Judge Joseph C. Howard Sr., the first African-American appointed to the federal bench in Baltimore, died yesterday of a rare neurodegenerative disease at his home in Pikesville. He was 77.
Known as a trailblazer in the legal and civil rights community, Judge Howard made history Oct. 23, 1979, when he was appointed judge in the U.S. District Court after being nominated by President Jimmy Carter.
News of his death yesterday from Shy-Drager syndrome was met with shock and grief by those who knew the outspoken jurist.
"He was a rare combination of brains and sensitivity," said John White, a spokesman for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
As a political science major at Morgan State University, Mr. White rented the second floor of Judge Howard's home in the late 1960s. "He was a very courageous guy who was willing to take a stand even when it wasn't popular."
Former Governor and Baltimore City Mayor William Donald Schaefer said Judge Howard distinguished himself professionally and personally.
"He was a very good activist," said Mr. Schaefer, who is now state comptroller. "He was a good man and a good lawyer."
Judge William D. Quarles, of the Circuit Court of Baltimore City, was Judge Howard's first federal law clerk.
Judge Quarles recalled walking to Lexington Market for lunch with Judge Howard and having people the judge had sent to prison stop him on the street. Often, Judge Quarles said, the convicts recalled a fatherly lecture that Judge Howard had delivered in court.
"Usually they had some memory of some words that he had said during the sentencing that had changed their lives," Judge Quarles said. "This was one of the things that led me to understand the kind of impact a judge can have."
Judge Quarles also recalled Judge Howard's creating a sense of family among the court staff, welcoming them into his home and remembering birthdays.
"There's just a whole sense of hospitality and openness that I think is sort of the best of the Midwest, and I think he brought that to Baltimore," Judge Quarles said.
"I was surprised because growing up during the civil rights movement, he was a leading figure. His public image was a fierce one and a bit of a firebrand. I was pleasantly surprised to find this gentle man - and a gentleman."
Growing up black in Des Moines gave Judge Howard a taste for justice. His father, the late Charles Preston Howard, was the editor-in-chief of the Howard News Syndicate and friends with civil rights leaders such as Dr. Ralph Bunche, the first African-American to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
It was to his father that he turned in 1944 when, as the only black player on the University of Iowa football team, he heard the coach use a racial epithet during a game in Indiana. The coach refused to apologize, and the young player left the stadium. The elder Howard applauded his son's decision.
"I think the best discussion I ever had in my life was on that trip," Judge Howard recalled in a Baltimore Sun article in 1992. Charles Howard "breathed life into me - gave me some kind of courage."
Judge Howard went on to graduate from Drake University - where he became the first African-American admitted to the Phi Alpha Delta legal fraternity there - with a law degree in 1955.
That same year he married the former Gwendolyn Mae London.
After relocating to Baltimore and passing the Maryland bar in 1959, Judge Howard became a founding partner of Howard & Hargrove law firm with his brother, the late Charles P. Howard, and the late John R. Hargrove, who went on to become a U.S. district judge.
In 1964, Joseph Howard became an assistant state's attorney in Baltimore and soon became the first African-American to be named chief of the trial section for the state's attorney's office and assistant city solicitor in 1967.
It was while serving as an assistant state's attorney that Judge Howard charged there was racial discrimination in the prosecution of rape cases, with tougher sentences for black men accused of raping white women.
The allegations touched off a firestorm of protest from judges across the state, and Judge Howard produced a 32-page report filled with statistics to prove his point.
"He took on the system," said George L. Russell Jr., former city solicitor and the first African-American judge on the state Circuit Court. "The community should be grateful that he demonstrated the injustice that was going on in the courthouse. I think he'll always be remembered for his courage."
In 1968, Judge Howard again crashed the color barrier when he became the first African-American elected to the Supreme Bench, which is now the Circuit Court of Baltimore.
Judge Thomas E. Noel of the Circuit Court for Baltimore City said Judge Howard was a "giant of a man."
"He challenged the racial hiring practices of the Supreme Bench and to a large extent was responsible for bringing affirmative action practices to Baltimore, in the Circuit Court," said Judge Noel, who served as Judge Howard's clerk from 1971 to 1974.
"And, quite frankly, he is probably responsible for many of the minorities who were able to become employed at the Circuit Court."
Judge Howard served on the Supreme Bench until his appointment as a federal judge in 1979.
His son, Joseph C. Howard Jr., said his father was allowed to reduce his caseload after he was diagnosed in 1992 with Shy-Drager syndrome, which is characterized by progressive failure of the autonomic nervous system.
And the man who loved to laugh, write poetry and do yard work in his spare time did what he did best, his son said.
"They told him he wouldn't make it into the millennium," Joseph Howard Jr. said. "But he was a fighter, a warrior all of his life."
In addition to his wife and son, Judge Howard is survived by a brother, Dr. Lawrence Howard of Pittsburgh.