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Vanderbilt News

Robert Belton, trailblazing scholar of employment law, dies

Feb. 10, 2012, 2:58 PM

Robert Belton

Robert Belton (photo courtesy Vanderbilt Law School)

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

A nationally recognized scholar of labor and employment and civil rights law, 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. He played an important role in mentoring minority law students, serving as faculty adviser 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, Belton served from 1965 to 1970 as an assistant counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. At the Legal Defense Fund, 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.

Belton had a major role in Griggs v. Duke Power Co, the landmark Supreme Court civil rights case the Legal Defense Fund litigated. 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.

From 1970 to 1975 Belton practiced law as a partner at Chambers Stein Ferguson & Lanning in Charlotte, N.C., 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.

An expert in employment discrimination law, 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 Law of Work, Employment Discrimination Law, Constitutional Tort Litigation, and Race and the Law.

Belton was a native of High Point, N.C., 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, 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.

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., Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity (the Boule) and the 100 Black Men of Middle Tennessee.

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

Viewing and visitation will be 4 to 6 p.m. Feb. 14 at Smith Brothers Funeral Home in Nashville. A Homegoing service is set for 2 p.m. Feb. 15 at Mt. Zion Church.

The funeral will be 1 p.m. Feb. 17 at Baldwin’s Chapel in High Point, N.C. Burial is scheduled for 2 p.m. Feb. 17 at Carolina Biblical Gardens in Jamestown, N.C.

Contact: Grace Renshaw, 615-322-2615

  • Sheila Smith-McKoy

    Bob Belton was more than a pioneer, he was perpetually working for equality for African descent faculty and students at Vanderbilt.  He worked tirelessly for social justice and he was simply a wonderful advocate.  My time at Vanderbilt was made richer because he was there.  Bob was a wonderful person and he will certainly be missed. 
    Sending regards and condolences to this family during this difficult time. 
    Sheila Smith McKoy, PhD
    North Carolina State University

  • I never had the honor to speak or meet Mr. Belton, but I do know his wonderful, smart caring daughter Mrs.Alaina Barnett and the legacy he leaves with us through her advocacy for children and all under priviledged human beings is great. My sincere hope for the Family is to band together and remember the good times.

    Twilla Robinson-Booker

  • Annie Gunter Bradt

    The Belton’s were our neighbors for over 15 years.  We were fortunate to buy a house 2 houses away from this wonderful family in 1984.  Keith was a charming and well mannered young man and Alaina, then a young girl, was the first to stop by to welcome us to the neighborhood.  We soon gave birth to 3 children.
    Bob’s wife Joy took them under her wings.  They called her Grandma Joy.
    She took them to the symphony and cultural events.  Bob was a constant source of joy to me.  He had a serious exterior that hid a core of caring, kindness and humor.
    It didn’t take long to see through him and I never missed an opportunity to chat with him.  When our oldest graduated from Vanderbilt Law School, it was Bob Belton who
    draped the sash across her gown.  The world benefited greatly from having Bob Belton on earth for 76 years but the ripple effect of his life will continue forever.
    My heart and prayers go out to his family.
    Annie Gunter Bradt

  • We are so saddened by this great loss.  As members of the Belton Family, Bob has been a great leader and just an overall good family person.  Keith, you contact us if you need us. Hit me up on FB.  May God Bless you and comfort in your bereavement.  

    The Hayes family (John and Cleo)
    The Johnson family (Kesha Hayes Johnson, Curtis and twins)

  • Dru Bratton-newso

    I became acquainted with Professor Belton when my employment career began with the Vanderbilt School of  Law.  Our friendship grew , I will always remember him as a gentle giant.
    My prayers are with the Belton family
    Dru Bratton-Newsom 

  • B Ligon

    Mr. Belton was truly one of a kind…

    Bill Ligon
    VULS 1979

  • I was so sorry to hear of the passing of Professor Belton.  Every time I returned to the law school, I made sure I stopped by his office to say hello.  He was a man of great stature and humor.  He was a wonderful advisor and teacher, a true pioneer and he leaves an amazing legacy of which is family should be proud.  Many heartfelt prayers to his family.

    Coretta Johnson Gray
    VLS 2001

  • Robert Beltons was from my home town, High Point, NC.  We renewed our relationship more than 55 years ago when we met at the Harlem, YMCA struggling to continue our education.  He at UCON and me at CCNY.  We completed our respective undergrad education.  However, we contned our relationship by sharing apt. together during his education at BOSTON U LAW SCHOOL.  Afterwards, we remained very close freinds.  Bob Belton was the best man at my wedding and the God Farher of my son.  We always had a four-some(Joy, Bob,Theresa and myself )dinner together in NYC (at an up-scale restaurant) on  his annual visit to NYC to celebrate his birth day in  September.  W e were planning a SEFARI together in the near future.  Our hearts and prayers go out to Joy and the Belton family.  DAVE, DOMINICK, AND THERESA REID

  • David and Faith COGAN

    Loving  father and husband will be missed by all.
    David and Faith Cogan

  • Liz

    Bob Belton was a talented professor with a fun (and mischievous) sense of humor.  I enjoyed attending his employment law class back in 1990.  I haven’t seen him since then, but I remember him fondly.  A true loss for the VULS community.

  • jess

    I am the granddaughter of William Belton Jr. who is Robert’s brother. Betty and Pauline are my cousins. I never knew why I wanted to be the one who changed the world so much until now. It’s amazing how the Belton family have so many things in common. Feel free to keep in contact!! Jessicathetaurus@

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