EVENT ALERT: University of Pennsylvania Law School to Unveil Plaque in Honor of Theodore Milton Selden

By Gloria Dulan-Wilson

Hello All:

It's always wonderful to learn of a deserving young man or woman receiving high praise and honor for their accomplishments. Somewhere inside you there is a warm feeling of pride and happiness for them.

And such would be the case for Theodore Milton Selden, who is to receive a plaque in his honor – and who, had he lived, would probably given a wonderful speech of gratitude and appreciation. However, this is not to be the case in this circumstance, because Theodore Milton Selden, a promising and powerful member of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and a member of the Class of 1924, died tragically in a train wreck in 1922 – 93 years ago!

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Theodore Milton Selden Lincoln U Class 1919/UPENN Class 1924

The ceremony for the unveiling of the plaque in his honor takes place 2:00 PM on Friday, October 23, at the Upenn Law School, 3501 Sansom Street in Philadelphia, with a reception to follow. (3501 Sansom Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104 map)

Theodore Milton Selden, who was a member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Inc., was also a Lincoln University Alumnus, having graduated in 1919 with a Bachelor of Science degree, finishing first in his class, and serving as an instructor in chemistry for a year at Lincoln before transferring to Dartmouth. At Dartmouth College Selden graduated second in the Class of 1921 and earned a second B.S. degree, summa cum laude. He also won the Dartmouth’s Barger Gold Medal for Original Oratory, and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.

Selden began his work in the LLB program at Penn Law in September of 1921, as a member of the Class of 1924. He was one of a small number of African-Americans who attended the Law School between 1888 and 1924. In his 1L year, he took courses in Agency, Crimes, Civil Procedure, Torts, Property, and Contracts. His grades placed him 40th in a class of 100.

But on July 3, 1922, Selden was working as a Pullman porter on a late-night run from Philadelphia to Atlantic City. The train was misdirected on a curve and left the track at high speed. Selden was one of the seven people killed in the crash. As many as 90 were injured.

  • News Image
    A train accident on July 3, 1922 killed Theodore Selden, a Penn Law student from the Class of 1924 who worked as a Pullman porter on the train.

His story might well have ended there had it not been for the diligence of Upenn Law's current Dean of Students, Gary Clinton, who, as a young student himself worked in the Registrar's office during the early 1980s. He had been asked to move files containing nearly 80 years of law student files from the office to the archives.

As Clinton moved the files from one room into another, the file of a student from the Class of 1924 named Theodore Selden, which read: “Deceased: July 3, 1922” caught his attention. Curious, Clinton opened the file and found a newspaper article inside, which described a train crash from 1922. One of the many victims of the crash was so badly disfigured that he was only identified by his Phi Beta Kappa key. Because of the key, the authorities first thought that “T.M. Selden / Dartmouth 1921” must have been a white passenger, not one of the African-American Pullman porters.

What made Dean Clinton bring the file to light now? It was a plaque being dedicated to another law student, John Lisle, who med his death tragically in 1910, when he drowned trying to save the life of another. Having to research Lisle's history caled to mind the story of the student who met his end in the train wreck.

I should have pulled the file aside,” said Clinton, “but I didn’t.” It had bothered him off and on for decades; and while he had forgotten the name of the student and where he had gone to college, but he never forgot the story. He put the few pieces of information he remembered into Google and began piecing together Selden’s story. Clinton subsequently contacted Dartmouth College; Penn’s archivist, Mark Lloyd; and the Law School’s archivist, Leslie O’Neill, and they all began compiling a history of Theodore Selden’s tragically short life: Theodore Milton Selden was born on November 22, 1898 in Norfolk, Virginia, to William Henry Selden and Georgie Anna Thoroughgood Selden.

In checking to see if the faculty and administration had marked Selden's tragic death, Clinton asked O’Neill, the Law School’s archivist, to pull the faculty minutes from September and October of 1922. But the minutes were missing. “It’s the only set of minutes that’s missing,” said Clinton, “and it’s been missing for at least 30 years.”

Because of this, Clinton stated, “I have no idea whether the faculty ever honored him, whether any mention was made that this great student — this wonderful guy, this very inspiring guy — died.” It was clear that Selden was a great student of exceptional intelligence, talent, accomplishment and discipline. He was attending classes, working part time as a Pullman Porter to put himself through school, and maintaining a high GPA all at the same time! 

Dean Clinton emphasized, “This man is worth noting!”

So, on Friday, October, thanks to diligence of Clinton, Penn Law will properly memorialize Theodore Selden with a plaque on the second floor of Silverman Hall. It will read:

In Honor of
Theodore Milton Selden
LL.B. Class of 1924

Among the first African Americans to enroll at Penn Law
A student of great accomplishment and promise.
He worked as a Pullman Porter to support his education
And died in a train wreck, July 3, 1922,
His body identified by his Dartmouth College Phi Beta Kappa key.

What Might Have Been?
A train accident on July 3, 1922 killed Theodore Selden, a Penn Law student from the Class of 1924 who worked as a Pullman porter on the train.

A large contingent of the members of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Inc., in recognition of their Fraternity Brother, THEODORE MILTON SELDEN, will be on hand to participate in this great ceremony of honor and respect for their fallen Brother.

Their statement reads: “Brother Selden was a charter member of The Epsilon Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc., and thus among the first Kappas on the east coast. He graduated as valedictorian of his class from Lincoln University (PA) and second in his class from Dartmouth, where he earned the distinction of becoming a member of Phi Beta Kappa. Brother Selden attended the law school at the University of Pennsylvania. During the summer between his first and second year at the law school, despite his Phi Beta Kappa key, Brother Selden worked as a Pullman Porter. Late one evening, the train between Philadelphia and Atlantic City on which Brother Selden worked crashed, and Brother Selden was killed. His body was so badly mangled that Brother Selden could only be identified through the number of his Phi Beta Kappa key.

Following a diligent effort by Dean Gary Clinton, the University of Pennsylvania's law school has decided to erect a plaque in memory of Brother Selden. Please join us at the University of Pennsylvania's law school on October 23rd in solemn memory of the life and Achievements of Brother Theodore Milton Selden.”

Those interested in participating in this ceremony may register to do so by contacting: 215.898.7483

Stay Blessed &
Gloria Dulan-Wilson

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