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Hopkins leaving a legacy of service at Wake Forest

Hopkins leaving a legacy of service at Wake Forest
April 28
05:50 2016

Hopkins

BY TODD LUCK 

THE CHRONICLE

Beth Hopkins said that after graduating from Wake Forest University in 1973 with Cum Laude honors, she planned to attend WFU law school, but was turned down because there were already two black law students. She said she was devastated.

“It just wasn’t my time to be at Wake Forest, at the law school, it just wasn’t my time,” said Hopkins. “You could not have convinced me that 30 years later, that I would be teaching here and directing a program.”

Professor Beth Hopkins, who leads the Wake Forest School of Law’s outreach efforts, is retiring in June after more than 30 years at the university.

Hopkins was born in 1951 and grew up in Petersburg, Viginia. Both her parents were educators with high expectations for their two daughters.

Hopkins said it was a turbulent time in race relations in the South.  She vividly remembered the White Only and Colored Only signs and not being able to go to swimming pools and tennis courts on the other side of town.

She said starting at the age of 12, she wanted to become a lawyer so she could be an “agent of change” following in the footsteps of her heroes like Oliver Hill, Thurgood Marshall, Charles Hamilton Houston and Patricia Roberts Harris.

“I wanted to change things; I wanted to make it fair,” she said. “I wanted to make the Constitution apply to people who look like me.”

When she graduated high school, a friend told her Wake Forest University was looking for black female students, so she applied and was awarded an academic scholarship. In 1971, she was among the first black women to live on campus and later became the university’s first black homecoming queen.

“The women had afros and miniskirts, we were strong and proud and fearless,” said Hopkins.

She said the men were equally resilient. Among them was Lawrence Hopkins, who she married her senior year. The very small minority of black students stuck together as a unit.

“We depended on the upperclassmen to help us navigate the turbulent waters and so they told us which professors we should absolutely not enroll in,” she said.  “We ate together at breakfast, lunch and dinner, so we presented a very bold image.”

She said they were all good students who earned their place at WFU, despite some white students who questioned their academic credentials for being there because of Affirmative Action. After being turned down by Wake Forest University law school, Hopkins attended the Marshall Wythe School of Law at the College of William and Mary in Virginia while maintaining a long distance relationship with her husband, who attended Bowman Gray School of Medicine locally. After she graduated in 1977, she took a job at Hill, Tucker and Marsh, the law firm of one of her heroes, Civil Rights Attorney Oliver Hill.

“It was one of the most incredible employment experiences I have ever had, to be working on cases where you’re going to change the traditional way in which the Commonwealth of Virginia treated its citizens,” she said.

The firm worked on a variety of cases in the two years she was there, including employment issues and police brutality. When the black bar association honored the partners at the firm, she got to meet another of her heroes, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who was Hill’s college classmate.

“It was an exhilarating experience, he had this big warmth and his spirit just filled up the whole room,” she said about Marshall.

Hopkins would become a United States  state’s attorney in both Richmond, Va. and in Shreveport, La. where her husband served in the Air Force. By 1984, they had moved back to Winston-Salem so they could be close to their parents in neighboring states. She helped Lawrence start his OB/GYN practice while working at the local Chamber of Commerce. She said she was no longer bitter about being denied entry to WFU School of Law.

“That was in the past, that was gone, I’d moved on,” she said.

So in 1985, she began working for WFU’s newly created legal council office. She would go on to become a lecturer and professor teaching courses in history, American ethnic studies and law. In 2010, she became the director of the Smith Anderson Center for Community Outreach, which includes the law school’s Pro Bono and Public Interest programs. Public Interest Law Organization encourages students to pursue careers in places like public defender or district attorney offices. The Pro Bono Project lets students volunteer in the community. During Hopkins’ tenure, participation in the Pro Bono Project went from 10 percent of law students to more than 60 percent, giving 6,000 hours of service. Volunteering is not required and students receive no credit for it.

“It worked because we had a team here,” said Hopkins.  “We had administrative support, faculty resources and dedicated students. And I was like a facilitator putting all the pieces of the puzzle together.”

She also said supervising attorneys from the community who’ve mentored the students have also been vital to the project’s success.

During a recent retirement celebration, Law School Dean Suzanne Reynolds said students helped with advanced directives, expungement clinics and helping local youth know their legal rights as part of the project. She said she expects that to continue after Hopkins retires.

“Professor Hopkins, you have made this law school a better law school and it will remain that way,” said Reynolds.

Hopkins and her husband have two children, Michelle, who is a mental rehab councilor, and David, who is a professional tennis player, and two grandchildren. After she retires June 29, she plans to enjoy retirement by spending time with family, reading a book a week and taking classes in pottery and Spanish.

She’s also passionate about tennis, which she was introduced to as a student at WFU and still plays.  She’s chair of constitution and rules for the United States Tennis Association and helped start the tennis programs at two local high schools.

The university has renamed the Public Interest Initiative scholarship grant to the Hopkins Pro  Humanitate grant in her honor.

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Wali Pitt

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