When Barbara Aronstein Black '55 was a law student, she never suspected she would become a legal historian.
"History was always my worst subject," says Prof. Black, who earned a C+ in Professor Julius Goebel's Development of Legal Institutions. "I was so convinced I'd flunked the course that, to me, the grade came as a vast relief." An otherwise stellar student, Prof. Black drew the conclusion that "history was not for me."
After graduating, she and her husband, Professor Charles L. Black, Jr., moved to New Haven, Conn., where he began teaching law at Yale while she put her career on hold to raise their three children. Several years later at a cocktail party, the chair of Yale's History Department asked Barbara Black if she would be interested in teaching legal history. Her initial response was, "I wouldn't have the nerve to do such a thing."
But the idea stayed with her. A few days after the party, her husband broached the subject. She repeated her belief that it was out of the question.
"He asked me, ‘But does it interest you?' And I said, ‘For some odd reason, it does.' I refused to believe that studying history could be as boring and as onerous as it had always been for me. The fault had to lie with the teaching; it could not be the enterprise itself."
Prof. Black also had pragmatic reasons for entering the field. "I knew I wanted to teach," she recalls. "I had been out of law school for 10 years and was not a marketable commodity. Legal history was an open field."
She began course work in 1965 toward a doctorate in history, which she earned in 1975. At the time, no one was teaching legal history at Yale. Her dissertation was on the Massachusetts Bay Colony and its highest civil body, the Great and General Court of Massachusetts, during the era around 1630-86.
"The general court had administrative, judicial, and legislative powers," she explains. "I was interested in the omni-functional body as a court. I went through many thousands of documents to select out those that pertained to what we think of today as court cases."
She taught for nine years at Yale before joining the Columbia faculty in 1984 as the George Welwood Murray Professor of Legal History. She was named dean less than two years later, becoming the first woman to head an Ivy League law school. Concurrent with her deanship, she served two terms as president of the American Society for Legal History.
Prof. Black has written many articles on 17th and 18th century law, including pieces on judicial independence, judicial review, the constitutional dimension of the American Revolution, and a biographical article on "someone you've never heard of, Nathaniel Byfield, a scoundrel. He was one of the great men of the colony, a judge," she says. "He became very wealthy in business, but was constantly embroiled in the law. I had a great deal of fun with that article." (S.W.)