Judge Horace Ward, civil rights pioneer - December 2009 - Best of Atlanta - Atlanta Magazine

Judge Horace Ward, civil rights pioneer


From his office on the twelfth floor at 75 Spring Street, Judge Horace Taliaferro Ward—his middle name is the same as Booker T. Washington’s—can see Morehouse, Spelman, and Clark Atlanta University, two of which gave him degrees. The University of Georgia, which he never did attend (not for lack of trying), is too far off to glimpse.

The Richard B. Russell building in which he now sits is also a long way from Ms. B.D. Davis’s small, segregated classroom in LaGrange, Georgia, where he read Robinson Crusoe and skipped fifth grade on his way to becoming valedictorian of East Depot Street High School, a three-year graduate of Morehouse, and, at twenty-three, the first person of color to attempt to attend UGA as a law student.

Judge Ward, now eighty-two, recalls how he got here: “Austin T. Walden was a lawyer from Atlanta who represented the NAACP in Georgia. He came to LaGrange when I was a high school student. I got to see my first black lawyer! I read about him later and thought, maybe if he succeeded in it, I could too.”

In September 1950, Ward applied to the University of Georgia School of Law. Nine months later, his answer came. Ward remembers the wording: “Mr. Ward, your application for admission has been received and is hereby denied.”

He appealed the decision. In 1952, a discrimination lawsuit was filed in the northern Georgia federal court. Not until December 1956 did the case go to trial. In the interim, Ward had endured a real war in Korea, and, out in 1955, enrolled at Northwestern’s law school. After a five-day trial, the judge dismissed Ward’s case without saying why he’d been denied admission.

Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes had a trial of their own in December 1960, when they attempted to gain admittance to UGA. Ward represented them. On January 6, 1961, it was ruled that the university had to admit them. “The judge said that if they were white they would have been admitted a long time before,” says Ward.

In the fall of 1979, President Jimmy Carter made Ward a federal judge on the same court that struck down his discrimination suit in 1952. Appointed for life, he’s been there thirty years. He’ll be back again next year, with a reduced caseload. “I don’t have any real hobbies,” Ward says. “I don’t play golf or tennis. But I read a lot of history.” —Charles Bethea

Photograph by Joe Martinez