Jacques E. Leeds, a retired lawyer and the first African-American from Baltimore to serve on the Maryland Workers’ Compensation Commission, died July 1 from complications of Alzheimer’s disease at Northwest Hospital Center.
The former Woodlawn resident, who had resided at the Charlestown Retirement Community in Catonsville, was 90.
“Jacques was an easygoing and unassuming person who was absolutely brilliant, and among the brightest when we were in law school in the 1950s,” said George L. Russell Jr., aformer city solicitor who was the first African-American to sit on an appellate court in the state.
Jacques Elmer Leeds was born in Peru, Ind., the son of Jacques Leeds, a merchant seaman, and Catherine Bernice Leeds, a housekeeper.
In 1931 he moved with his family to a home on Druid Hill Avenue.
During his youth became acquainted with neighbor Clarence M. Mitchell, a civil rights activist and chief lobbyist for the NAACP, and his wife, Juanita Jackson Mitchell, also a civil rights activist, and their children. A family profile of Mr. Leeds notes that he “found it exciting to attend political events, passing out flyers, promoting events and being part of the positive activism displayed in the communities of Baltimore.”
He graduated in 1944 from Frederick Douglass High School, then briefly attended West Virginia State University before enrolling at Lincoln University in Lincoln, Pa.
Drafted into the Army in 1946, Mr. Leeds was sent to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He was assigned to the cavalry and was taught how to ride and care for horses and train others in this field. He later became a military policeman at a base in Oakland, Calif., and served there until being discharged in 1947.
He returned to Baltimore and continued his studies at then-Morgan State College, majoring in political and social sciences.
“Jack and I were fraternity brothers 70 years ago. Nine of us pledged the fraternity, and I’m the last one standing,” he said.
He called Mr. Leeds “the greatest guy in the world. Without a doubt, he was always involved and in the center of things. He believed in doing something with your life [beyond] yourself.”
After three years of study, he entered the University of Maryland School of Law, and graduated in 1954.
“We only had three blacks in our law school class at Maryland,” recalled Mr. Russell, a Pikesville resident. “Jacques was a hard worker but ... he never seemed to study. He worked at a nightclub on Monroe Street until 2 or 3 in the morning, and then he’d come to class where he fell asleep. No one thought he’d pass, but every time we had reviews, he’d come up shining.”
Mr. Russell said that after they graduated from law school, they were not allowed to take the bar exam review course because they were African-Americans.
After passing the bar, Mr. Leeds worked for a law firm on Pennsylvania Avenue, then opened a general practice at Mondawmin Mall.
In 1959, he was named assistant city solicitor, a position he held until Thomas B. Finan, attorney general, named him an assistant attorney general in 1962. He was the first African-American to hold that position, according to a news story at the time in The Baltimore Sun. He held that role for two years before returning to private practice.
Mr. Leeds was also active in 4th Legislative District politics, and in 1962 filed to run as a state Senate candidate. He withdrew from the primary, however, and supported the successful campaign of Verda F. Welcome, a civil rights activist who became the first elected black female state senator in the United States.
Mr. Leeds was named deputy director in 1966 of the federally funded Southern Maryland Tri-County Community Action Committee, a panel that had the twin missions of waging a war on poverty and promoting fair housing. He subsequently served as its director.
William Welch Sr. of District Heights worked with Mr. Leeds at the anti-poverty agency.
“I met him many years ago when I was first out of law school and when he ran for the Maryland Senate,” said Dr. Welch, who teaches human resources development at Bowie State University. “He was trying to help people move out of poverty, and he did an outstanding job as deputy and later director. He viewed it as very important work and was very effective.”
“Jacques was an amazing presence who could talk to anyone, high or low, and his presence made them feel comfortable,” said Dr. Welch. He said Mr. Leeds’ ability to related to all people was “an art,” and while he was an intellectual, he never tried to make himself seem better than others.
He “could talk about Sophocles or Rabelais, but never lorded it over others,” he said. Dr. Welch also called his friend a “very generous man,” adding, “he was also the best man at my wedding.”
After leaving the anti-poverty agency in 1968, Mr. Leeds resumed his legal practice, focuseing on civil, criminal and domestic law. He had said that 60 percent of his work was devoted to criminal cases, and 80 percent was non-jury trials.
“He had many minority clients and did a lot of pro bono work,” said his wife of 45 years, the former Martha “Polly” Ware. The two had met when he was recommended to resolve a legal matter for her.
“His practice was pretty much what walked through the door,” she said. “Money was tight; one day he came home and said that he had been paid. He then slowly pulled out a beautifully handmade quilt — which I still have. Sometimes he was paid with chickens, corn or tomatoes.”
In 1986, Mr. Leeds became the first African-American from Baltimore on the 10-member Workers’ Compensation Commission when he was appointed by then-Gov. Harry R. Hughes. He was reappointed the next year by Gov. William Donald Schaefer.
He resigned from the commission in 1997.
He also served on the executive committee of the Southern Association of Workers’ Compensation, and lectured widely at Morgan State University and the University of Maryland School of Law.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Leeds is survived by a son, Jacques E. Leeds Jr. of Columbus, Ga.; a stepdaughter, Carla Matthews of Windsor Mills; and five grandchildren. Three earlier marriages, to Thelma Robinson, Ethel Ennis and Bernardine Leeds, ended in divorce.