Milton Burke Allen, Baltimore's first black state's attorney who also defended and tried criminal defendants as a lawyer and judge in a career that spanned four decades, died of cardiac arrest yesterday at his Windsor Hills home. He was 85.
When he was elected in 1970 as state's attorney, Mr. Allen became the first African-American elected to citywide office - other than a judgeship - and the first black person to hold a chief prosecutor's position in a major U.S. city.
Born in Baltimore, he was the son of Claude Mercell and Minnie Magee Allen. His father was a contractor, his mother a housewife. He was educated in segregated city schools, graduating in 1935 from Douglass High and earning a teacher's certificate at Coppin State College in 1938.
He worked for a time in the U.S. Government Printing Office in Washington, and in 1943 joined the Navy - where he did his first teaching. As a seaman first class, Mr. Allen organized a training program in Hawaii that offered enlisted men instruction ranging from remedial reading to college-level courses.
Returning to Baltimore after his 1946 discharge, Mr. Allen set his sights on a legal career. Through the GI Bill, and earnings from work in photography and as a country club waiter, he put himself through the University of Maryland Law School. As a veteran, he won admission to the Maryland bar in 1948, a year before completing his law degree.
He was a founding partner in 1949, with Emerson Brown and Robert B. Watts, of Brown, Allen & Watts, said to be Maryland's first African-American law firm - one that was to produce several city judges over the years, and become a springboard for his successful 1970 campaign to become the city state's attorney.
Mr. Allen benefited from a vote split among four white candidates in the Democratic primary.
Four years later, by a 3,000-vote margin, Mr. Allen lost to white challenger William A. Swisher in a racially tinged Democratic primary. Mr. Swisher, backed by the old Northwest Baltimore political organization of James H. "Jack" Pollack and other white political clubs, appeared late in the campaign in television ads - against a backdrop of sirens and flashing lights - declaring that crime was turning Baltimore into "a jungle."
Mr. Allen mounted a remarkable write-in campaign, attracting 52,257 votes in the general election - but about 19,000 less than Mr. Swisher, who was to serve two terms before being ousted in 1982 by Kurt L. Schmoke.
Mr. Allen was out of public life only briefly when then-Gov. Marvin Mandel named him in 1976 to the Supreme Bench of Baltimore City.
Mr. Allen - a familiar figure in the courthouse, with his bald head and droopy mustache - won election in 1978 to retain his seat on what became the city Circuit Court.
From the bench, he was not afraid to stir up controversy. In 1981, he sentenced a 26-year-old man to 16 years for contempt for being disruptive in the courtroom. The Court of Appeals later freed the man, saying Judge Allen had "abridged" the man's rights by imposing the stiff sentence without trial.
He retired in 1986, and from law practice in 1992, focusing much of his time over the past decade on his family and, with his wife of 60 years, the former Martha Patterson, on favorite civic and social causes including the United Negro College Fund and the Coppin State College Alumni Association. He was a lifetime member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
"He was a great inspiration to a whole generation of lawyers that came to the Maryland bar in the late 1960s and early '70s," said Mr. Schmoke.
Mr. Allen, he said last night, "was one of those kind of pioneering lawyers who didn't make a lot of headlines in private practice but certainly fought some tough battles in the civil rights arena."
Although losing to Mr. Swisher "was one of the bitter moments" in Mr. Allen's life, "he really did a tremendous job as a judge in Circuit Court."
"It was like a new career," Mr. Schmoke added. "It kind of recharged his batteries for public service."
On a personal level, "the man had a tremendous sense of humor," Mr. Schmoke said.
"Everyone who was ever a lawyer in public life knew Milton Allen," said Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, former mayor and governor.
George L. Russell, Jr., a former Circuit Court judge and member of Mr. Allen's law practice, described him as "a consummate trial lawyer" who "took a great delight in teaching."
Mr. Allen was successful, he said, at a time when an African-American man could not take a bar review course or eat at a restaurant downtown. "A minority lawyer had to be twice as good as his white counterparts," he said.
A memorial service was being planned for noon March 1 at Sharp Street United Methodist Church, at Dolphin and Etting streets.
Mr. Allen is survived by his wife; three sons, Peter Jeffries Allen of Los Angeles, and Milton B. Allen Jr. and David Burke Allen, both of Baltimore; two sisters, Obella Allen and Theresa Tutman, both of Baltimore; four grandchildren; and a great-grandson.
The family suggested memorial donations to the Milton B. Allen Scholarship Fund at the University of Maryland Law School, at 2400 Talbot Road, Baltimore 21216.
Sun staff writer Liz F. Kay contributed to this article.