An Act of Preservation: Director aims to keep past in tune with the present

By Wayne Peal
Legal News

As new director of the Damon J. Keith Collection of African American Legal History at Wayne State University, I. India Geronimo is doing more than preserving the past.

She’s extending the legacy of a man she calls a mentor.

“It’s an incredible experience working with Judge Keith because he’s not just your boss, he’s your mentor,” said Geronimo, who served as a clerk in the legendary jurist’s Sixth Circuit U.S. District courtroom in 2009.

Working with Keith was a living lesson in African-American legal history, Geronimo said, as well as an introduction to her new job and community.

“One of the things that are special about working for Judge Keith is that he takes the time to really introduce his clerks to the Detroit community,” said Geronimo,
who became director in January. “Every time I accompanied him on one of his speaking engagements, he took the time to introduce me to his audience. That’s a way of keeping the connection between generations alive.”

Keith isn’t the only civil rights legend with whom she’s worked. Geronimo also served as an intern for U.S. District Judge Robert L. Carter, one of the attorneys who argued the historic Brown v. Board of Education case, which ended enforced segregation in U.S. public schools.

Last year, she also clerked in South Africa’s new, post-apartheid court system.

Working with Carter, she said, gave her special insight into the American Civil Rights movement.

“He, Judge Keith and (former U.S. Supreme Court Justice) Thurgood Marshall, all attended Howard University Law School so there was a real connection between all of them,” she said. “Hearing him talk of those days you would almost feel like you were in the room with them all right at that time.”

Carter, who would replace Marshall as general counsel for the NAACP, is credited with using social science and psychology to prove the adverse affects of segregation on African American youngsters. Keith is perhaps best known for his decision striking down warrantless wiretapping by the Nixon Administration and in-secret deportation hearings under President George W. Bush. But he also shaped Michigan’s civil rights history by ruling against Detroit Edison and the Pontiac Schools in major anti-discrimination cases.

While working with both provided a valuable insight into history, Geronimo said working with the South African legal system made her an eyewitness to history as it was being made.

“Many of the cases they are dealing with are precedent setting,” she said. “It’s like being in the U.S. right after our constitution was enacted.”

While many of the issues would be familiar to American constitutional scholars, Geronimo said South Africa’s new constitution includes a new tier of protections not explicitly found in our own  governing document.

“It includes socio-economic rights and it’s very interesting to see how those rights are interpreted,” she said.

“For instance, there’s a section on the right to water. But what does the right to water look like?”

Environmental protection, the right to adequate housing and medical care, as well as the right to join labor unions are among other provisions clearly spelled out under the 14-year-old constitution.

Since becoming director, Geronimo has worked toward updating the collection exhibit “Marching Toward Justice” a history of the 14th Amendment. That amendment, passed during Reconstruction, extended legal concepts such as due process and equal protection to newly-freed slaves.

It also extends U.S. citizenship to children born here regardless of their parents’ citizenship.

That clause has been in the news lately as lawmakers in various states have sought to deny citizenship to children born to undocumented aliens.

Discussions groups accompanying the exhibit will now focus on that controversial topic.

“It’s living history,” said Geronimo.

The exhibit traces the history of civil rights in America from the 1619 introduction of African slaves to the 1957 admission of nine African-American students to the previously-segregated Central High School in Little Rock, Ark.

It has traveled to more than 30 sites throughout the U.S., as well as in the U.S. Virgin Islands, since its unveiling at the Thurgood Marshall Law Center in Washington, D.C.

Geronimo recently accompanied the exhibit on a visit to West Virginia State University, another of Keith’s alma maters.

She is also working with the creators of the new Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, set to open this fall on the grounds of Wayne State.

In addition, she will also develop programming in support of the center and university “education as a civil right” initiative.

“Assuring all children access to a quality education was essential to Brown v. Board of Education and it’s essential to children in Detroit today,” she said.

University officials believe Geronimo’s background and knowledge make her ideal for the job.

“Her legal expertise combined with her commitment to upholding Judge Keith’s legacy will benefit the Wayne Law immeasurably,” Wayne Law Dean Robert M. Ackerman said in announcing her hiring.

Geronimo received her law degree from Fordham University and had initially visited South Africa on a fact-finding mission as a Fordham Law Crowley scholar. In addition to serving as clerk for Judges Keith and Carter, she also served on staff with the American Civil Liberties Union.

She grew up in Yonkers, a suburb of New York City, and later lived in Harlem, a once-blighted New York City neighborhood now undergoing significant economic revival.

Perhaps with that in mind, Geronimo sees plenty of potential in her new home.

“One thing that impressed me about Detroit, is the spirit of its people,” she said. “Despite what you hear, there’s opportunity for growth and it will happen.”
 

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