Remembering Robert Duncan
In memory of Robert Duncan: Public servant, jurist, civic leader
With the loss of Robert Morton Duncan (BS ’48 Education; JD ’52) on November 2, 2012, at age 85, we pause to remember the life of the man renowned for his humanity and civic responsibility. He achieved many pioneering firsts for African Americans in his lifetime and was renowned as a model public servant.
After growing up in Urbana, Ohio, Duncan earned two degrees from Ohio State and served in the military before entering private law practice. He then dedicated nine years to public legal service at the city and state levels. He began as assistant attorney general of Ohio and ended as chief counsel to the attorney general of Ohio, supervising 125 lawyers.
During his years on the bench from 1966 to 1985, Duncan broke racial barriers numerous times. He was the first African American appointed in 1966 to the Franklin County Municipal Court, and later, the first elected. He then became the first African American on the Ohio Supreme Court in 1969, the first African American on the U.S. Court of Military Appeals in 1971, that court’s first African American chief judge in 1974 and the first African American appointed to the Ohio federal bench in 1974.
As a federal judge, he made the 1977 landmark decision in Penick vs. Columbus Board of Education, writing that for 25 years, the board had maintained a dual school system. Such a system violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. Duncan’s decision led to desegregation of the Columbus Public Schools.
To assist in implementing the desegregation plan, Duncan turned to his alma mater. He contacted Professor Luvern L. Cunningham, who had resigned the deanship of the College of Education in 1973 to consult on desegregation of schools around the country. Duncan asked Cunningham to serve as special master commissioner for the Columbus case.
“Cunningham was one of the most highly regarded experts on schools and race in the United States,” Duncan said in a 2010 oral history recorded by Ohio State’s Thompson Library. “It was really a ten strike for me and I think also for the community because he is a man of great experience and wisdom with a judicious temperament.”
Cunningham had equal respect for Duncan. In a recent interview, he referred to Duncan’s performance in the Columbus case as “an exceedingly courageous example of judiciary and civic leadership, with benefits flowing to generations of children to follow.”
Cunningham, an eminent scholar with expertise in urban education, felt entirely comfortable accepting the judge’s invitation to serve. “I had been involved with desegregation in several cities—Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis, San Francisco--so it wasn’t alien territory. My principal responsibility was to be the liaison between his court and the Columbus Public Schools.”
Columbus schools lead the way in desegregation
Although Duncan and Cunningham laid out a rough plan to guide the desegregation process, they trusted the school district to draw the transportation plan. Both complimented CPS for doing a marvelous job of implementation.
In Duncan’s oral history, he said, “They brought back the most well-balanced plan of complete school desegregation that had ever been produced in the United States.”
Cunningham described the implementation process as going as “smooth as silk” when the buses finally began to roll on September 6, 1979. “If we wanted data about student achievement, progress, or migration patterns, the research department of CPS provided it,” he said. As for the school board, “There wasn’t any hostility or any defensiveness that was unreasonable. When it was time for them to bring Judge Duncan up to date three or four times a year, every board member would come.”
Cunningham described Duncan as conducting the meetings with great civility. “The judge would say, ‘I read your report and thank you for it. Is there anything additional you would like to tell us? Do you have any questions to raise?’ The judge was such a gentle man. He never used any tough language.
“When he wrote a supplemental order, and there were only a few because Columbus did a very good job, we would sit in the big conference room next to his office. Before signing the order, he would pick up the pen and say, ‘We are doing this because it is just, it is right.’”
Honors accrue to Duncan
The College of Education and Human Ecology inducted Duncan into its Hall of Fame in 2004 to recognize his significant contributions to education and society. In his letter of nomination, Cunningham noted that Duncan earned respect nationally for his findings in the Columbus case as well as the quality of his oversight in implementing the remedy plan.
Cunningham also noted Duncan’s work for the Danforth Foundation in the 1980s, convening and facilitating national seminars for federal judges involved in school desegregation litigation. “School children nationwide ultimately benefitted from Duncan’s sense of justice and fairness,” Cunningham wrote.
Nancy H. Rogers, then dean of the College of Law, also nominated Duncan for the Hall of Fame recognition. “Clearly, Judge Duncan is an outstanding public servant, respected jurist, and consummate civic leader,” she wrote.
Among Duncan’s many other awards and honors is the Ohio State Alumni Association’s Ralph Davenport Mershon Award. He received the university’s highest recognition for exceptional leadership and service to the University in 1986.
In 2008, the Alumni Association renamed one of its awards the Robert M. Duncan Alumni Citizenship Award. It ensures that Duncan’s six decades of distinguished service to humanity and community will be remembered.
Throughout his experiences, Duncan remained human and humble, with, in his words, a “lifelong regard for common sense.” Upon learning of his induction into the College’s Hall of Fame, the first-generation college graduate wrote, “Back in the late forties [while studying for his bachelor’s in education], I would not have ever dreamed anything like this could happen.”
Read more about Ohio State’s memories of Robert M. Duncan.