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Charles J. Ogletree Jr., ’74, MA ’75

September 2023

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In a typical bold move late one night in the spring of 1972, Stanford freshman Charles Ogletree and two friends drove up to President Richard Lyman’s house to challenge him directly over a dean’s diversity critique: that too many in the new cohort of Black students were activists, not scholars. The leaked memo had caused a campus firestorm. “Why don’t we deal with it right now?” Ogletree suggested. Lyman agreed to a meeting the next morning with the impatient young social justice campaigner who, characteristically, would go on to befriend both Lyman and the dean—and become a Stanford trustee.

Portrait of Charles Ogletree Jr.Photo: Derek Toliver

Charles J. Ogletree Jr., ’74, MA ’75, died August 4 at his home in Odenton, Md., from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. He was 70. He is survived by his wife, Pamela Barnes Ogletree, ’75; children Charles J. Ogletree III and Rashida Ogletree-George; and four grandchildren.

Ogletree came from an impoverished childhood in California’s San Joaquin Valley. “He didn’t have it easy growing up, but he felt like the world was his family and it was his duty to serve them, and to do so he was both forceful and diplomatic,” says close friend Derek Toliver, ’75. Ogletree, Toliver, and Barnes all met in Roble Hall on their first day at Stanford.

As a first-year student, Ogletree was elected chair of the Black Student Union. He also supported freedom for jailed political activist Angela Davis, argued for Stanford’s divestiture from apartheid South Africa, and, as ASSU vice president his junior year, pushed for the independent Black cultural theme dorm now known as Ujamaa. 

Despite the time he committed to his activism, Ogletree finished his bachelor’s in three years and spent a fourth obtaining a master’s in political science. He’d planned to study law at Stanford, too, until his future wife confronted him, he recalled, saying that the only reason he didn’t apply to Harvard was that he feared he couldn’t meet the challenge. “That was all the irritation I needed,” he said in an interview with the Stanford Historical Society. To his surprise, Lyman offered to write him a letter of recommendation.

“Now, maybe he wanted to get me out of Stanford as soon as possible—I’m being facetious—but he respected the fact that we saw issues differently, that we were willing to engage,” Ogletree said.

He earned his Harvard law degree in 1978, then worked at the District of Columbia public defender’s office. Later, in private practice, he represented notable clients such as Tupac Shakur in criminal and civil cases and Anita Hill when she accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment at his Senate confirmation hearings in 1991.

Ogletree returned to Harvard to teach in the mid-1980s and became a professor in 1993. Among his many students were Barack and Michelle Obama; his several books reflected themes of race, justice, and equalityHe served as a Stanford trustee from 1991 to 2001.

At Harvard, Ogletree displayed in his office a large photo of himself with fellow Afroed college classmates, says Stanford law professor Ralph Richard Banks, ’87, MA ’87. “I took it to represent what he stood for as a protester and a conciliator, and for never forgetting where he came from.”

John Roemer is a freelance writer based in Sausalito, Calif. Email him at stanford.magazine@stanford.edu.

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