Home > PUM Contributor Regis Bobonis, Sr. Profiles: F. Michael Higginbotham and the Legacy of His Family

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F. Michael Higginbotham, who was raised in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, is about to tell all who will listen just how Civil Rights issues are today for Black Americans now that the nation is in the post-election era of Barack Hussein Obama, the first African-American President of these United States. His book, the "Ghosts of Jim Crow: Ending Racism in Post Racial America" will be published on March 15th by the New York University Press and is expected to become a national best seller.


In "Ghosts", critics say that Michael makes a scholarly case for a straightforward conclusion and a recommended solution that will assure that the American Republic will never again return to the era of lynch mobs, bigotry discrimination and segregation.


America, he says, remains far away from that imagined utopia. Indeed, the shadows of Jim Crow area laws and attitudes continue to perpetuate insidious, systemic, prejudice and racism in the 21st Century. Higginbotham gives his solution "for ridding the nation of Jim Crow's Ghost" suggesting that legal and political reform can create a post-racial America, but only if it inspires whites and blacks to significantly alter behavior and attitudes of race based on superiority and victimization. He argues that "America will never fulfill its full potential unless it truly enters a post-racial era and believes that time is of the essence as competition increases globally."


Family members and close friends in Sewickley aren't the least bit surprised that Michael is now equally successful as a published author, as well as a legal scholar with expertise in Constitutional Law, Equal Protection, Human Rights and Race Relations. He is a graduate of Yale Law School, holds a Master's Degree in International Law from England's Oxford University, and is currently on a sabbatical as Dean of the Baltimore School of Law. Notably, Michael served his law clerkship with Federal Judge Cecil F. Poole, a Tuskegee Airman who served as a lawyer with the 332nd Fighter Group. Judge Poole earned an A.B. and LL.B from the University of Michigan. He received his LL.M from Harvard in 1939. Judge Poole was raised in Pittsburgh, the son of the venerable W. T. Poole, a mortician and one of the Hill District's outstanding community and Civil Rights leaders.

 The Higginbotham family is one of Sewickley's pioneer black families and Michael, friends and relatives say, is not the only one who is an accomplished Higginbotham achiever; his twin brother, Robert II, is also an attorney and is the Executive Director of record of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc.  Both are the sons and nephews of two of Sewickley's record seven Tuskegee Airmen.

 (pictured left: Mitchell and Rob Higginbotham)


First, Lieutenant Robert Higginbotham, Sr., who served in both WWII and Korea, returned and went on to graduate from the University of Pittsburgh's Medical School as an orthopedic surgeon. He and his wife, Margaret, now reside in Rancho Mirage, California.


Second, Lieutenant Mitchell Higginbotham, his brother, flew with the 477th Bomber Squadron and for a time was based at Freeman Field in Seymour, Indiana, for advanced training prior to heading for the Pacific and the invasion of Japan. In January of 1944, President Roosevelt signed an Executive Order forbidding the denial of any U.S. service personnel from properly using any facility on any military establishment because of race. When the 477th arrived at Freeman Field in April 1945, their ranks included veteran, highly decorated pilots who flew combat missions in Europe. They not only found an illegal "all white" Officers Club in full operation, but the 477th's white Commanding Officer declared the club off limits to the black officers.

In what has been called the "Freeman Mutiny", 101 officers from the 477th, in a carefully orchestrated initiative, placed their careers - and in time of war potentially their lives - at risk by entering the Club in successive waves and demanding all the courtesies due them as officers and gentlemen of the U.S. Army Air Force. Led by Lieutenants Mitchell Higginbotham and Wendell Freeland, three other officers from the Greater Pittsburgh Region took part in the so called "Mutiny". They were the late Captain James T. Wylie from Pittsburgh's North Side, who was the first Tuskegee Airman to complete 50 multiple combat missions, Lieutenant William Curtis, Jr. of Sewickley, and Lieutenant Calvin Smith, who still lives in Beaver Falls, Beaver County, Pennsylvania.

After the war, in 1946 Mitchell enrolled at the University of Colorado earning a Master's Degree in Industrial Relations. His first job was that of a staff member of the Urban League of Pittsburgh, only to be hired away by the management of the Greater Pittsburgh International Airport and assigned the responsibility of managing the arrivals and departures of all unscheduled aircraft. In a short time, the Commissioners of Los Angeles County lured Mitchell away to manage the County's Industrial Relations portfolio. He now lives in Dana Point, California, traveling and lecturing as the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc.'s "Ambassador of Goodwill".

There's more ... Michael's cousin, Monique Higginbotham, is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and is on the staff at the Child Advocacy Center of UPMC's Children's Hospital.

However, Michael's passion is the law and he seems destined to follow in the foot steps of his second cousin, the brilliant elder statesman of this extraordinary family, the late Aloysius Leon Higginbotham, who was hand picked by the Democrats to replace the late Thurgood Marshall, the venerable Associate Justice and first African-American to be appointed to the United States Supreme Court. Had Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis won the 1989 Presidential election, A. Leon would have received his history-making appointment. But George H. W. Bush was the victor and he appointed Clarence Thomas to the high court.

Most legal scholars agree Higginbotham would have been the ideal successor to Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court. He was esteemed as a Harvard Law Professor, author, civil rights advocate, and federal judge. Leon Higginbotham was the first black judge and youngest person ever appointed to the U. S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and first black Trustee of Yale University. President Kennedy appointed him as the first African-American to sit on the Federal Trade Commission; President Carter appointed him to sit on the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit; and in 1994 President Clinton presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.


Regis D. Bobonis, Sr.

(PUM Contributor, Sewickley Hisorian, Former Pittsburgh Courier Editor) 


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