Biden appoints Johns Hopkins professor Martha Jones to historical committee

As a member of the Permanent Committee for the Oliver Wendell Holmes Devise, Jones will oversee ongoing efforts to document the history of the U.S. Supreme Court

Johns Hopkins University historian Martha S. Jones has been appointed by President Joe Biden as a member of the Permanent Committee for the Oliver Wendell Holmes Devise, a group tasked with publishing a multi-volume work documenting the history of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Martha Jones

Image caption: Martha Jones

Jones—the Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor, Professor of History, and Professor at the SNF Agora Institute—was one of three new members appointed to the committee, the White House announced on March 3.

The committee, established by Congress in 1955, is named for Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who bequeathed a portion of his estate to the United States in 1935. It is comprised of four presidential appointees, each serving eight-year terms, and the Librarian of Congress and has published 11 volumes to date, though not always in chronological order.

Jones was appointed along with Risa Goluboff, dean of the University of Virginia School Law, and Trevor Morrison, dean emeritus of the New York University School of Law.

"It's a tremendous honor to be appointed by President Biden to the committee alongside such distinguished colleagues," Jones said. "Our charge, as I understand it, is not necessarily to write the history of the court ourselves, though there is precedent for that. Rather, we serve as publishers of up-coming volumes in the series, overseeing their documentation and dissemination."

Jones is a legal and cultural historian whose work examines how Black Americans have shaped our democracy. Her 2020 book Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote and Insisted on Equality for All counts among its accolades a Los Angeles Times' Book Prize in the history category. Her 2018 work Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America won numerous awards, including the American Historical Association's Littleton-Griswold Prize and the Organization of American Historians' Liberty Legacy Foundation Award. Jones also directs the Hard Histories at Hopkins Project, employing research, teaching, public engagement, and the arts to examine the role that racism and discrimination have played at the university throughout its history.

This is not the university's first connection to the Holmes Devise. Jones noted that Carl Brent Swisher, a Hopkins political science professor from 1937 to 1968, authored volume five in the Holmes Devise series covering the Justice Taney period, from 1836 to 1866. It was published posthumously in 1974.

Jones said she is presently working on her own book about Maryland-born Roger Brooke Taney, author of the infamous Dred Scott decision denying citizenship rights to Black Americans. She said she does not anticipate her committee obligations will affect her writing or her work at Johns Hopkins, but rather views the appointment as "a new facet of my ongoing professional service," which includes serving on boards and committees at the National Women's History Museum, the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, and the Library of Congress Kluge Center.