Robert Belton, trailblazing scholar of employment law, dead at 76

Robert Belton, who retired from a 34-year career as a professor at Vanderbilt Law School in 2009, died Thursday, February 9, after suffering a stroke. He was 76.

A nationally recognized scholar of labor and employment and civil rights law, Professor Belton joined Vanderbilt’s law faculty in 1975 and became the first African American to be granted tenure at Vanderbilt Law School. He was a popular and beloved teacher and mentor who particularly enjoyed working with students interested in social justice, and he played an important role in mentoring minority law students, serving as faculty advisor to the Black Law Students Association and working with other African-American faculty on equality issues at Vanderbilt.

“Bob was an influential mentor and role model to an entire generation of Vanderbilt Law students as well as an accomplished litigator and distinguished scholar,” said Chris Guthrie, dean of Vanderbilt Law School. “During his long, successful and productive career here, he was a valued colleague who made incredible contributions as a teacher and adviser to students and as a scholar of employment and civil rights law. We are deeply saddened by his death.”

A trailblazer in civil rights as an activist, attorney and scholar throughout his career, Professor Belton served from 1965-70 as an assistant counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. (LDF). At the LDF, he headed a national civil rights litigation campaign to enforce what was then a new federal law prohibiting discrimination in employment because of factors such as race and sex. Professor Belton had a major role in the landmark Supreme Court civil rights case the LDF litigated, Griggs v. Duke Power Co. Other landmark Supreme Court civil rights cases in which he was involved included Albemarle Paper Co. v. Moody, which addressed damages in civil rights cases, and Harris v. Forklift Systems, which addressed sexual harassment.

After his work with the LDF, Professor Belton practiced law from 1970-75 as a partner at Chambers Stein Ferguson & Lanning in Charlotte, North Carolina, one of the first racially integrated firms in the South. The building owned by the firm was fire-bombed at the height of its involvement in a series of landmark civil rights cases, including Swann v. Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education, in which the Supreme Court approved busing as a remedy to enforce the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

Belton student conferenceAn expert in employment discrimination law, Professor Belton was the author of numerous law review articles and book chapters, and the lead author of a widely-adopted casebook on employment discrimination law that was the first to incorporate critical race and feminist theory. He taught the Law of Work, Employment Discrimination Law, Constitutional Tort Litigation, and Race and the Law.

Born September 19, 1935, Professor Belton was a native of High Point, North Carolina, the fourth child of a laborer whose family ultimately numbered 18 children. He excelled academically and was offered a full scholarship to Morehouse College, but decided first to spend a year with a sister who was living in Connecticut. He earned his B.A. at the University of Connecticut in 1961 and his J.D. at Boston University in 1965.

Over the course of his career, Professor Belton was a visiting professor at Harvard Law School and the University of North Carolina, and the first Distinguished Charles Hamilton Houston Visiting Professor of Law at North Carolina Central School of Law. Among other honors, he received the American Association of Law Schools’ Minority Section’s Clyde C. Ferguson Award in 2003 and the National Bar Association’s Presidential Award in 2006.

belton and family

At Vanderbilt, he served on numerous law school and university committees, including the Faculty Senate, the Committee on the Status of Women and Minorities, the University Research Council, and the Black Cultural Center, and on many professional committees, including the Executive Committee of the American Association of Law Schools and the National Employment Lawyers Association. He was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., the Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity (the Boule), and the 100 Black Men of Middle Tennessee.

He is survived by his wife, Joy; his son, Keith and daughter Alaina, and two grandchildren, Savannah and Kelsey.

Viewing and family visitation is scheduled from 4-6 p.m. on Tuesday, February 14, at Smith Brothers Funeral Home at 706 Monroe Avenue in Nashville.

A Homegoing service is scheduled at 2 p.m. on Wednesday, February 15, at Mr. Zion Church at 2261 Murfreesboro Pike in Nashville.

The funeral service will be, on Friday, February 17 at 1 p.m., at Baldwin’s Chapel at 1200 Leonard Avenue in High Point, North Carolina. The service will be followed by the burial at 2 p.m. in Carolina Biblical Gardens at 5710 Riverdale Drive in Jamestown, North Carolina.

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