Charles P. Howard Jr., 75, lawyer, civil rights activist

December 21, 1996|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Charles Preston Howard Jr., a Baltimore lawyer and civil rights activist who was prominent in city and national legal groups, died Dec. 14 of a heart attack at his home in the city's Ashburton section. He was 75.

Mr. Howard began practicing law in 1955, after earning his law degree in 1954 from Howard University Law School and an international law degree in 1955 from New York University.

A muscular man with broad shoulders and a bone-crushing handshake, he quickly developed a reputation as a fearless and colorful defense lawyer.

Lawyers impressed by his brilliant defense techniques and verbal pyrotechnics often crammed courtrooms to watch him try a case.

"He was certainly tenacious and he wasn't opposed to taking on the bench over difficult cases," said Gloria E. A. Toote, a Harlem lawyer who held positions in the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations and got to know Mr. Howard when they were students at Howard University.

"Once he was committed it became a moral commitment, and he wouldn't let go. He'd work until he dropped from sheer exhaustion.

"Despite his constant fighting with the court, he was highly respected by his peers," said Ms. Toote, formerly a board member of the Federal National Mortgage Association and now a developer.

"We don't have many Charlie Howards. He was an outstanding American, and this country lost someone important when he died," she said yesterday.

He was born in Hampton, Va., the son of Charles Preston Howard Sr., an attorney, and Louisa Maude Lewis. The family moved to Des Moines, Iowa, when he was a child, and he graduated from high school there in 1939.

While in high school, Mr. Howard and his two brothers, Joe and Lonnie, founded the Iowa Observer, a neighborhood newspaper that grew into a network of four weekly papers that were also published in Indiana and Wisconsin.

They were greatly influenced by their great-uncle, Henry McNeal Turner, a turn-of-the-century African Methodist Episcopal bishop whose newspaper, the Voice of the People, crusaded against segregation.

He began studying journalism at Drake College in 1940 and transferred to Howard University, where he entered an Army training program for journalists.

As a reporter for the Army Times during World War II, Mr. Howard displayed his disdain for segregation and the courage that would mark his entire career.

He openly questioned the role of black troops fighting for a democracy that segregated blacks.

He suggested in editorials that black troops resist, and in two instances there were demonstrations at Army camps where he was stationed in England and in the U.S. Some changes were initiated by military authorities, but it wasn't until May 1948, when President Truman signed Executive Order No. 9981, that segregation in the military was ended.

An aide to Gen. Benjamin O. Davis, the first black general in the Army, he served on the staff of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force until being discharged at war's end.

Returning to Howard University, he worked with the lawyers and participated in the school's support of the Brown vs. Board of Education case, the landmark case that desegregated the nation's public schools.

He began practicing law in Washington in 1955, but soon moved to Baltimore.

In a statement, family members said, "And while he was earning admiration from the black community, he was also mobilizing the Baltimore establishment against him."

In the late 1960s, he established Howard and Hargrove, Maryland's first black corporate law firm, which was in the American Building on Charles Street, and later he formed Howard, Brown and Williams. He retired in 1985.

He ran for the House of Delegates in 1966 and lost, but his race signaled the developing black presence on the city's political landscape. He later helped elect his brother, Joseph C. Howard, to the Supreme Bench of Baltimore City in 1968. Judge Howard, who was later appointed to the U.S. District Court, is now retired.

His professional memberships included the Professional Ethics Committee for Legal Aid to the Indigent, the Monumental City Bar Association, the American and Inter-American Bar Associations, the National Bar Association, the American Society of International Law and the Maryland State Bar Association.

He was active in the NAACP, the YMCA and the Boy Scouts of America. He was also a member of the board of Arena Players Theater Company and in 1971 was named to the board of the Maryland Public Broadcasting Commission by Gov. Marvin Mandel. He also was acting president of Bay College until the school closed in 1978.

In recent years, he was concerned about economic alternatives to welfare dependency and worked counseling black businessmen. A popular tenet of his was that the successful had an obligation to help those in need.

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