By Victor A. Patton | Central Valley Journalism Collaborative | Special to the OBSERVER
MERCED — Among the small group of Merced residents who gathered last week outside the Charles James Ogletree Jr. Courthouse was an old friend of the esteemed attorney and scholar.
Joe James Jr. grew up with Ogletree on the south side of Merced. While Ogletree rose from poverty to become one of the nation’s brightest legal minds, James took a different path through the legal system.
“I got in trouble,” the 70-year-old said with a laugh. “I go to prison and he goes to the White House. … He made it to Harvard and I didn’t see him for a long time.”
James, who served 10 years in prison for burglary, said that, nevertheless, his old friend would get together with him during his visits home to Merced.
On Aug. 10, he joined Ogletree’s friends and relatives in Merced to honor him and say goodbye. Ogletree died on Aug. 4 in Maryland. He was 70.
The Superior Court building, which was named for Ogletree in February, was a fitting place to remember the prominent Harvard Law School professor and Merced native.
The celebration featured remembrances from those who knew him and a ceremonial release of balloons, many of them shaped like stars to honor the man who became a star in his own right.
Ogletree rose to prominence as a defense attorney and served as counsel to Professor Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings and as mentor to Barack and Michelle Obama when they were at Harvard Law.
Ogletree also continued to have a lasting impact on the Obamas after Barack became president of the United States.
But to folks like James, Ogletree is remembered as a curious young man who always seemed ahead of the curve, regardless of his life circumstances.
“He was always inquisitive. He was always asking questions,” James said. “I knew he would go somewhere.”
Ogletree spent his formative years in Merced’s Parkwest neighborhood, a collection of modest homes abutting the city’s southwest boundary line, several industrial sites and the local airport.
Nadine Washington, the last surviving aunt on Ogletree’s mother’s side of the family, recalled that his childhood nickname had been “Junebug,” which she believed derived from his status as Charles “junior.” But, she noted, his passion for learning eventually led to a new nickname – “Professor.”
“He wanted to be more than just a little Black boy from south Merced that picked tomatoes and picked cotton,” Washington told the CVJC.
The 75-year-old Washington continues to speak of her nephew in the present tense, because she feels his presence is still here. “I’m just thankful that people loved enough, cared enough to take time to come here today to honor a man who is a son of Merced, a product of Merced, and a great human being.”
Early Roots On “The Other Side Of The Tracks”
Ogletree was born on Dec. 31, 1952, in Merced to parents Charles Sr. and Willie Mae Ogletree, who were from Little Rock, Ark., and Birmingham, Ala., respectively. The two met in Berkeley.
In a 2004 interview with civil rights leader Julian Bond on the University of Virginia program “Explorations in Black Leadership,” Ogletree provided special insight into his early years in Merced.
Many Blacks had come to California from the Deep South during the Great Migration, a period of time from the early to mid-20th century, seeking greater opportunities away from the scourge of legalized segregation.
“The word was ‘go west,’ that California didn’t have (the history of) slavery, California didn’t have segregation, it was different from the South,” Ogletree explained. “And they thought they ‘struck it rich’ which meant they were lower working class. That they had a wage they could live on for a week and provide for their family.”
Ogletree said his father dropped out of school in the 4th grade and left Alabama. He never returned. “When he did share thoughts about Alabama, they weren’t pleasant thoughts, other than about his family,” Ogletree recalled.
Back then, even if a Black man looked at a white woman in the eye during those days, it would be considered “eyeball” rape. “And so the word spread that you could not look at white women, And that was a phenomenon his entire life. He really didn’t look white people in the eye.” Ogletree told Bond.
In terms of his mother’s upbringing in Arkansas, Ogletree said the conditions were similar to his father’s.
“They were in the middle of Jim Crow segregation. And the whole lifestyle was that you lived off the land, you didn’t own anything. But they knew you couldn’t drink at water fountains because you were Black, you couldn’t eat in restaurants, you couldn’t stay at a hotel, you couldn’t get a job, you couldn’t go to schools unless they were segregated.”
His parents lived in Vallejo before eventually moving to Merced, Ogleree said. Although California in those days was a far cry from the de facto segregation in the Deep South, divisions also existed in the Golden State.
Ogletree explained that during the 1950s, Merced was divided by railroad tracks. On the southern side of the tracks lived Blacks, Hispanics, some Asians and poor whites, while the more prosperous northern side was predominantly white.
Ogletree discussed his youth in the context of the Brown vs. Board of Education, the historic 1954 Supreme Court decision that determined racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.
“Everything about our community was divided by those railroad tracks,” Ogletree said. “The business opportunities, the high schools, the places that people went for recreation, the different sort of jobs you might pursue. There was a real demarcation at those railroad tracks, so even though (the Brown vs. Board of Education case) wasn’t discussed or debated in the house, its implications were clear even in California and after 1954.”
Ogletree’s family members were migrant workers in the region’s agricultural fields during those early days. They lived in a camp called “Red Top” outside of Chowchilla, and worked on ranches owned by white farmers who would hire Black seasonal workers.
Still, in some ways the work was not much better than the sharecropping systems of oppression in the Deep South.
“And they would get a salary. But first of all you take out (money) for your rent. You take out for your food, you take out for the special provisions, and you might get a little change at the end of the month, but the idea was you were really working to live,” Ogletree explained.
“This was supposed to be a southern phenomenon. This is California in the 1940s and early ‘50s, it was the same.”
School Days In Merced
Despite the numerous obstacles, Ogletree’s parents instilled an understanding that education was a ticket to better life circumstances.
“All they said was ‘you must be educated, you must stay in school and trust us. If you get an education, it will lead to better opportunities for you than it has for us,’ without being bitter or belaboring their own experiences,” Ogletree told Bond during the 2004 interview.
Growing up in a family of three brothers and two sisters, Ogletree attended Galen Clark Elementary, Tenaya Middle School and Merced High School.
He took his parent’s advice to heart, and by all accounts was a voracious reader with a studious disposition from an early age.
“Every time you had seen him, Ogletree always had a book in his hand. Everyone else probably had a ball or some candy,” recalled Lavelle Winzer, 68, a retired Merced City School District teacher who also grew up in the Parkwest area at the same time. The two played on the same youth basketball team.
“He was always the brightest one out of all of us, so we kind of knew he was going to make something out of himself,” Winzer said during the Aug. 10 ceremony.
Washington, the younger sister of Ogletree’s mother, said the family encouraged him to pursue higher education. “(We) knew that he had potential. He had a gift – many gifts – that he could use to help make the world a better place,” she said.
Ogletree’s leadership skills also led him to be the first Black student to be elected student body president at Merced High.
“It was a blessing just to have someone Black there,” Winzer remembered. “He always came around and talked to us about what we wanted to do, and what we could do to make the school better.”
Another person who appreciated Ogletree’s integrity as a young student body president was L. Reno Martinelli, a retired Planada teacher who was part of Merced High’s class of 1971.
Martinelli, who like Ogletree had a love of basketball, played on a rival team in Merced’s recreation league.
As they were both competitive high school students, Martinelli made a bet with Ogletree that if his team won, Ogletree would have to say during morning announcements that his team triumphed.
“We ended up beating him. And sure enough, man of his word, he got up there the next day, he announced every one of our names, that we were the best, we beat them fair and square and everything,” Martinelli said.
“I knew as soon as that happened, I said ‘this is a man you can trust. This is a man that’s going to go far. This is a man that’s going to do great things.’
The Legacy Of “Tree”
Ogletree’s commitment to academic excellence resulted in scholarships to Stanford University, where he obtained bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science. He would go on to earn his law degree from Harvard University.
His accomplishments as a law professor, author, and champion for human rights everywhere are numerous.
According to his obituary in Harvard Law Today, he served eight years in the District of Columbia Public Defender Service, where he became deputy director. Known by the nickname “Tree” among his colleagues, he became a lecturer at Harvard Law in 1984, was named professor of law in 1993 and then Jesse Climenko Professor of Law in 1998.
From his long list of legal accomplishments emerges a common thread of being a champion for civil rights and fighting for justice for those who had been disenfranchised.
Those career highlights included:
- Founding the Criminal Justice Institute, which trains student lawyers to represent indigent clients in the Boston area.
- Launching the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School, named after the civil rights lawyer who spearheaded the litigation campaign that eventually resulted in the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision.
- Seeking justice for victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, where whites destroyed the prosperous “Black Wall Street” business district and hundreds of Black people were murdered.
- Representing Anita Hill and Tupac Shakur as clients.
- Being awarded UC Merced’s inaugural Alice and Clifford Spendlove Prize in Social Justice, Diplomacy and Tolerance in 2006.
- Authoring books on the topic of civil rights, including “All Deliberate Speed: Reflections on the First Half Century of Brown v. Board of Education,” and “The Presumption of Guilt: The Arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Race, Class and Crime in America,”
Ogletree’s friends recalled that, despite the successes that carried him far, Ogletree remained close to his Merced roots and always made an effort to support his hometown.
Tony Slaton, 62, a cousin of Ogletree’s, said that during his time as executive director of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Merced County, Ogletree was “very supportive of our work.”
Ogletree’s legacy in Merced is important, particularly to young people, Slaton said, because he showed “anything is possible.”
“Growing up from very humble circumstances and going literally to the White House. If you work hard and are blessed, it can happen for you,” Slaton said.
Martinelli told those gathered at the courthouse that he and Ogletree remained in contact long after graduating from Merced High. On one of those occasions, Martinelli was teaching his 8th-grade students in Planada about the U.S. Constitution. He asked Ogletree to send him some educational materials to help with his lessons.
“He must have sent me everything that he had, because I had more information than I needed,” Martinelli laughed. “I miss him every day. He was a good friend to talk to. You’re with everybody up there.” Martinelli said, pointing to the sky.
Joe James, Ogletreee’s childhood friend, said that after he finished his prison term on the burglary charge, he worked with his father on jukeboxes and pool tables, but acknowledged he had gotten “back in trouble” and returned to prison.
James said that, while trying to appeal one of his cases, Ogletree was able to refer him to legal help, still trying to look out for his childhood friend.
The last time James saw Ogletree was in 2016, during the ceremony to present Anita Hill with UC Merced’s Spendlove Prize. Unfortunately, that was around the same time Ogletree was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
“I went up to him and I said ‘How are you doing, Charles?” James said. “And he said ‘I am doing great, John.’
It was then apparent to James that Ogletree didn’t remember his name, despite their early years together.
“I said, ‘No, Charles, I am Joe James. He said ‘Oh, oh, Joe James.’ So I knew he was kind of losing it then,” James said. “And I am just sorry to hear he passed.”
Despite Ogletree’s death, friends and family members said his legacy will continue. His daughter Rashida Ogletree-George is an attorney, following in her father’s footsteps.
Washington said her nephew’s legacy will influence young people for years to come, in Merced and beyond. “He knew he wanted to be something, and God allowed it to happen,” she said.
“You know there’s something about Jesus, where people would say ‘can any good thing come out of Nazareth?’ What I am saying now is, ‘Can any good thing come out of Merced?’ And the answer is yes. Something good came out of Merced. And he didn’t just keep it in Merced.”
Ogletree is survived by his wife, Pamela Barnes, a fellow Stanford graduate whom he married in 1975, according to his Harvard Law bio; their children Charles Ogletree III and Rashida Ogletree-George; and grandchildren Marquelle, Nia Mae, and Jamila Ogletree, as well as Makayla George.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Victor A. Patton is the community engagement editor for the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative, a nonprofit newsroom based in Merced.