Sherman Howell, longtime civil rights activist and Columbia change-maker, dies

Columbia resident Sherman Howell was 22 years old when he joined civil rights protesters in the third march on Selma, Ala., in 1965, the only march that succeeded in reaching Montgomery, Ala.

Sherman Howell, a longtime civil rights activist who championed causes in a budding Columbia, died of complications stemming from heart disease Aug. 2 at the Johns Hopkins Howard County Medical Center. He was 80.

A software engineer by trade, Mr. Howell was remembered for his lifetime of advocacy on a wide range of issues starting at a young age. He walked in Selma, Alabama, during the historic civil rights march to Montgomery in 1965, and continued to campaign on causes, especially affordable housing in Howard County, until his death.


Born in Eads, Tennessee, to farm workers Herbert Earnest Howell and Eldora Howell, Mr. Howell grew up in the segregated town of Arlington, where he first became involved in demonstrations seeking the integration of public facilities.

He focused his early activism on ending Jim Crow laws that persisted throughout his young life, traveling 300 miles by bus overnight to reach Selma during the momentous third and final march. He was a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, participating in a chapter of the consequential civil rights group that was led by Marion Barry, who later became mayor of Washington.


Reflecting on the Selma march in a 2014 interview with The Baltimore Sun, Mr. Howell called voting rights “a matter of life and death” for Black people facing a jury. He noted that his bus was met with ax-wielding counterprotesters on the trip to Selma after a wrong turn.

Mr. Howell moved to Washington to work with the city’s police department on community relations and to receive his master’s degree from American University. He married the former Yvonne Anderson in 1971 and came to Columbia for the then-new planned community’s promise of racial inclusivity, said Willie Flowers, the president of the Maryland State Conference of the NAACP who met Mr. Howell in his work with the organization. Mr. Flowers, who also is from the South, described his and Mr. Howell’s resettling as a “continuation of the Great Migration.”

Living in Columbia and commuting to Washington to work as a software engineer for the Federal Insurance Office, Mr. Howell fought for a range of local causes — pushing for the community’s library to subscribe to Black newspapers, protesting attempts to honor Confederate soldiers from Howard County and promoting minority-owned businesses. He was an early advocate for affordable housing in the Columbia area, advising other community leaders on the subject.

“He believed in the Columbia lifestyle,” Harry Evans, a longtime friend and fraternity brother in Alpha Phi Alpha, said. “He and [Columbia’s founder] Jim Rouse walked hand in hand.”

Mr. Howell was also remembered for his efforts to convert Harriet Tubman High School, the county’s first African American high school, into a community center, which ultimately opened last year.

His associates said he carried both a sternness and a jocular attitude, often sharing laughs with Mr. Flowers while doing important work.

“He was fun. Other people thought he had a bitterness about him,” Mr. Flowers said.

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“There were always two sides to Sherman Howell,” Mr. Evans said, noting that the longtime workforce housing advocate lived in a pricey Harper’s Choice home.


Both said Mr. Howell’s personality came to full effect in 1988, when a Turf Valley Hotel and Country Club manager left him a voicemail calling him several racial slurs in response to Mr. Howell calling about the club’s hiring practices.

“What did [Mr. Howell] do? He got on ‘Nightline,’” Mr. Evans said, referring to the ABC program then hosted by Ted Koppel. “That was counter to everyone’s programming.”

Mr. Flowers noted that Mr. Howell “didn’t stay mad” about the incident after the club addressed concerns with the county’s NAACP and Human Rights Commission.

Later in life, Mr. Howell served as the founder and chairperson of the Howard County Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Commission and the vice president of the African American Coalition of Howard County. He was awarded the NAACP Platinum Year Award in 2017 as well as the Heritage Housing Partners Corporation Legacy Award in 2023. The Community Ecology Institute named its engagement center after Mr. Howell and fellow Howard activist C. Vernon Gray.

Mr. Howell’s funeral was Aug. 11 at St. John Baptist Church in Columbia.

Mr. Howell is survived by his wife, Yvonne Howell, of Columbia; their daughter, Candace Howell of New York; Mr. Howell’s daughter, Toni Washington of Chicago; and his sister, Joyce Howell, of Los Angeles. He was preceded in death by three brothers, Willie A. Howell, Wade Howell and Clinton Howell; and two sisters, Curtyss Harding and Gladys Moore.