Horace T. Ward, federal judge and civil rights lawyer, dies at 88

The newspaper caption for this photo read: “Gov. George Busbee swears in Horace Ward. A long route to the Superior Court.” The caption is stamped “Mar 0 6 1977 JNL.-CONSTI.” The print verso is date-stamped “Thu Nov 2 1979,” the probable date of this print. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution Photographic Archive)

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The newspaper caption for this photo read: “Gov. George Busbee swears in Horace Ward. A long route to the Superior Court.” The caption is stamped “Mar 0 6 1977 JNL.-CONSTI.” The print verso is date-stamped “Thu Nov 2 1979,” the probable date of this print. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution Photographic Archive)

Back when the old Paschal’s restaurant on West Hunter Street was the hub where civil rights battle plans were laid out and their victories celebrated, there were some in the movement who could be counted on to thump their chests and swagger a little after a win.

Not Horace T. Ward. A fledgling attorney for the venerable Donald L. Hollowell firm, Ward was the low-key one, not outwardly flashy. He’d smile a knowing smile, all the while thinking about what the next legal move could be in the fight for equality.

“He didn’t sit around the bar saying, ‘I’m a bad so-and-so,’” his former Hollowell colleague, attorney Vernon Jordan, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday. “No, he was humble. He was quietly courageous.”

Ward knew the kind of courage it took to wage an epic fight. He had struggled mightily to be admitted to the University of Georgia’s law school in 1950, taking his battle to federal court after the university rejected him largely on the basis of his race. After seven years, Ward lost that skirmish. But he would see victory many times over.

He’d go on to be part of the legal team that forced UGA after 175 years to admit its first black students, a legal team that included Hollowell, Constance Baker Motley, Thurgood Marshall and Jordan.

Ward would go on to become a Georgia state senator. And in 1979, President Jimmy Carter appointed him to be a federal district judge. The honor made him the first black person to be a federal judge in the Peach State.

Those are the broad strokes of Ward’s life, which ended on Saturday. Horace Taliaferro Ward was 88. He died of natural causes. Funeral arrangements are being handled by Alfonso Dawson Mortuary in Atlanta.

Keen Legal Mind, A Natural Judge

On Tuesday, President Carter issued a statement saying, “I am saddened to learn of the death of Judge Horace Ward. In his early years, he fought a fierce battle against segregation at the University of Georgia, helping to pave the way for future generations of African-American students. His keen legal mind made him a natural choice for a federal judgeship. Rosalynn and I send our condolences to his family and friends.”

Charlayne Hunter-Gault, along with the late Hamilton Holmes, were the two students who finally integrated UGA with Ward and Jordan at their sides. Hunter-Gault went on to become an Emmy-award winning journalist, and Holmes became an orthopedic physician and associate dean at Emory University School of Medicine.

Hunter-Gault said Ward’s early effort against UGA cleared the path for her and Holmes. After UGA’s law school rejected Ward, he went to Northwestern University in Illinois to earn his law degree, armed with a bachelor’s degree in political science from Morehouse College and a master’s degree from Atlanta University.

But after law school, instead of staying in the Midwest, where there was ostensibly more opportunity for college-educated blacks, the young man born and raised in LaGrange, Ga., decided to come back South.

“A lot of people with his degree from a good school might never have returned South,” Hunter-Gault said to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “When he came back there were still great limitations to what African-Americans could do.”

Inexperienced, But Not Scared

Ward joined Hollowell’s firm in September 1960, Jordan said. Jordan had joined the firm in June of that year. They were two inexperienced lawyers, trying to dismantle a system of racial segregation that was as old as the nation.

Ward’s effort to integrate UGA had been an early test case of the movement. The opportunity to try again, this time as counsel for Hunter (who later became Hunter-Gault) and Holmes, was irresistible. Hollowell brought them in to what could now be looked at as a civil rights dream team.

“We didn’t have sense enough to be scared,” Jordan said of himself and Ward. “We were a team and we took our lead from Constance (Baker Motley) and Hollowell. We were doing something about racism and segregation through the law. We weren’t the heroes. Charlayne and Hamilton were the heroes.”

‘He Had His Justice After All’

Less than a year after joining the firm, Ward accompanied the students to their first day of class at UGA after the federal court ruling granting them admission. Ward went in with Holmes, Jordan said.

Ward didn’t crow about the victory, Hunter-Gault and Jordan said, but his joy radiated.

“Even after he was denied, he had his justice after all,” Hunter-Gault said. “It gave him an opportunity to realize his own dream. He opened doors for all of us and he never gave up.”

Those who came after Hunter-Gault also praised Ward for paving the way for them.

“Horace T. Ward was one of Georgia’s most significant citizens in the cause of advancing the yet-unfinished struggle for equal justice for all under the law” Francys Johnson, Statesboro attorney and president of the Georgia NAACP, said in a statement. “As a graduate of the University of Georgia School of Law, I am keenly aware that I am only because Judge Ward secured that right despite the overwhelming obstacles of the time.”

‘Legacy Of Dedicated Public Service’

Current University of Georgia President Jere W. Morehead lauded Ward as a pioneer.

“The University of Georgia mourns the loss of Judge Horace Ward, whose courage and determination paved the way for African-American students to gain equal access to the state’s flagship institution of higher learning,” said Morehead in a statement. “Judge Ward leaves behind a legacy of dedicated public service. The thoughts of the university community go out to his friends and family.”

His UGA victory propelled Ward to a life of public service and put him in the state’s top legal circles. But if you met him in public, you might never know he was a judge.

‘I Only Knew Him As Horace’

When Richard Hyde was a rookie Atlanta police officer assigned to walk the Auburn Avenue beat in 1981, Hyde would often run into the distinguished man with the mustache at the Atlanta municipal market, or old farmer’s market. The two would strike up a conversation about the events of the day, share a laugh and part ways.

“I only knew him as Horace, because that’s how he introduced himself,” Hyde said.

It was years later that Hyde, who’d been promoted to narcotics investigator, ran into Ward at the federal courthouse in Atlanta. It was about 1985, as Hyde remembers.

“I asked him, ‘What are you doing here?’ And he said, ‘I work here, come on up to my office,’” said Hyde, who is now the commissioner of the Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission. “Well, I went up there, and I had no idea until I saw his name on the door and walked into his chambers that he was a federal judge. I would never have called him ‘Horace’ if I’d known that. That just shows how humble he was.”

Ward finally did see another form of justice. In 2014 the University of Georgia granted him an honorary law degree.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.