Pioneering Justice's Impact Felt on Anniversary of School Desegregation Ruling
By Csaba Sukosd | March 8, 2019
There are many historic names and faces enshrined at the Thomas J. Moyer Ohio Judicial Center. Few have the kind of lasting legacy of Justice Robert Duncan.
"He was a man who was bigger than life," said his son, Robert Vincent Duncan.
Three years after becoming Franklin County's first African-American judge, Governor James Rhodes appointed Duncan as the first African-American justice of the Ohio Supreme Court in 1969. He was re-elected to the state's high court a year later.
"He was a very humble man. He came from very humble beginnings," said Robert Vincent. "He was raised by his father's mom and dad. Those were people who worked seven days a week. So, my father knew that working was the way to make it in life."
Justice Duncan's meteoric rise up the legal ranks continued. By 1974, the Army veteran broke the color barriers for the U.S. Court of Military Appeals and the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio.
"I don't think he ever mentioned that he was first in anything. He would use words like, 'I was at the right place at the right time,'" said David Alexander, who worked for Justice Duncan as an extern and clerk.
While there were a series of successes professionally, those came with personal struggles due to others resisting the changes toward racial equality.
"I can remember waking up to get the paper and there were these huge words on our driveway, '[Racial slur], go home,'" said Shirley Duncan, Justice Duncan's widow.
Those tensions only intensified when he was assigned controversial cases. On March 8, 1977, then-federal court Judge Duncan found the Columbus Board of Education guilty of operating a school system that sent black children to black schools and white children to white schools. On the 42nd anniversary of the landmark decision, those closest to him remembered the extreme backlash he endured as a result of the ruling.
"It put pressure on him and his family in ways that were uncomfortable," said Alexander.
"He said, 'Honey. This is going to be over. You don't believe it, but it will be.' And he was right," added Shirley.
It was a decision that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
His instincts for social justice in the courtroom matched what he felt could happen socially. It was a belief he explained in further detail when citing author William Wordsworth at the memorial of former Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer in 2010.
"Don't ever underestimate the power of goodness, dignity, and fairness," Justice Duncan said.
That mantra remains for those the pioneering jurist mentored professionally and personally, even after his passing in 2012.
"I thought about him and the work there many times, often when I'm about to go to court," said Alexander. "I don't think there's a day that does not go by that I don't think about things that he's taught me."
"You have to be honest with people, that you're crossing every 't' and dotting every 'i', and doing things right," added Robert Vincent.