Baker , Isaiah
Isaiah Baker, a lawyer and law professor whose teaching career lasted for over forty years, died Saturday, October 10, 2020, at MedStar Montgomery Medical Center in Olney, Maryland, after suffering a subdural hematoma. He was 81. Mr. Baker primarily and most recently taught at American University's Washington College of Law, where he joined as an Associate Professor in 1979, and where his portrait now hangs in the Pence Law Library. He was just the second African-American tenured faculty member at WCL, and he taught courses including contracts, sales and secured transactions, unfair trade practices, consumer protection, and negotiable instruments, until his retirement and appointment as Associate Professor Emeritus in 2013. At times he also served as chair of the Admissions Committee and of the Rank and Tenure Committee at WCL. Prior to joining WCL, Mr. Baker was an associate professor at Howard University School of Law from 1975 to 1980, where he also taught as an adjunct professor from 1984 to 1999. During his teaching career he also served as a contract hearing examiner at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, an attorney advisor at the Economic Development Administration within the Department of Commerce, and an attorney advisor to the Howard University Office of General Counsel. Before arriving at Howard in 1975, he held teaching posts at the City University of New York's Bernard Baruch College, the University of Maryland, the University of the District of Columbia, the University of Florida, and Princeton University. More than a professor, however, Mr. Baker aimed to serve the legal profession and the broader community. For many years he was an instructor and legal education analyst for the Council on Legal Educational Opportunities (CLEO) Institute, a non-profit arm of the American Bar Association created to expand opportunities for minority and low-income students to attend law school. He lectured and advised the African-American Institute, welcoming visiting African scholars with lectures in American constitutional law, judicial selection, and other topics. He was a legal advisor to the U.S. Congress Office of Technology Assessment Program on Biological Applications as a pro bono member of the D.C. Private Industry Council. He also was a member of the NAACP and the Society of American Law Teachers. Mr. Baker was born June 19, 1939, in Chicago, to James A. Williams and Naomi Roberts, though he was raised primarily by his mother and step-father, Woodrow Baker. He attended the University of Chicago Laboratory School and the Saint Johnsbury Academy in Vermont before graduating from Chicago's Parker High School in 1957. He then matriculated at Yale College, where he was one of a handful of African-American freshmen in a class of around a thousand students. Mr. Baker graduated from Yale in 1961 with a B.A. in political science and history, after serving as vice-chair of the Yale Political Union as a senior, and chairman of Yale's NAACP chapter. Though he recognized the value of his undergraduate degree, the discrimination he endured as a Black student at Yale in the late '50s and early '60s led to his estrangement from formal university and alumni events for the following 35 years. After graduation, Mr. Baker worked as a social worker for the Cook County (IL) Department of Public Aid, and in Korea as a guided missile technician in the U.S. Army, honorably discharged. He would go on to earn JD and MBA degrees from Columbia University in 1970, an LLM degree from Harvard University Law School in 1971, and an MA in history from DePaul University in 1972. It was perhaps inevitable that Mr. Baker would create a life commanding large audiences as a professor and lecturer. His maternal grandfather, William Matthew Roberts, was a bishop in the Church of God in Christ – the largest Pentecostal denomination in the United States – and founded and presided over the Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ in Chicago for much of the first half of the twentieth century. Roberts Temple, known colloquially as "Fortieth" due to its location near the intersection of East 40 th Street and South State Street in the Bronzeville neighborhood of the city, was one of the largest Pentecostal congregations in the country by the middle of the 20 th century. It was also the location where in September of 1955, Mamie Till Bradley, whose son Emmett Till had been brutally lynched while visiting family in Mississippi, famously decided to have her son's funeral and visitation. Mr. Baker was an acquaintance and contemporary of the younger Till, whose murder and funeral drew national attention to the violence and injustice suffered by Black citizens throughout the country. Tens-of-thousands of mourners paid their respects during those momentous four days at the church where Mr. Baker grew up and that bore his grandfather's name. Though Bishop Roberts had died the previous year, his son Rev. Isaiah Roberts – Mr. Baker's uncle and namesake – went with Mrs. Bradley to meet the train carrying her son's body from Mississippi, and ultimately presided over the funeral. Roberts Temple, which also played an integral role in the creation and popularization of gospel music and was also the site from where Sister Rosetta Tharpe launched her music career in the 1930s, was designated a Chicago landmark in 2006. Mr. Baker's paternal grandfather, Riley F. Williams, was also a bishop in the Church of God in Christ. Though Bishop Williams was based primarily in Cleveland, he may be most notable for serving as chairman of the building commission between 1940 and 1945 for the Mason Temple Church of God in Christ, located in Memphis. Mason Temple served as a spiritual and cultural landmark for the African-American population of Memphis, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered several speeches there, including his final speech, delivered the day before his assassination in 1968 and during which he famously proclaimed "I've been to the mountain top! "Bishop Williams's son and Mr. Baker's father, James, served as an officer in the U.S. Army during World War II, and later served as a Democratic party leader in Cleveland and member of the Cleveland City Council. Mr. Baker was a loving husband and father, who almost never missed his son's sporting events or concerts, and who strongly believed in the value of education. He leaves behind a legacy of former students at WCL, Howard Law, and various other institutions, but also of siblings, cousins, nieces, nephews, and friends whom he guided through academic obstacles from elementary school through advanced graduate and doctoral programs. He wanted those within his family and his community to do well for themselves, and he enjoyed their successes as much or more than his own. He was also an enthralling storyteller, who could select from an almost endless array of yarns based on his past experiences. Whether it was brushes with corporate espionage while serving in the Army in Korea, brushes with Chicago machine politics in the 1950s, stories from his time as a dormitory master at Riverdale Country School in New York while attending law school, or watching a play on public television and realizing that the subject of the play is his mother's family – Mr. Baker had a story for every occasion, and his booming laughter will not soon be forgotten by anyone who knew him. Baker was predeceased by his parents, stepfathers Woodrow Baker and Claude Driskell, and sister, Ruth Baker Davis. He leaves to mourn his loss his devoted wife, Joyce Brentley Baker; son, Matthew I. W. Baker (Katherine); step-daughter, Krista Brentley; step-sons, Austin Brentley (Pauline Antonino) and Nicholas Brentley; grandchildren, Wesley and Julian Baker, step-grandchildren Louise and Antonio Brentley; brother Hon. Reginald Baker (Gale); sisters Elaine Baker Johnson (Melvin), Yvette Winston-Russell (Al), Cornelia Williams White; former wife Barbara Wesley Baker; and a host of cousins, nieces and nephews. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2011, which he battled valiantly until his death. A memorial service will be held at a later date. Memorial contributions in his name can be made to the Alzheimer's Association or the American University Washington College of Law Scholarship Fund.
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Published by Chicago Sun-Times on Nov. 1, 2020.