Horace Ward:Silent Giant Slayer
Horace Ward died last week. He died and was buried like he lived, without bringing attention to himself.
One hundred and twenty days before I was born Horace Ward received a notice from the University of Georgia Law School denying his application for admission into the law school. In 1950, Georgia’s flagship university had never admitted a black student to study in either its undergraduate or graduate programs.
Horace Ward was twenty-three years old. By that time, in spite of not starting first grade until he was 9 years of age, Ward had earned a high school diploma, a Bachelor of Science Degree in Political Science from Morehouse College and a Masters Degree from Atlanta University. He was a quiet unassuming man, calculating and slow to speak. When he spoke he usually made more sense by uttering fewer than ten words than most people in an hour long discourse.
When I was 9 months and 5 days old, Horace Ward filed a law suit against the University of Georgia seeking admission into its law school program. Eleven days before my second birthday the federal court in Atlanta was scheduled to rule on Ward’s suit; the long wait to enroll into law school was finally over, Ward thought.
However, thirty-four days before the court decision was due, the local draft board ordered Ward to report to military service. He spent the next two years in the Army. The last year was spent in Korea. Meanwhile, officials at the University of Georgia and the federal courts, probably hoped that he would not return from war and they would not have to rule on his suit to be admitted into the Georgia law school.
Seven months before I started first grade, Ward’s lawsuit in federal court was dismissed, in part because, Ward had enrolled into the law school at Northwestern University.
When I was nine years old, Ward drove down to Reidsville, Georgia to obtain the release of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from police custody. According to Ambassador Andrew Young, King was happy to see Ward. His caring demeanor calmed the nerves of Dr. King, who had been handcuffed and thrown into a paddy wagon with the company of a German Shepherd dog on the trip to Reidsville. This act of terror so unnerved Dr. King that he nearly had a nervous breakdown. The King family credited Ward with restoring the spirit of the “Dreamer.”
Oh what would the civil rights landscape have been like had Ward not led Dr. King by the “still waters” with his soothing reassuring voice?
Nine months before I turned ten years old, Ward renewed his efforts to integrate the University of Georgia. He was a member of the legal team that fought for the admission of Hamilton Holmes and Charlene Hunter (Gault) into the undergraduate program at UGA. That year, 1961, federal court Judge William Bootle ordered the school to admit Holmes and Hunter. The lot fell on Ward to be the attorney to escort Holmes and Hunter onto campus that first day at the University of Georgia. The man UGA said was not smart enough to enroll in the law school, walked onto campus with the schools first two black students.
Four years later, Judge Bootle would rule in a Bibb County, Georgia case, that the public schools had to be integrated. This allowed me to become a part of the class that integrated a public white junior high school in Macon, Georgia. I would not have been able to attend Lanier Junior High School for Boys had Horace Ward not applied for admission into the UGA law school one hundred and twenty days before I was born.
That same year, 1965, Ward was elected to serve in the Georgia State Senate. He served until 1974, the year I graduated with a degree in political science from Tuskegee Institute. This same year, Ward was appointed to the Civil Court of Fulton County by then Governor Jimmy Carter.
In 1975, Ward was getting accustomed to the role of a judge and I received a letter from the Walter F. George School of Law saying I did not meet the qualification for admission.
By 1979, Governor Carter was now the sitting United States president and he appointed Ward to the United States Federal District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. Ward was sworn into office in the very courtroom where his case against the University of Georgia had been dismissed.
Six years after Ward began his service on the federal court bench, I was admitted to the State Bar of Georgia. I would run into him at Bar functions. I was struck by his quiet persona and the penetrating questions he would ask when I was in his presence. I was in awe of how he graciously handled a discrimination case against the university in the 1980s.
One would have thought that it was perfect poetic justice, had he stuck it to the good old UGA for denying him admission those long years ago, but he would have no part of revenge. His sheer competence, brilliant intellect, courtly southern manners, exacted sweet revenge. It was as if he was saying, I am the cornerstone that you rejected, yet I will show you only love, kindness, and justice.
In 1996, I stepped into a giant crater his footsteps had left at the Gate City Bar Association. I was elected to serve the organization as its president.
My first order of business was to create The Gate City Bar Association’s Hall of Fame. Horace Ward was a member of the inaugural class. During my tenure in office, Judge Ward took it upon himself to bring me up to speed on the history of the organization. We interacted a great deal that year. After my term had ended, I would often run into him walking in downtown late at night as I was leaving the office sometimes around 10 and at other times around 11 pm. We would stop and chat. I would offer him a ride home and he would decline and tell me to get on home.
Other than the lawyers who knew of Ward’s contribution to desegregating public education in the State of Georgia, very few people from the community turned out to bid fare well to the quiet warrior who by his sheer intellect and strong will opened the doors of the University of Georgia to all of Georgia’s citizens. We are because Horace Ward was.
Harold Michael Harvey is an American novelist and essayist, the author of Paper puzzle and Justice in the Round. He can be contacted at haroldmichaelharvey.com.