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Retiring Judge Howard learned about courage in '44 football game


They honored Judge Joseph C. Howard yesterday by hanging his picture in Baltimore's federal courthouse, a thousand miles and five decades away from the Bloomington, Ind., football field where he discovered his courage.

It was 1944. The first black jurist on Baltimore's federal bench was a strapping tight end and the only black player on the University of Iowa football team.

He was anxious to use his 6-foot 1-inch, 200-pound frame to pound some Indiana players. And he heard the coach bark that Iowa had to stop the Hoosiers' talented black running back.

But then the coach uttered the word that pierced young Joseph Howard's soul like a dagger.

"He said, 'We've gotta stop that nigger,' " the judge recalled.

Should he let it drop? Take out his anger on the Hoosiers? Take the train ride back to Iowa City with the coach and his teammates?

Not a chance.

"I went up to him and said, 'Coach, unless you apologize to me, I'm not going to play.' He said, 'You get out there and play or get your rags and get out of here.' "

It didn't take Joseph Howard long to gather his clothes and leave the stadium. But on the 300-mile ride home, he was worried. Would his father think that he'd made the right decision?

Charles Preston Howard told his son he would have been disappointed with any other response. He was proud.

"I think the best discussion I ever had in my life was on that trip," Judge Howard reminisced this week in the high-back leather chair in his chambers in the U.S. District Court. "He breathed life into me -- gave me some kind of courage."

Since that day, Joseph Howard's career as a lawyer, prosecutor and judge has been marked by bold moves and an eagerness to rid his world -- and Baltimore's judicial establishment in particular -- of racism and sexism.

Yesterday, a career of controversy and trailblazing reached an apex as Judge Howard's portrait was unveiled in the large

ceremonial court room alongside the other judges who have retired from active service. It's the first black portrait on the wall.

Judge Howard, 69, is now a senior judge. In his new role, he continues to receive his $129,500 salary but can take on a reduced caseload and sit on the bench in other jurisdictions.

"It's time to slow down," he conceded.

He is still an imposing figure, with a mane of silver that frames a smooth face. His office is dotted with African artwork. There's a purpose to that. "I like to make my office a sociological experience, so when people come here they learn. Clerks come through here -- half of them have been white. I want them to know that black people are proud of themselves, proud of their history. So when you come out of here you know that black people feel a sense of self-respect."

tTC Judge Howard said his parents taught him the skills that led him through decades of conflicts and confrontations with Baltimore's establishment. They told him to be proud of being black, to look people straight in the eye and stand up for his beliefs.

He carried that advice to the state's attorney's office in Baltimore, where, as chief of the trial division in 1966, he criticized police and his superiors for seeking harsher sentences against black rapists when the victims were white than when they were black.

He carried it to the Supreme Bench of Baltimore City, where, as a judge in 1975, he charged that the court discriminated against blacks and women in filling job vacancies there.

Judge Howard learned about struggle as a child, sitting on his living room floor and listening to his father exchange ideas with such luminaries as Ralph Bunche and A. Phillip Randolph.

"My dad would say, 'Hey son, you can sit on the floor and your brothers can sit on the floor as long as you don't cause any disruption,' " he said, remembering how fascinated he was listening to the brilliant conversations about the struggles of black Americans.

"So I had the exposure of men who really had courage, who really were doing things," the judge recalled.

And his mother, Maude L. Howard, instilled pride.

"The strongest Homo sapiens in the world as far as I can see is the black woman," Judge Howard said. "My mother just breathed that stuff into you. She'd always say 'You are somebody.' "

After a stint in the Army, Judge Howard earned his law degree at Drake University in Des Moines and married Gwendolyn Mae London.

Flat broke in 1958, he packed his old station wagon and headed to Baltimore at the urging of his brother, Charles Howard Jr., who had moved here to practice law.

He was not impressed by the black lawyers he found here.

"When I came to Baltimore in the '50s, I was ashamed of black lawyers. Why? Because none of them had any damn guts at all," he said. "That's why I got so much attention."

U.S. District Judge John R. Hargrove, a former law partner and the only other black on the federal bench here, said few lawyers would take steps to correct injustices until Joseph Howard came along.

"He'll go down as one of the leaders," Judge Hargrove said. "You've got to put him up there with [former Congressman] Parren Mitchell. He did things to move the community."

Mr. Howard stirred a major controversy with his charges of uneven rape prosecution, and he was suspended from his trial division post in the state's attorney's office.

There was a storm of protest, however, and the Supreme Bench (now Baltimore Circuit Court) restored him to his position a few months later.

He was ordered to document the discrimination, which he did when the Monumental City Bar Association, an organization of black lawyers, reported that all seven men on Maryland's death row for rape were black. Of those, six had been convicted of raping white women, and one for raping a black woman. This occurred even though blacks were accused of raping black women 14 times more often than they were accused of raping white women.

A year later, voters elected him to the Supreme Bench, which he recalls as a judiciary firmly entrenched in a white-male tradition.

"Conflict," he said when asked to describe his early days on the bench. He said court officials tried to make decisions for him, right down to choosing his secretary. He insisted, however, on Dorothy A. Phillips, who still holds the job.

In 1977, Acting Gov. Blair Lee III was primed to name Judge Howard to the state's highest tribunal -- the Maryland Court of Appeals. But the Appellate Judicial Nominating Commission omitted Judge Howard's name from its list.

Two years later, President Jimmy Carter tapped Judge Howard for an opening on the federal bench here. The U.S. Senate confirmed him on Oct. 5, 1979.

As the Bush administration looks for a replacement, Judge Howard makes it clear that the seat should be occupied by another black person because "we're in a game of catch-up."

"When I talk about a black being appointed, I'm talking about a psychological black," he said. "Someone who has the causes, the concerns for people who look like him."

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