CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — It has been 27 years since the first black man, an older student by the name of Barack Obama, was elected president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review. It has been even longer — 41 years — since the first woman, Susan Estrich, was elected to the position. Since then, subsequent presidents have been female, Hispanic, Asian-American, openly gay and black.
Only now, for the first time in the history of the venerable 130-year-old journal, is the president a black woman.
ImeIme (pronounced “Ah-MAY-may”) Umana, 24, the third-oldest of four daughters of Nigerian immigrants, was elected on Jan. 29 by the review’s 92 student editors as the president of its 131st volume.
The Harvard Law Review — which, like other law reviews, allows students to hone their legal writing skills and gives scholars a forum in which to thrash out legal arguments — is often the most-cited journal of its kind and has the largest circulation of any such publication in the world.
Its presidency is considered the highest-ranking student position at the ferociously competitive law school and a ticket to virtually anywhere in the legal realm. Half of the current Supreme Court justices served on the Harvard Law Review, though none as its president.
“It still feels like magic that I’m here,” Ms. Umana said in an interview, though her fellow students said it was not magic at all but her sharp legal mind, intense work ethic, leadership ability and generosity of spirit that catapulted her to the top.
Ms. Umana’s emergence now has raised questions about why it took so long for a black woman to reach the pinnacle of the review and how her perspective may influence a publication that has for most of its existence been led by white men.
When Ms. Umana talks about the law, she speaks through the prism of her race and gender. Not far from her mind are the black women who in recent years died after encounters with law enforcement.
Unlike the vast majority of graduates of the nation’s top law schools, Ms. Umana says she has no interest in joining a high-paying corporate firm. Her dream for now is to become a public defender, a goal she set after an eye-opening internship last summer in the public defender’s office in the Bronx. She plans to work this summer with the public defender in Washington.
“A lot of the clients I worked with that summer and since have looked a lot like me,” she said. “They are disproportionately represented on the unfortunate end of the legal system, so it struck a little closer to home.”
Born in State College, Pa., Ms. Umana graduated from Susquehanna Township High School in Harrisburg, where her father, who died in 2010, was a statistician for the state. She is a 2014 graduate of Harvard College, where she majored in government and African-American studies.
She was elected president of the law review in an intense 12-hour period of deliberations that stretched over two days — typical for this annual process — and included a rigorous evaluation of each candidate’s portfolio of work and responses to a written questionnaire, questions at a candidate forum and a writing exercise.
Ms. Umana was one of 12 candidates for president, including eight minority students and eight women.
“I think our team saw in her what so many people have seen in her for so long — that she’s a brilliant person, an unbelievably dedicated worker and an exceptionally caring leader,” said Michael L. Zuckerman, a third-year law student and the review’s previous president.
So why did it take so long to elect a black woman?
In Ms. Umana’s view, the lag reflects a wide gulf between black women and law school — and the law in general, a profession in which minorities have historically been underrepresented.
“We’ve been systematically excluded from the legal landscape, the legal conversation, and we’re just now making some important inroads,” she said in her office at the law review, which occupies Gannett House, a creamy 19th-century Greek Revival building that amid the law school’s imposing brick and concrete edifices looks like a New England cottage.
A 2014 study found a wide gender disparity at many of the nation’s top law reviews. It suggests that women do not apply in the first place for a host of reasons: They prioritize other parts of their lives, do not want to put in the extra hours that law reviews demand and are less interested in conventional markers of success like law review membership.
Indeed, the racial and gender makeup of the Harvard Law Review has long lagged that of the wider law school; the school, like many of its peer institutions, struggled with diversity before adopting an affirmative action plan and recruitment drive in the 1970s that allowed for more women and minorities.
Although the first black man graduated from the law school in 1869, Mr. Obama was not elected the first black president of the review, founded in 1887, until 1990.
The first women were not admitted to the law school until 1950, and the gender gap at the school did not start closing until the late 1970s, when Ms. Estrich was elected president of the review.
But last year the review inducted editors (including Ms. Umana) whose demographics closely reflect those of their class — in fact, the review is now more diverse than the class of 2018. At the moment, 46 percent of the editors are women, roughly equaling their percentage in the class, while 41 percent of the editors are minority students, surpassing the 32.9 percent of minority students in the class.
For the entire school, though, only 5.7 percent of men and 9.6 percent of women are black. Most minority students are Hispanic or Asian.
Race has been an issue on the law school campus. In 2015, students campaigned to remove the school’s official seal, which featured the family crest of Isaac Royall Jr., a slaveholder who burned slaves alive at the stake and whose endowment founded Harvard Law School in 1817. The administration agreed last year to remove the seal, but some students are pushing for more changes, including the hiring of more minority faculty members and an overhaul of the curriculum.
Ms. Umana said her goals as president of the review were to recruit a diverse set of editors, publish a diverse group of authors and basically get out of the editors’ way.
She has lined up a clerkship for after graduation next year with Judge Robert L. Wilkins of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. After that, she said, she is flexible on her route to becoming a public defender.
It was Ms. Umana’s “clarity of purpose” that struck Ruth Okediji, a 1991 graduate of Harvard Law School and now a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, from their first meeting. When Ms. Umana reached out to Ms. Okediji, who was a visiting professor at Harvard last year and has become an important mentor to her, Ms. Umana took with her another young woman who was also going to the law school.
“ImeIme was not just looking out for herself,” Ms. Okediji said. “I say to all my mentees: ‘You are not successful until you have brought the next woman up. It’s not success if it’s just you.’ ImeIme has looked behind her. That’s evidence of leadership and integrity of spirit.”
Ms. Umana said she was keenly aware of the divide between the elite ecosystem in which she was immersed and the lives of the marginalized women she hopes to represent. “I can’t help but think of the multitude of young black women who will never be anywhere near such an amount of privilege,” she said.
As she spoke, she almost seemed to suggest that she was dedicating her tenure to those women, particularly those who had died.
“I’m especially humbled,” she said, “to serve as the first black woman president of the law review because of them.”
The New York Times