Gergen Award recipient ‘fights for what is right’

Julianna Kober’s efforts to help digitize hundreds of pre-Civil War bills of sale of people enslaved in Greensboro, North Carolina, and nearby communities earned her Elon University School of Law’s top honor for embodying the highest levels of selfless leadership and service.

Julianna Kober L’20 (Photo by Nicolette Kober)

An Elon Law alum who led local efforts to transcribe and digitize hundreds of “slave deeds,” thereby helping the public to learn more about the lives of enslaved people in antebellum Greensboro, is the 2020 recipient of the law school’s most prestigious honor for new graduates.

Julianna Kober, former president of the law school’s pro bono “People Not Property” Project, was honored Saturday at Elon Law’s 13th Commencement ceremony with the David Gergen Award for Leadership & Professionalism.

Elon Law students are nominated for the award by their peers, professors, or staff. Honorees are selected by a faculty and staff committee based on law school activities that represent the twin principles of leadership and professionalism.

The award is named in honor of David Gergen, whose professional life and contributions have embodied the highest levels of selfless leadership and service. Gergen has served as adviser to four United States presidents. He is the director of the Center for Public Leadership and Professor of Public Service at the Harvard Kennedy School, one of the country’s preeminent political commentators, and chair of Elon Law’s Board of Advisors.

“I am honored and deeply humbled to have been recognized for the Gergen Award amongst a group of accomplished and talented classmates,” said Kober, a native of New Market, Maryland. “Mentorship and pro bono service for me was the path that I took to build momentum toward justice and social equity. With ‘People Not Property,’ while transcribing the documents provided the necessary tangible benefits for society, equally as important for me, was to create a space amongst my peers to reflect on human dignity and the impact of slavery in our legal profession.

“It is a privilege to be able to research ancestral roots, so I hope this project will assist descendants of those once enslaved to connect broken family trees in the near future.”

Elon Law’s “People Not Property” Project assists a broader collaborative endeavor between the UNCG University Libraries, the North Carolina Division of Archives and Records, and North Carolina Registers of Deeds, among others. UNCG received a grant of nearly $300,000 from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission to digitize the thousands of slave deeds and bills of sale with help from 26 counties taking part in the program. The Register of Deeds in Guilford County is in that group.

One nominator praised Kober’s unwavering commitment to the project despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic that required the school to move learning online for Spring 2020. “Never once did her dedication to her law school community or Greensboro ever take a back seat,” wrote the nominator. “She continued to push forward even during unprecedented times and is truly the perfect example of leadership and service.”

The “People Not Property” Project is not the only example of Kober’s service and leadership in the law school. She had been elected by fellow students to serve as a defender on Elon Law’s Honor Council and she provided extensive pro bono support to Elon Law’s Humanitarian Immigration Law Clinic, assisting low-income refugees and asylum seekers in North Carolina.

Kober served as a Moot Court Board Member and as co-president of the Jewish Law Students Association. She organized a visit to Elon Law by a nationally renowned civil rights attorney, Flint Taylor, to discuss issues of police abuse in the wake of several high-profile incidents both nationally and locally.

In announcing the Class of 2020 award recipient in Elon Law’s online Commencement ceremony, Associate Professor Andy Haile said Kober’s leadership with the “People Not Property” Project, which involved coordinating volunteers to transcribe deeds that in some instances took more than an hour each to decipher, stands out among her service activities.

“The list goes on of all the ways, large and small, that our recipient has left her mark at Elon Law,” Haile said. “(But) making these documents more accessible helps to reclaim the stories of those who were literally treated as property, recognizes the full humanity of these individuals, and acknowledges the law’s role in perpetuating the shame of slavery.”

Kober is a 2018 graduate of the University of Rochester and a 2014 graduate of Oakdale High School. She is the daughter of Joe Kober and Marijo Kober and is the twin sister of Nicolette Kober.

Her immediate plans are to take the February bar exam in Maryland before returning to school in August to receive her Master of Laws, possibly with a focus on international law and human rights.

“Julianna shows high promise for continued service to the legal profession and community because she fights for what is right,” a nominator wrote. “She speaks out against injustice that she sees and is not afraid to use her platform to help others. She is strong, determined, intelligent, and inspirational … she truly wants to help others and it shows through her acts of dedication.”