Black lawyer to lead Md. bar

Johnson to take post at June convention

February 24, 2002|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,SUN STAFF

As a rookie attorney in 1979, Harry S. Johnson couldn't bring himself to attend the Maryland State Bar Association annual meeting in Ocean City.

When he was a child, his family had avoided the beachfront town, which they thought was unfriendly to blacks, and vacationed instead at New Jersey beaches.

"Ocean City just wasn't appealing," he said.

Even though he had joined the state bar, Johnson also didn't like the thought of being one of the few blacks at the meeting.

In June, the 20,500-mem- ber association again will have its annual gathering in Ocean City, and this time there's very little chance that Johnson will miss it.

He's to be center stage: The attorney for mainline Baltimore firm Whiteford, Taylor & Preston LLP is poised to be elected the association's first African-American president.

The board of governors nominated Johnson as president-elect this year. Pending the uncontested election this summer, he will become president in 2003.

Johnson and some of his colleagues say the nomination is a measure of the association's progress over the past two decades.

"The bar has come to a point where an African-American can become involved in bar work, gain the confidence of his colleagues and become its leader," Johnson said in his offices overlooking Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

Since the bar association doesn't track members by race, there is no breakdown on how many black members there are. But many black lawyers, including Johnson, belong to the Monumental City Bar Association, which was started in 1935 by black attorneys, including the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, in part because they weren't allowed to join other bar associations.

Now, with Johnson's coming ascendancy, some say they will consider joining the state organization.

"I think it's very historic," said A. Dwight Pettit, a high-profile Baltimore defense lawyer who says he'll now join. "I was one of the people to file suit against the Maryland bar 30 years ago because they were admitting blacks at low rates. To see him take this position is watching everything come full circle."

The American Bar Association is expected to make similar history next year, as former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer is on track to become the first black president of the 400,000-member national organization.

Colleagues say it's no surprise that Johnson was nominated to run the state's professional organization for lawyers.

While some black lawyers shunned the association, Johnson worked his way up through the ranks - starting as a member of the Young Lawyers section in 1980 - to become the first African-American treasurer and board member in 1999. Historically, the treasurer is almost always in line to become president.

Johnson, like many of his black colleagues throughout the years, had reservations about the group's lack of diversity. But he chose to become an active member on the premise that things wouldn't change if he just complained from the outside.

It's the same approach he used at Whiteford, Taylor & Preston to become its first black partner in 1986.

He's worked at the firm, one of the most prestigious and largest in Baltimore, since he graduated from the University of Maryland School of Law , molding a solid career defending clients in cases involving product liability, mass tort, professional liability and other complex litigation.

"He's been a leader in our firm for so many years," said managing partner Alfred Mezzanotte. "Watching him devote the time and attention to advance the profession through his work with the bar has been great, and I think he'll make a fabulous president."

But Johnson the lawyer once had aspirations of becoming a politician.

"I never decided I wanted to be a lawyer," Johnson said.

Harry Johnson was born the oldest of four children in 1954 in Havre de Grace, the same year the Supreme Court decided the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case that paved the way for the end of school desegregation.

His father, an electrician, worked as a civilian employee at the Edgewood Arsenal. His mother was a nurse's aide at the local veterans hospital

Johnson grew up in the Harford County town at the mouth of the Susquehanna River during the height of the civil rights movement. He watched news reports about President John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963 when he was in third grade. He went to desegregated schools for the first time in fifth grade, and was shaken by the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.

"It was period of time when there was a lot of activism, and so people that grew up during that time were politically astute," Johnson said.

Johnson clerked for the Harford County delegation in Annapolis during high school and served in student government. He then studied at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where he was also active in student government.

But by his senior year, Johnson was foundering, unsure what direction to take next. Three college counselors suggested law school.

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