ITHACA, N.Y.—Around 150 students graduated from Cornell University’s Law School on May 22, a sunny, seasonably warm Saturday, in a convocation ceremony held at Schoellkopf Field.
One of the graduates that day, Khalid Vrede, was accomplishing a unique, somewhat niche but no less significant piece of history: becoming the first Black man to be born in Ithaca, rise through the ranks of the Ithaca City School District, graduate from Ithaca High School then go on to graduate from Cornell University Law School.
Vrede said it only occurred to him after his first year of law school that he might be the only person to travel that path, especially with such a small Black population in Ithaca and an even smaller Black population in the Cornell law school, the majority of whom aren’t from the area, Vrede said. He estimates that there were about a dozen other Black people in his graduating class, which was around 170 students total.
“I noticed right away that there was no local representation,” Vrede said. In an interview, he said the issue that struck him most prominently early in school was that he didn’t see many others, if anybody, else from Ithaca in the law school, regardless of race. “There’s this great law school here, and there’s no locals, there’s nobody I know from my school or even years before. It’s this thing where this place is here and it’s giving people this education and opportunities, and it’s good that I’m someone locally that could take advantage of it.”
Cornell Law School’s Dean of Students, Markeisha Miner, acknowledged that the law school doesn’t mandate students to reveal where they went to high school, though they may include that information voluntarily. That makes the accomplishment a tad more difficult to validate. However, using the school’s data, Miner did name two other Black men, raised in Ithaca, who graduated from the law school, but Ithaca City School District records show that neither of them went to Ithaca High School.
(Update: After this story was published, a 2017 graduate of the Cornell Law School, Damian Holden-Smith, reached out to let the Ithaca Voice know that he had actually traveled an identical path as Vrede through the ICSD ranks and then graduating from Cornell law. This makes him the first and Vrede the second to accomplish the still-rare feat. His name had been missed during the fact-checking process for this story.)
Thus that leaves Vrede with an achievement he wasn’t even completely aware of until a few weeks before graduating, beyond noticing it in passing every once in a while.
“It means something to me in that you want to represent where you’re from,” Vrede said. “Cornell’s this really great university, but do you hear very much about locals getting a piece of that pie, a part of that intellectual development? And particularly for Black locals, people who have been here since the beginning.”
Until college, Vrede’s education was a wholly Ithaca affair—even his dad, Mark, still works in the Human Resources department for the school district, while his mom, Wanda, works at the Tompkins County Department of Social Services.
Khalid started pre-school at the Early Childhood Center at Cornell, split elementary school between Cayuga Heights Elementary School and Belle Sherman Elementary School, followed by Boynton Middle School for sixth grade, two years at Lehmann Alternative Community School and finished with four years at Ithaca High School. Once he graduated, he ventured to the University of Pittsburgh to study pre-med, then changed course and transferred to Binghamton University to study English Rhetoric, inspired by a course he took in high school taught by IHS teacher Lorraine Tino.
During law school, Vrede seems to have been particularly impacted by learning from Prof. Muna Ndulo, a Cornell professor of international and comparative law who helped craft constitutions for Kenya, Zimbabwe, Somalia and Sudan, among a litany of other achievements throughout his career. In conversation, it’s obvious Ndulo’s teaching is partially to credit for Vrede’s interest in legal affairs abroad—particularly as Ndulo’s class included a three-week trip to South Africa, which occurred just before the COVID-19 pandemic began. Before that, Vrede had studied abroad in London in 2017, before which Vrede had never been out of the United States.
Ndulo’s class culminated in Vrede’s seminal paper in law school, an essay titled “Fighting the Power: Queer Social Movements and Their Impact on African Laws and Culture.” The essay was later published in the Cornell International Law Journal and won Vrede the Morris P. Glushein Award, given annually to the best student-written essay that grapples with a current social issue.
“I wrote about ways that we in Western society, or the US, can encourage African countries to adapt more LGBT inclusive laws, and one of them is to support on-the-ground social movements, instead of the other tactics we use,” Vrede said. “Which are primarily sanctions or verbal chastising and things of that nature.”
Through his travels and research, Vrede learned that certain African countries actually legalized gay marriage and instituted worker discrimination protections for LGBT+ workers before the United States, betraying conventional perception. From that paper and his active participation in class, Ndulo invited Vrede to serve as a teaching assistant for another of his classes this year.
“He’s very committed to sharing his experience with others, but he’s also genuinely concerned about human rights,” Ndulo said of Vrede. “He’s very dedicated to that, so I could see him doing very good work with it.”
Vrede’s engagement in the class made him a compelling student to teach, Ndulo said. Now, Vrede has his sights set on a career internationally, potentially with a focus on Africa—he said his travels there were emotionally powerful for him as a Black man. Even before that, he was drawn to a job internationally.
“From my experience in London, I wanted to do something with an international component,” Vrede said. He’s starting his career in New York City at a corporate law firm, then may look to venture elsewhere once he has a few years under his belt. He graduated with a focus on International Legal Affairs. “Cornell is one of the best places to study international law, so I figured I would start a specialization. (…) A lot of us will practice domestically initially and then go abroad.”
While he has followed a blue print that isn’t necessarily easy to repeat, Vrede said he thinks it’s beneficial to have someone like him take that path and get some exposure for it. Ndulo went further, calling Vrede a “role model.”
“We’ve been here the whole time,” Vrede said of the local Black community and its lack of access to higher education opportunities locally. “I can present that kind of image that I didn’t feel very much in high school.”