In Memoriam Edward J. Littlejohn

The Reuther Library regrets to share the sad news that, on June 7, 2023, Edward Littlejohn, a long-time Wayne State University Law Professor and major contributor to the Reuther Library’s holdings, passed. He was 88.

Professor Edward Littlejohn (right) shares a lighthearted moment with Judge Damon Keith (left)

Professor Littlejohn’s contributions to the Reuther Library are noteworthy. In the early 1990s, he approached Judge Damon Keith about the idea of building an archive to document the work of African American lawyers and judges. From there, came the Damon J. Keith Law Collection of African American Legal History, which was to be housed at the Walter P. Reuther Library. While Judge Keith lent his name to the undertaking, Littlejohn, whose article, “Black Lawyers, Law Practice and Bar Associations – 1844 to 1970: A Michigan History,” led him to conclude that there was a need for a repository housing collections documenting the work of Black lawyers and judges. The Reuther Library agreed, which led to a joint effort between what is now the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights and the Reuther Library. Subsequently, the mission of the collection expanded to include non-Black lawyers whose work focused on civil rights cases and limited to people and organizations based in Michigan. Some of the collections housed under the umbrella of the Keith collection comprise those of:

The papers of Edward Littlejohn, largely comprised of material he collected while conducting research about Black Lawyers and Judges, will become a cornerstone of the collection, especially given the scope of the collection. Comprised of numerous photos, original documents regarding prominent civil rights cases, and a record of nearly every African American lawyer in Michigan for a 100-year period beginning in 1870, this collection comprise a rich resource for students, activists, journalists, scholars and others interested in the history of Michigan-based Black lawyers and judges in addition to important civil rights cases.

Beyond his role in the establishment of the Keith Collection and donation of his own collection to the Reuther Library, Littlejohn’s service as a professor of law, civic-minded Detroiter, and scholar collectively remind us of what it means to have a purpose tied to the betterment of society.

An alumnus of Wayne State University, Littlejohn went on to receive three law degrees, including a Doctor of Juridical Science from Columbia University. He spent most of his active years as a law professor with 24 of those years teaching at Wayne State University’s Law School (1972-1996) and two of those years serving as Assistant Dean (1972-1974).

During his tenure, he published over 20 articles and two full length monographs, including “No Equal Justice”: The Legacy of Civil Rights Icon George W. Crockett Jr., co-authored with Peter Hammer. This book is the recipient of several awards, including the Michigan State History Award and the Midwest Independent Publisher Award. Added to his scholarship, he served on a number of boards, task forces, advisory committees and other bodies, including the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners (1974-1978) the Fund for Equal Justice (1980-1996), the Detroit Bar Association – Advisory Committee on Judicial Candidates (1981-1983), Wayne State University’s Phylon Society (Chair, 1979 and 1985-1987), and the American Bar Association’s General Practice Section where he served as Chair of the Committee on General Practice Studies in Law Schools (1986-1988).

During his work as a law professor and as a leader within Detroit and Michigan-based organizations, he became the recipient of a number of awards and honors, including Wayne State University’s Phylon Society’s W.E.B. DuBois Scholarship Award (1986) and the Wolverine Bar Association’s Trailblazer Award for his publications about Black lawyers and judges. It was no wonder, then, that, during a 2016 symposium of the Wayne State University’s Journal of Law in Society, he was honored with “A Tribute to Professor Emeritus Edward J. Littlejohn for his Work with Race, Racism and the Law.”

An avid collector of African American art, Littlejohn had amassed a collection comprising paintings by Henry O. Tanner, Jacob Lawrence, Gilda Snowden, Charles McGhee, Jean Michel Basquait, amongst many others.

Given the body of his work and achievements at Wayne State, in metropolitan Detroit, within the legal community, and stemming from his research about and in-depth familiarity with the history of Black lawyers and judges in Michigan, it was only natural that Judge Damon Keith and archivists at the Reuther Library would welcome an opportunity to establish the Damon Keith Collection at the Reuther Library.

With this legacy, the Reuther Library joins his family, colleagues and friends in celebrating a life well lived. May he rest in peace.

Louis Jones is the field archivist for the Walter P. Reuther Library.