately. Bell's students became practitioners, legal scholars, and law clerks at all levels of the American bench, in non-profit institutions, academia, litigation, public advocacy, and as elected legislators. The use of some folders containing sensitive documents relating to students and graduates are restricted. Correspondence files after 1980 contain several sets of documents: "general" correspondence, "personal" correspondence, "recommendations," and secretarial chronological files of all outgoing correspondence. "General," "personal," and chronological copies were apparently filed separately, but were combined at some point, often into a single file folder. Each of several filing sequences occurring within a single folder has been brought into individual chronological order, the result being that several chronological sequences are present in many folders, not having been integrated into a single chronological sequence within a single folder. The chronological secretaries' files begin with 1980 and were filed back-to-front in chronological order; they have been brought into archival chronological order (front-to-back), and are the surest record of the volume and sequence of outgoing letters from Bell's office. However, it is the correspondence files that contain incoming letters that generated Bell's responses, contain annotations and notes to secretaries and occasional letters typed or keyboarded by Bell himself. The first box of correspondence, 1959-1969, represents the course of the post-Brown Civil Rights movement and Bell's involvement with it. The files reflect Bell's work as Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Law Review, the beginnings of his career with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the UCLA Western Center on Law and Poverty, and early work with CLEO (Council of Legal Education Opportunity). These records illustrate the origins of relationships with other Civil Rights leaders and advocates in the 1960's, including joint projects undertaken, consensus on public issues such as Supreme Court nominees and a shared commitment that appears both political and personal; see Mrs. Myrlie B. Evers to Bell, September 26, 1969 (Boxes 1:15 and 1:17); and Bell to Justice Thurgood Marshall, Justice Marshall to DAB, October, 1979 (Box 1:16). These early files also demonstrate the beginnings of decades of Bell's advocacy for black student recruitment and support, recruitment of black women as law professors (Eleanor Holmes Norton, Assistant Director, ACLU, New York City, and Sheila Rush Jones, East Harlem Poverty Law Center), and courteous but determined questioning of authorities about small indignities and insufficiencies inflicted on black people, from deceptive advertising (DAB to the Heath Co., March 10, 1969, Box 1:13) to blatant mistreatment, the latter represented in correspondence of December, 1969, and January and February, 1970 (Box 1:18 and ff.), to President Morris Abram of Brandeis University after Bell observed a black cook-employee enduring verbal abuse and social isolation at a Brandeis dining hall. Correspondence for 1963 (Box 1:4) contains correspondence with Coahoma and Clarksdale Counties (Mississippi) School Boards and a 1963 poster publicizing a speaking engagement, with Bell's picture on the poster. (The original poster has been removed for preservation; a digitized copy will be posted on the Web site.) His correspondence also illustrates relationships with black students who erred or failed to perform to academic standards (inadequate citations, late papers) and shows responses to a broader black American constituency who saw in him a champion of civil issues ranging from job discrimination to false imprisonment to the psychic burden of being black in a white society. The volume of papers is too great to permit a comprehensive list of correspondents. A partial list follows:

Regular or frequent correspondents

  • Prof. Mary Frances Berry (Box 5:1, 5:2, 5:3, 5:5, 5:6, 5:7, 5:10, 5:11, 5:12, 5:13, 5:16, 7:4, 7:5, 7:16, 7:17
  • Robert L. Carter, judge (USA Southern District)(U.S. Southern District) (Box 1:9, 1:10, 1:12, 1:17, 1:18, 2:1, 2:2, 2:8, 2:10, 2:11, 2:13, 2:14, 2:23, 2:26, 3:12, 3:13, 3:14, 3:16, 3:17, 3:18, 3:19, 3:22, 4:1, 4:2, 4:3, 4:11, 4:12, 5:6, 5:7, 5:10, 5:11, 5:12, 5:14, 5:16, 6:8, 6:17, 6:18, 6:19, 7:2, 7:3, 7:5, 7:10, 7:13, 7:16, 7:17, 7:18)
  • LeRoy Clark, N.Y.U.(Box 1:12, 1:14, 2:2, 2:13, 2:23, 3:2, 3:14, 3:19, 4:1, 4:2, 4:3, 4:12, 5:10, 5:11, 5:12, 5:13, 5:14, 5:15, 5:16, 6:7, 6:10, 6:12, 6:17, 6:20, 7:11)
  • A. Leon Higginbotham(Box 2:8, 2:11, 2:14, 2:23, 2:26, 3:13, 3:14, 3:15, 3:19, 4:1, 4:2, 4:3, 4:5, 5:1, 5:2, 5:10, 5:11, 5:12, 5:13, 5:14, 5:15, 5:16, 6:6, 6:16, 6:17, 6:19, 6:20)
  • Justice Thurgood Marshall(10/02/1969, 10/10/1969, 11/20/1969, 11/12/1980, see archivist for correspondence location, Box1:16, 1:17, 1:18, 2:27, 3:14, 4:12, 5:16)
  • Constance Baker Motley (Box 1:7, 1:9, 1:14, 2:10, 2:26, 3:11, 3:21, 5:4, 5:12, 5:16, 6:5, 6:9, 6:17, 6:18, 7:12, 7:17)
  • Eleanor Holmes Norton
  • Prof. Frances Fox Piven
  • Diane Ravitch(Box 6:8, 6:9, 6:12, 6:18, 6:20, 7:2, 7:3, 7:4, 7:9, 7:16, 7:17, 7:18)
  • Alice Walker(03/28/1986, 05/20/1986, please see archivist for correspondence location)

Occasional, single, or intermittent correspondents (note that this is a cursory list, because Bell's correspondence was large and comprehensive)

  • Robert H Alexander, Jr., special prosecutor, Oklahoma (Box 6:5)
  • F. Lee Bailey (12/14/1982, please see archivist for correspondence location
  • Justice Harry A. Blackmun (04/08/1985, 09/10/1987, see archivist for correspondence location)
  • Dorothy Chin Brandt, NY City civil court judge (December, 1987)
  • Prof. Peggy C. Davis, NYU Law School (July, 1987, 5:14)
  • Michael Dukakis, Governor, Massachusetts(10/05/1986, please see archivist for correspondence location)
  • Ernest Gellhorn
  • William H. Hastie, USA Judge (3rd Circuit, Philadelphia)(Box 6:6, 6:12, 7:8, 7:10)
  • Nathan Huggins, Harvard University
  • Reverend Jesse Jackson
  • Vernon Jordan(Box 2:13, 2:21, 2:27, 3:2, 3:15, 4:12)
  • Attorney-General Robert F. Kennedy(Box 1:4)
  • Vilma Martinez (Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund)(Box 6:13, 6:16, 6:19, 7:2)
  • John Sexton, Dean, NYU Law School
  • Michael Sovern (professor of law, Columbia University)(Box 1:12, 2:2, 2:23, 2:24)
  • Clarence Thomas, Director, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission(04/12/1988, please see archivist for correspondence location)
  • Governor Richard Thornburgh (Pennsylvania)
  • Andrew Young, US Congressman (Nov. 26, 1976.)
Later correspondents include: felons (June, November, 1987) and students whose physical and psychological limitations had been caused by, Bell considered, racial discrimination (July, 1987/Box 18:14). Other correspondents include: Harvard colleagues (Archibald Cox, Morton Horwitz, Alan Dershowitz), law deans, professors, association heads, and conference leaders (Millard Ruud, George Schatzki, Roy Mersky, Ernest Gellhorn). Bell stayed in touch with students after graduation and wrote encouraging letters to the young and talented: see DAB to Lani Guinier, Special Assistant to the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, Washington D.C., April 15, 1980 (Box 12:5).  Series II: Speeches and writings, 1960-1992, 9 linear feet (9 records boxes), arranged chronologically. Series II's original filing order was, it is surmised, "speeches," "writings," and "articles about Bell," but were disordered at the time of accession. They have been arranged in chronological order regardless of gênre, length, style, and intended audience or medium, with some undated materials lodged in miscellaneous files. A few files that contained only a single item each have been gathered into files labeled with the appropriate alphabetical letter; "B," "D," "E," etc. The folders are labeled by month and year, though many of the speeches and writings are dated more precisely on the document itself. It will be noted that some speeches were delivered on more than one occasion. The researcher should be aware of annotations in Bell's hand, variations in title and in substance. N.B.: literary copyright applies to unpublished materials, for which permission to quote must be sought by the researcher.  Series III: Subject files, 1970-1985, 19 linear feet (19 records boxes); arranged alphabetically. The subject files are arranged in alphabetical order and reflect Bell's associational activities, memberships, interests, memorable events, and subjects for reflection; see Box 36:3 for church bulletin for the funeral of Medgar Evers in 1963; Box 36:16, "hate mail." Bell's own bar exam notes and review were moved from correspondence to subject files and are placed with other bar exam materials, Boxes 31 and 32. The bulk of the materials are from the 1970's. The subject files order should be closely examined for materials that are similar but not filed together; see, for example, Bell's testimony on busing and school desegregation to the USA House Committee on Education and Labor in 1976 (Box 33:14), and correspondence with Congressman Edward I. Koch (D-NY, later Mayor) in the same period (Box 46:7-11).

Series IV: Course materials, 1969-1988, 10 linear feet (10 records boxes); arranged by subject. Series IV (Boxes 50-59) represents a portion of Bell's background reading, syllabi and class assignments, unpublished papers, evaluations, grades, and reading materials that focused course development. This series is incomplete, with large gaps, which may correspond to materials in accession 95-015. The files are in rough chronological order within subject groupings that correspond to course titles.  Series V: Book materials, 1979-84, 6 linear feet (6 records boxes); arranged by subject. Series V (Boxes 60-63) consists of reviews, writing projects, book manuscripts, chapter revisions, teaching manuals, and book proposals. *Boxes 64-95 contain materials accessioned in 1997 and 1998 (numbers 97-014, 98-004). Materials contained within these accessions span the years of 1955 to 1996, primarily 1990 to 1996. These accessions cover all series represented in the bulk collection. These boxes also contain some restricted documents (student papers, resumes, sensitive correspondence) that have been separated from the original accession. The boxes have been labeled indicating which folders belong to which accession number. Accession 97-014 was processed by Teresa Mora. **During the Summer of 1998, Jennifer Schwartz processed part of the 98-004 accession, limited mainly to Bell correspondence. Once these were put in acid-free folders and organized according to date, they were combined with the processed correspondence Teresa Mora completed of accession 97-014. ***Boxes 96-106 contain materials accessioned in 1999 and 2000 (numbers 99-008, 00-004). Materials contained within these accessions span the years of 1992 to 1999. These accessions includes all series represented in the bulk collection but are not organized by series. ****Boxes 110-119 - Journals, Bell's published articles and materials on law cases were separated from the entire collection. They were processed and organized within 10 paige boxes. Journals that do not contain Bell's writings are arranged alphabetically according to title. Articles written by Bell are organized by date. *****Boxes 107-109, 120 contain materials accessioned in 2003 (number 03-008). Materials contained within this accession span the years of 1976 to 2003, primarily 2002. This accession includes all series represented in the bulk collection. ******Boxes 121-135 contain materials accessioned in 2001, 2002, 2005, and 2006 (numbers 01-013, 02-014, 05-003, 05-005, 06-011). Materials contained within these accessions span the years of 1971 to 2005, primarily 1998 to 2004. These accessions include all series represented in the bulk collection and have been put into series order. The boxes have been labeled indicating which folders belong to which accession number.

*******Boxes 136-160 contain materials accessioned in 1995 (numbers 95-015). Materials contained within these accessions span the years of 1955 to 1994, primarily 1986 to 1994. These accessions include all series represented in the bulk collection and have been put into series order.

Addendum to publication list:

  • Bell, Derrick A., Faces at the Bottom of the Well: the Permanence of Racism (New York: Basic Books, 1992).
  • Bell, Derrick A., Confronting Authority: Reflections of an Ardent Protester (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994).
  • Bell, Derrick A., Gospel Choirs: Psalms of Survival for an Alien Land Called Home (New York: Basic Books, 1996).
The initial accessions (95-015 and 96-003) represent Prof. Bell's personal and scholarly life and career chiefly before coming to N.Y.U. in 1990 as visiting professor. Further accessions reflect his permanent presence on the N.Y.U. Law faculty since 1992. The collection presents formidable access problems; the archivist must govern access to the materials very carefully because of the prevalence of student papers, exams, evaluations, and recommendations. A number of unpublished manuscripts by Bell and others are present in the collection in which literary copyright resides. It is the researcher's responsibility to obtain permission to quote from such materials; see, e.g., "The Texas Black Colleges: A Historical Survey of State Law" by Lee Stanley Smith, 1979 (Box 14:10).


The files are grouped into 6 series: I, Correspondence; II, Speeches and Writings; III, Subject Files; IV, Course Materials; V, Book Materials; and VI, 2017 Accretion of Course Materials and Books. Accessions are either integrated into the original finding aid or added to the end of the box and folder list as additions to the original series. Folders are generally arranged either alphabetically or chronologically (see series descriptions in Scope and Content Note).