More than 90 years after he enrolled as one of the first African-Americans at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, the largely unknown Theodore Selden was celebrated Friday for his short yet distinguished career.
Seldon died when he was 23 after receiving two bachelor’s degrees. He was working as a Pullman porter to help pay for law school; his race prevented him from most other employment.
In the ’80s, Gary Clinton was moving a box of files to a storage room working as a law school registrar when the one on top jumped out at him.
The files, which concerned the Class 1924, contained on that said “deceased July 3, 1922.”
“It’s rare to have a student pass away while in law school, and I opened the file up, and here was a short newspaper article about this young man who had died in a tragic train accident,” Clinton said. “His body wasn’t identifiable,” Clinton said.
But in moving the remains of his body, authorities discovered a small piece of gold from his Phi Beta Kappa key.
“And according to contemporary news articles at the time, they assumed the body belonged to a white person,” Clinton said.
And they were wrong.
Last summer, when Clinton, who’s now the dean of students at the law school, was talking about another memorial plaque for a student who died tragically, Seldon’s story came back to him. He thought, there ought to be a plaque for him, too.
On Friday, the school unveiled it among a room full of Seldon’s family members.
“They put together the pieces that were missing from my family, and it’s very important for us, because as an African-American, a lot of our history was stolen from us,” said Janet Seldon, his grand-niece. “And so, this was really great that we have a piece of our history, that we can say, ‘This is ours.'”
Lila Midget was also there. She’s 93 and knew him as uncle Mitt.
“I have a great feeling. It’s overwhelming. I really can’t express,” she said. “But I’m very happy about it.”