Joseph C. Howard, Sr.

Joseph C. Howard, Sr.
Judge of the United States District Court for the District of Maryland
In office
October 5, 1979  November 15, 1991
Nominated by Jimmy Carter
Preceded by Seat established on October 20, 1978 by 92 Stat. 1629
Succeeded by Peter Jo Messitte
Associate Judge of the Supreme Bench of Baltimore City
In office
Nominated by popular election
Personal details
Born December 9, 1922
Des Moines, Iowa, U.S.
Died September 16, 2000(2000-09-16) (aged 77)
Pikesville, Maryland, U.S.
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Gwendolyn Mae (London) Howard
Children Joseph C. Howard, Jr.
Alma mater University of Iowa, Morgan State College, Drake University Law School
Occupation Judge, attorney
Profession legal

Joseph Clemens Howard, Sr. (December 9, 1922 – September 16, 2000) was the first African American to win an election as judge for the Baltimore City Supreme Bench[1][2] and was later appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, becoming the first African American to serve on that bench as well.[2][3]

Early life

Howard was born to Charles Preston Howard and Maude L. (Lewis) Howard in Des Moines, Iowa. His parents were African-American. His father, a friend of civil rights leader Dr. Ralph Bunche, was a native of South Carolina, his mother has been described as Native American (Sioux).[1] but was actually a daughter of Thomas D. Lewis (1846-1909) and Mary Adeline Tann (1855-1939) of Fayette, Iowa, both members of a farming colony of free people of color that settled in Northeast Iowa in 1853. Joseph's grandfather Lewis had the distinction of being a private in the 38th Regiment USCT, one of four USCT units that were the first US troops to march into Richmond, Virginia when it fell in April, 1865. Joseph's great-uncle Theodore Wright Lewis (1853-1922), an AME pastor who served churches in Iowa, Illinois and Kansas was one of the founding members of the NAACP in the Davenport, Iowa and Rock Island, Illinois area. His father was a lawyer and one of the original founders of the National Bar Association, an association of African-American attorneys.[4]

Howard served in the U.S. Army from 1944 to 1946. During World War II, he commanded Filipino troops and ran a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. He was honorably discharged with the rank of Captain.[2][5]


After his discharge, Howard resumed his education at the University of Iowa and graduated in 1950. Prior to the war, Howard had tried out for and made the football team;[6] he was the only black player on the team. During a 1944 game against the Indiana University, his coach yelled out to the Iowa defense: "We gotta stop that nigger", referring to the opposing team's running back.[7] Howard immediately walked up to his coach and asked him to apologize; he didn't, and Howard quit the team. Later at the Drake University Law School, he became the first African-American student admitted to the Phi Alpha Delta legal fraternity. He earned his law degree in 1955 and was married to Gwendolyn Mae London that same year.

Law practice

In 1959, after they moved to Baltimore, Maryland, Howard passed the Maryland bar exam and then started a law firm (Howard & Hargrove) with his brother, Charles P. Howard, and John R. Hargrove, Sr. (who also went on to become a U.S. district judge). In 1964, Howard became assistant state's attorney in Baltimore and later became the first African-American chief of the trial section of the state's attorney's office. Two years into the job, Howard criticized his superiors and Baltimore police for pursuing harsher penalties against alleged black rapists when the victims were white than the penalties they sought when the victims were black.[7] Howard was ordered to issue a report to back up his allegations. In the report he cited that 30 black men had been executed for raping white woman, but no one, black or white, had been executed for raping a black woman.[1] In 1967 he became assistant city solicitor.[3]

Judicial career

Prior to 1968, vacancies on the Supreme Bench of Baltimore City were filled by the Governor of Maryland with white males and usually confirmed by the voters of Baltimore. In 1968, 81 of the 82 judges on Maryland's appellate and circuit courts where white males.[1] Maryland governors had been slow to appoint blacks to the bench, even though the city was majority African American. Howard challenged the system and ran for judge without the blessings of the governor. He won by 8,000 votes over his nearest competitor,[1] and became the first African-American to run for and win a seat on that bench.[3] As a judge, he challenged the racial hiring practices of the supreme bench and helped racially diversify the offices and employ minorities at the circuit court as well. He served on the supreme bench until May 22, 1979, when he was named by President Carter to be the first African-American to the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, a new seat created by 92 Stat. 1629. He was confirmed by the United States Senate on October 4, 1979, and received his commission on October 5, 1979. Assumed senior status on November 15, 1991.


In 1992, after Howard was diagnosed with Shy–Drager syndrome, a progressive failure of the autonomic nervous system, he took a reduced case load. Howard died on September 16, 2000 in Pikesville, Maryland at the age of 77. His funeral was held the following Friday at the Union Baptist Church in Baltimore.[8]

Written works


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 Millemann, Michael A. (9 October 2000). "A fighter for democracy". The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved 2008-05-31.
  2. 1 2 3 Surkiewicz, Joe (2000-09-25). "Tribute to a Civil Rights Trailblazer: Judge Joseph C. Howard Sr., 77". The Daily Record (Baltimore). Retrieved 2008-05-31.
  3. 1 2 3 "Biographical Series: Joseph C. Howard, Sr.". Archives of Maryland. Retrieved 2008-05-31.
  4. "NBA Board of Governors-NBA Founders". National Bar Association. Retrieved 2008-05-31.
  5. "Maryland Manual, 1985-86". Archives of Maryland. Retrieved 2008-05-31.
  6. "Iowa Footbal Letter Winners". National Iowa Varsity Club. Retrieved 2008-06-01.
  7. 1 2 West, Norris P (1992-02-15). "Retiring Judge Howard learned about courage in '44 football game.". The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved 2008-05-31.
  8. Cummings, Elijah (2000-09-30). "Standing up for justice". Baltimore AFRO-American. Archived from the original on 2008-05-04. Retrieved 2008-06-01.
Legal offices
Preceded by
new seat
Judge of the United States District Court for the District of Maryland
Succeeded by
Peter Jo Messitte
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