John Marshall Harlan Lives! And Is Related To William Hurt


Here are a couple recent items about John Marshall Harlan that caught my eye. Interestingly, they both are related to acting.

I was well aware that there were Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln impersonators out there, but until today I had no idea that there was a John Marshall Harlan impersonator as well. Georgetown professor Edward B. Smith portrays Harlan (and Adolph Rupp) for Kentucky Chautauqua, an outfit funded by the Kentucky Humanities Council that features local actors portraying famous Kentuckians such as Daniel Boone, George Rogers Clark and Grandpa Jones. Professor Smith teaches film and theatre at Georgetown so I’m sure his Harlan show is pretty good. If anyone reading this has seen one of his performances, I’d love to hear about it.

William Hurt was on Fresh Air on February 25th promoting his new movie The Yellow Handkerchief when he made a startling announcement: he’s related to John Marshall Harlan. Here is his exact quote:

“My first cousin, by the way, on my father’s mother’s side was John Marshall Harlan, who was a Supreme Court justice, as was his grandson. And I think a lot of my fight and my work to struggle for fairness and the techniques of theater and in subject matter probably stems in some way from some sense I have of his issues in life. H was the one and only Supreme Court justice to stand up to all eight other justices in Plessy v. Ferguson, and his words became the prototype for the rescinding of Plessy in Brown vs. The Board of Education in ’54. So there is a natural connection to civil issues and I think that has a lot to do with why I do what I do.” (You can listen to the whole interview on NPR.)

Do you think you might be related to John Marshall Harlan (or William Hurt)? If so, you might want to check out the Harlan Family in America web site. Harlan and his many relatives were descended from George and Michael Harland who came to America from Ireland in 1687. Their descendants keep in touch with the website, newsletters and a once-every-five-years get together. Check out their web site and see what all those other Harlans have been up to.

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