The University of the District of Columbia (UDC Law) David A. Clarke, School of Law community, is mourning the recent loss of civil rights icon, lawyer, professor, and former Chairman of the Board of the University of the District of Columbia, Charles J. “Tree” Ogletree, Jr. Mr. Ogletree passed on August 4, at 70 years of age, in his home in Odenton, Maryland, from Alzheimer’s disease. Charles is survived by his wife of 47 years, Pamela Barnes, son Charles J. Ogletree III, daughter Rashida Ogletree-George, and four grandchildren.
“Professor Ogletree was an exemplary man who tirelessly fought for civil rights, social justice, and equality. His legacy is a blueprint for the entire legal community to follow,” said UDC Law Dean Twinette Johnson.
Ogletree was born on December 31, 1952, in Merced, California, to parents who were tenant farmers. As a child, he helped on the farm while attending public school. Ogletree earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, with distinction, in Political Science from Stanford University.
After graduating from Stanford University, Charles enrolled in Harvard Law School, where he would serve as president of the Black Law Students Association. In 1978, Charles earned his JD and began his career at the District of Columbia Public Defender Service. Ogletree was soon promoted to deputy director.
In 1983, Ogletree taught at UDC Law’s predecessor school, Antioch Law School, before returning to teach at Harvard Law School until his retirement in 2020. In 1998, Ogletree received the prestigious Jesse Climenko Professor of Law title. In 1999, he was appointed to the Board of Trustees at the University of the District of Columbia. In Ogletree’s honor, the Charles J. Ogletree Champion of Justice Award is betowed annually at the UDC Law Gala to individuals who exemplify a commitment to public service, diversity, and social justice throughout the United States and abroad. Past recipients include Sherrilyn Ifill, former Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Renee Montgomery, Co-Owner & Vice President of the WNBA Atlanta Dream.
Throughout his career, Ogletree was as dedicated to fighting for equality as he was to student success. He is famously known for his efforts to help gain justice for the descendants of the 1920 Tulsa Race Massacre, a massacre that destroyed Black-owned businesses and claimed the lives of hundreds of African Americans. Ogletree took it upon himself to create the Reparations Coordinating Committee. On top of his commitment to serving the underprivileged, he also helped famous clients such as Anita Hill and Tupac Shakur.
Charles Ogletree, Jr. founded Harvard’s Criminal Justice Institute and the Charles Hamilton Institute for Race and Justice. He mentored many students, two of whom would become President and First Lady of the United States, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.
Close friend and DC School of Law Foundation Board member Leslie Thornton remembers “Saturday School,” one of Ogletree’s student success initiatives. “The big thing about Saturday School was that he knew when people needed a bit of a leg up and was committed to ensuring people got it. But he did not just do that as formally as he did with Saturday School. Tree quietly, discreetly, consistently, and with no fanfare, tutored any young lawyer who had not passed the bar on their first try. Until they passed, he never asked for anything in return, never told anyone he was doing it while it was happening. It was an extraordinarily selfless commitment, among all his other responsibilities, that he carried on for decades. There must be hundreds of Black attorneys across this country who are barred because of Tree.”
Known for his kindness and giving spirit, Ogletree’s example will remain a source of inspiration for generations. Dean Twinette Johnson said, “Professor Ogletree’s story and impact have left an indelible mark on the UDC Law community. He will be sorely missed.”