In the winter of 1996, I received a call from Prof. Charles Ogletree, Jr. It was not totally unusual to field a call from the professor; I received them periodically from time to time. He would inquire about how I was adjusting to college and encourage me to stop by his office at Harvard Law School when I returned home. This call, however, was slightly different than the others. He spoke to the budding activist in me and was genuinely curious about my experiences as a Black student at Cambridge Rindge and Latin (CRLS), where I’d graduated two and half years before.
Our conversation was relatively brief, no more than 15 minutes. At the time, talking to anyone besides a college co-ed for longer than 15 minutes was unusual, but during that short exchange, Prof. Ogletree helped me formulate my disjointed and ambitious ideas into a strategy to empower people who were embroiled in the world of systematic and political harm. Our relationship continued long past that call in ’96, years throughout which he assisted me in more ways than I could ever imagine or truly honor.
I can vividly remember a time we met for lunch, and we talked in detail about the state of Cambridge Public Schools. We brainstormed ways to alchemize school districts, mapping out ways Cambridge and other districts like it could better support the most marginalized students. He taught me to understand the local landscape when fighting for those who struggled with advocating for themselves. He not only empowered me to do the work, but to be strategic in how I went about it.
Over the next few days, we will read a series of articles and essays about the folks he mentored and impacted. And each of us should be mindful that we are better because of our proximity to not only Prof. Ogletree, but to Mrs. Pamela Ogletree, his daughter Rashida Ogletree-George, and to his son — my high school classmate, Charles ‘Chuck’ Ogletree, III.
Compassionate and forward-minded leaders put you in positions and place you in rooms that will help you to dream beyond what you’ve ever seen. It was through my relationship with Prof. Ogletree that I had an opportunity to learn from Angela Davis, debate Dr. Cornel West, and listen to Harry Belafonte, to name just a few.
In a world where so many among us are hyper-competitive, the professor made it his business to know all folks, not just those in power. The professor helped to draft the new South African constitution, yet he was grounded enough to call a kid from The Port (formerly Area IV) to read a section of one of his books, simply to see if the language would resonate with my generation. He understood the levers of power, and how to pull them to maximize the breadth of opportunities for each of us
I will always remember Prof. Ogletree as an intellectual who solved problems, not an intellectual who pontificated about them for public adulation.
While I am saddened at the loss of a giant, I have found comfort in the fact that an organization I co-founded, My Brother’s Keeper Cambridge Task Force, has partnered with Mass General Hospital (MGH) and Harvard Medical School to provide robust internships and pathways for high school students to examine, conduct research, and co-write white papers about Alzheimer’s, the dreadful disease that took the professor’s life. This effort, along with the blessing of the Ogletree family to name a forthcoming academy for Black and brown middle school boys in his honor, has provided some solace. I have no doubt that his legacy will remain strong as the steady vibrance of his work.
And local activists, including former NAACP Cambridge branch president Kathy Ann Reddick (1995–2015), will remind us that Prof. Ogletree’s work must continue. He would only expect great things — and he left us a blueprint for excellence, with examples like the Criminal Justice Institute, The Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Racial Injustice, and The Benjamin Banneker Charter School.
As we prepare for a spirited presidential election season, one that will certainly be rife with incumbents and their challengers making big promises, I will be cognizant of the talking-point tightrope politicians who dodge the tough conversations Prof. Ogletree pushed us to have — especially about how to increase freedom for the “bottom stuck,” even within our self-proclaimed and widely-advertised liberal bastion of Cambridge. Are we prepared to be inspired by his work on reparations and disparities in the penal system? Will we follow his call to unearth the root causes for of why overall arrests in Cambridge have gone down, while arrests among people of color are up? I know he would be asking if we were ready to create a school committee courageous enough to push the district to move with “deliberate speed” that prepares all its children?
I will always remember Prof. Ogletree as an intellectual who solved problems, not an intellectual who pontificated about them for public adulation. He forged institutions with a mindset that movements in courts and communities are above banter and arguments in the media.
I am sad to have lost him. But as we remember his life, we should consider it a call to action, for all of us to remember his urging: whenever we make it over the threshold, we must reach back and help others. During his commencement address in 2011 at Morehouse College he left us with a mantle to “lift every voice, not just those around you. The faceless, the powerless, the people that can’t make it. Stand up and sacrifice for those who follow.”
This is the way I will march on, with the deepest respect and gratitude for a great man who left an indelible mark on my life and my mission.