Two recent alumni are leading an initiative to create a mural commemorating pioneering Missouri judge Leah Brock McCartney, GW’s first Black alumna.
In summer 2020, Naseem Haamid, BA ’21, a political science major and Bronx, N.Y., native, received a call from then-senior business administration major Owen Manning, BBA ’21, about the protests against racial injustice he had just watched on TV from his home in Atlanta. Inspired by the stories of people fighting to make their voices heard in Washington, D.C., and cities around the world, both agreed it was time they stepped in to “mark the moment,” Manning said.
Luckily, they already had a story to tell.
While at GW, Haamid and Manning took a class called Black Feminist Theory—Lemons Into Lemonade: Black Women in the US. Taught by Jordan S. West, director of university diversity and inclusion education, the class celebrated the resilience and empowerment of Black women throughout American history.
As a class project, Haamid and Manning designed a mural commemorating Leah Brock McCartney, the first Black alumna at GW in 1954 and a pioneering judge in Missouri. Now, both are determined to bring that mural to life, taking it from a classroom drawing board to a Foggy Bottom site. Together, they are leading a cross-university initiative called the Leah Brock McCartney Project. With the help of the GW community and those involved in the region’s art scene, they have embarked on a mission to erect a mural on campus honoring McCartney and “uplifting Black history at GW,” Haamid said.
The proposed 26 X 36 feet mural will be created by a local Black female artist the targeted completion date is by the end of the next academic year.
“Owen and Naseem were compelled through their academic experience to take action,” said West, who is also a faculty member in the Columbian College Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies. “It is through their strength and their persistence that this project will positively impact the GW community, the D.C. community and even society at large while supporting, celebrating and honoring Black women.”
The classmates who also participated in the project include Malaika Hall, BA ’20, Simone Hunter-Hobson, BA ’20, Marie-Helene De-Messou, BA ’20, and Arion Laws, BA ’20.
Manning and Haamid knew little about McCartney before taking Dr. West’s course—a fact that both found troubling. The pair were leaders in the GW student community. Manning is a former president of the Black Student Union and a Posse Scholar who has sat on numerous university committees and task forces. Haamid was the president of the undergraduate chapter of the GW Black Law Students Association and a former vice president of the Black Men's Initiative at GW.
But to both, McCartney’s story was largely unknown. Born in 1911 in Ellisville, Miss., she spent years as a teacher before even enrolling in GW. She received an L.L.B. degree in 1954, the same year that GW abolished restrictions on minority student admissions. (Previously, Black students could only attend evening classes.) In 1968, she became the first Black woman to earn a law degree from GW, graduating with the highest grade point average in her third-year class despite working full-time during her studies.
During her illustrious legal career, she was the first female municipal judge of record in Missouri, taught law at the University of Tulsa and became the first Black person to serve on the Missouri Public Service Commission.
To Haamid and Manning, McCartney’s story had a familiar ring—the unrecognized legacy of an accomplished Black woman.
“As members of marginalized communities, we know what it’s like to be left out,” Manning said.
Haamid, who is interested in law, noted how McCartney’s example has motivated him to pursue his academic goals. “It’s inspiring to know that Judge McCartney paved the way for students like me at GW,” he said. “We truly stand on the shoulders of giants like her.”
After months of intensive research with the help of GW Libraries and university archivists—made more difficult due to pandemic parameters—the creators formally presented their proposal to GW President Thomas LeBlanc in October. Mindful of the importance of collaborating with Black women, they turned to Chanel Compton, an artist with the DC Commission for Arts and Humanities and executive director of the Banneker Douglass Museum in Maryland, to help design and create the mural.
“I am very proud of Owen and Naseem,” LeBlanc said. “Their extensive research, collaborative approach and passion for honoring Judge McCartney demonstrate true leadership and a commitment to ensuring GW is a welcoming and inclusive place for all. I hope that our students, faculty, staff and alumni will join me in supporting this incredible effort.”
Manning and Haamid are leading all aspects of the project with the active support of West, from working with the District government to raising the funds for the project cost. Although they are still in the initial fundraising stages, they recently secured a $10,000 pledge from the GW Luther Rice Society. The final campus location of the mural has yet to be announced.
Manning and Haamid said they’re committed to sharing McCartney’s story and will continue to guide the project through its completion. In addition to celebrating the extraordinary life of a historic Black alumna, they hope the mural will resonate with GW students.
“When you walk by this mural on campus,” Manning said, “whether you’re a Black woman or other races and identities, I hope it makes you feel like this is a place that shares your values—this is a place where you want to be.”
Learn more about the Leah Brock McCartney Project and donate through the website.