When Altomease Rucker Kennedy ’71 moved to Goucher College sight unseen from her childhood home in Cleveland, it could have been a disappointment. She was coming from a high school that was, she estimates, around three-quarters black, to a college where she was one of a handful of African American students.
“When I arrived,” she recalls, “I was very impressed by the beauty of the campus. My roommate—we were assigned before, in the summer—and I had already exchanged letters. She was wonderful.”
Kennedy, who is receiving the 2018 Marguerite Barland ’60 Merit Award, says her experience at Goucher was the inspiration for her novel, Friends and Lovers in Black and White.
“I wanted to tell a story where black and white people were really friends,” she wrote, “and not merely coexisting, because that was my experience at Goucher as well as my husband’s at Princeton, and it continues to this day.”
The summer before her graduation, Kennedy and another Goucher student took part in the efforts of an organization called African American Educational Opportunities to recruit black students for predominately white colleges. They visited students and their parents in Baltimore to talk about Goucher.
“In these colleges that had been lily-white for hundreds of years, we put forth a concerted effort to identify students who were capable and could go to these colleges if they knew they existed and knew they would be welcoming,” she says.
While attending Georgetown Law, Kennedy landed a dream job working part-time in the National Urban League’s research office, then went full time after she graduated. That was the beginning of a 40-year career inside the Washington beltway, as she moved to a position at the Department of Commerce, trying cases around the country.
“At that time,” she says, “being female and black, it was kind of understood that the big law firms were not welcoming, and even if they were welcoming, you had to be on the law review to even be considered. I was not on the law review, nor did I even think about the big law firms. If anything I was thinking about government service.”
Eventually, though, the big law firms came calling. She worked at Ashcraft and Gerrell, one of the largest personal injury law firms in the country, and became partner. She and another partner at the firm struck out on their own, before joining Sanford Heisler Sharp, which specializes in public interest and social
justice cases. She is a partner, specializing in whistleblower cases under the False Claims Act.
One of her recent cases recovered $68.5 million for the state of California and local governments, which a court found had been overcharged by office supply giant Office Depot.
“People have been stealing from the government for a long time,” she says, “and they will continue to do it in creative ways. That’s why it’s a fascinating area— I’m always amused and surprised by the various different ways it’s done.”
In her spare time, she works with the organization Links, a networking group for African American professional women. Her chapter has adopted Dunbar High School, in DC, and they visit the school to provide role models for young black women.