Retiring Judge Howard learned about courage in '44 football game

February 15, 1992|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Staff Writer

They honored Judge Joseph C. Howard yesterday by hanging his picture in Baltimore's federal courthouse, a thousand miles and five decades away from the Bloomington, Ind., football field where he discovered his courage.

It was 1944. The first black jurist on Baltimore's federal bench was a strapping tight end and the only black player on the University of Iowa football team.

He was anxious to use his 6-foot 1-inch, 200-pound frame to pound some Indiana players. And he heard the coach bark that Iowa had to stop the Hoosiers' talented black running back.

But then the coach uttered the word that pierced young Joseph Howard's soul like a dagger.

"He said, 'We've gotta stop that nigger,' " the judge recalled.

Should he let it drop? Take out his anger on the Hoosiers? Take the train ride back to Iowa City with the coach and his teammates?

Not a chance.

"I went up to him and said, 'Coach, unless you apologize to me, I'm not going to play.' He said, 'You get out there and play or get your rags and get out of here.' "

It didn't take Joseph Howard long to gather his clothes and leave the stadium. But on the 300-mile ride home, he was worried. Would his father think that he'd made the right decision?

Charles Preston Howard told his son he would have been disappointed with any other response. He was proud.

"I think the best discussion I ever had in my life was on that trip," Judge Howard reminisced this week in the high-back leather chair in his chambers in the U.S. District Court. "He breathed life into me -- gave me some kind of courage."

Since that day, Joseph Howard's career as a lawyer, prosecutor and judge has been marked by bold moves and an eagerness to rid his world -- and Baltimore's judicial establishment in particular -- of racism and sexism.

Yesterday, a career of controversy and trailblazing reached an apex as Judge Howard's portrait was unveiled in the large

ceremonial court room alongside the other judges who have retired from active service. It's the first black portrait on the wall.

Judge Howard, 69, is now a senior judge. In his new role, he continues to receive his $129,500 salary but can take on a reduced caseload and sit on the bench in other jurisdictions.

"It's time to slow down," he conceded.

He is still an imposing figure, with a mane of silver that frames a smooth face. His office is dotted with African artwork. There's a purpose to that. "I like to make my office a sociological experience, so when people come here they learn. Clerks come through here -- half of them have been white. I want them to know that black people are proud of themselves, proud of their history. So when you come out of here you know that black people feel a sense of self-respect."

tTC Judge Howard said his parents taught him the skills that led him through decades of conflicts and confrontations with Baltimore's establishment. They told him to be proud of being black, to look people straight in the eye and stand up for his beliefs.

He carried that advice to the state's attorney's office in Baltimore, where, as chief of the trial division in 1966, he criticized police and his superiors for seeking harsher sentences against black rapists when the victims were white than when they were black.

He carried it to the Supreme Bench of Baltimore City, where, as a judge in 1975, he charged that the court discriminated against blacks and women in filling job vacancies there.

Judge Howard learned about struggle as a child, sitting on his living room floor and listening to his father exchange ideas with such luminaries as Ralph Bunche and A. Phillip Randolph.

"My dad would say, 'Hey son, you can sit on the floor and your brothers can sit on the floor as long as you don't cause any disruption,' " he said, remembering how fascinated he was listening to the brilliant conversations about the struggles of black Americans.

"So I had the exposure of men who really had courage, who really were doing things," the judge recalled.

And his mother, Maude L. Howard, instilled pride.

"The strongest Homo sapiens in the world as far as I can see is the black woman," Judge Howard said. "My mother just breathed that stuff into you. She'd always say 'You are somebody.' "

After a stint in the Army, Judge Howard earned his law degree at Drake University in Des Moines and married Gwendolyn Mae London.

Flat broke in 1958, he packed his old station wagon and headed to Baltimore at the urging of his brother, Charles Howard Jr., who had moved here to practice law.

He was not impressed by the black lawyers he found here.

"When I came to Baltimore in the '50s, I was ashamed of black lawyers. Why? Because none of them had any damn guts at all," he said. "That's why I got so much attention."

U.S. District Judge John R. Hargrove, a former law partner and the only other black on the federal bench here, said few lawyers would take steps to correct injustices until Joseph Howard came along.

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