Harry E. Groves, JD’49, faced war, racial tensions, and academic tribulations.
In 2009 Harry E. Groves told the University of Chicago Law School Record that the University of Chicago “played a very big role in shaping the course of my life”—a life already influenced by formidable forces.
His grandfather John, born into slavery, was educated by his plantation-owner father—against Virginia law. Jason Groves told the North Carolina Law Review in 2014 that his great-great-grandfather, isolated in a wooded grove, was called “John of the groves” by other slaves. Fleeing the plantation during the Civil War, he enlisted as one of the Union’s first black soldiers, taking the surname “Groves.”
Settling in Colorado, John and his sons, including Harry’s father, established a lumber and construction business, taking on projects white contractors wouldn’t, including a road up Pike’s Peak, and eventually helping construct the US Air Force Academy.
Harry Groves earned a full scholarship to the University of Colorado at Boulder, graduating with honors. An artillery officer in World War II, he applied to the Law School after first coming to UChicago for an education degree. After graduation he briefly worked at the American Council on Race Relations in Chicago, where he met his future wife, Evelyn Apperson Groves, BLS’46, a librarian there.
Later in 1949, Groves joined the law faculty at a historically black institution now called North Carolina Central University, followed by another tour of duty in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps at Fort Bragg during the Korean War. After his discharge, he set up a private practice in nearby Fayetteville.
“A lot of jaws dropped in the courthouse when I walked in with white clients from my Fort Bragg contacts,” Groves told the Law School Record. “I’m pretty sure I was the first black lawyer with white clients that most folks there had ever seen.” When people asked where he got his law degree, “I can’t tell you the respect that the name ‘the University of Chicago Law School’ evoked.”
Groves returned to academic life in 1956, becoming dean of the law school at Houston’s Texas Southern University just as the traditionally black institution began admitting white students. It was the start of almost 15 difficult years, including close calls with violence.
In 1960 Groves—who had studied constitutional law at Harvard, especially in the context of newly forming nations—was recruited by the University of Malaya in Singapore. There he began a principal role in authoring the Malaysian constitution. By 1964 he and Evelyn were planning to remain permanently when political violence broke out, forcing them to return to the United States indefinitely.
Back stateside, he became president of Central State University in Ohio, where his efforts to integrate were met with protests and National Guard intervention. When a professor with a similar name was murdered, state investigators theorized that Groves was the intended target. “That was my murder,” Groves recalled. “It just wasn’t me.”
Over the next two decades he held rotating posts in academic and private practice. His final post was at the University of North Carolina as the Henry Brandis Professor of Law. “I was glad to be back to teaching,” he said, “the finest of all possible jobs.”
Groves “retired” in 1987, moving with Evelyn and their mothers into a continuing care community in Raleigh. Scolded by the director for publicly complaining about the food, he checked residents’ rights under North Carolina law. Finding little legislation on the subject, he spent two years drafting and successfully lobbying for a new state law that protects senior rights.
For decades before Evelyn died in 2011 and Harry in 2013, they continued to remember UChicago’s role in their lives, making annual gifts to the University and funding 14 gift annuities to benefit the Law School. He was indebted to the University, Groves said. “A lot of very good things have come to me as a result of my time there.”
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