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Obituary: Judge Harry J. Elam, Sr.

8/22/2012, 10:19 a.m.
Keith Cassim Elam, son of the late legendary hip hop artist Keith “Guru” Elam, is shown here hugging his grandfather Judge Harry J. Elam Sr. during a memorial service held two years ago at UMass Boston. Judge Elam passed away last week after an extraordinary legal career and legacy of social activism. Ernesto Arroyo

Judge Harry Justin Elam, Sr., the first black Chief Justice of the Boston Municipal Court, died on Thursday, August 16, 2012, at age 90.

Judge Elam was the second of five children of Robert Elam and Blanche Lee Elam. He was born on April 29, 1922 in the Boston Lying-In Hospital. At the time, the Elam family lived in Cambridge, MA.

In 1932, they moved to Roxbury, settling in a third-floor apartment of a three-decker on Elbert Street. Judge Elam first attended the Henry L. Higginson School and subsequently was accepted at the prestigious Boston Latin School, graduating in 1940.

At that time the country was in the throes of the Great Depression, leaving his parents unable to afford college tuition, and there was no scholarship aid available. Fortunately, Judge Elam’s cousin, Callie Mae Jones, who taught at Virginia State College, suggested he apply there and upon acceptance, offered him room and board as well as assistance finding campus employment.

He spent two years at the black college before being called into service during World War II. He served in the Army Signal Corps on Ledo Road in Burma, helping to maintain a communications network for American troops stationed in his area.

Shortly after his discharge, Judge Elam met his future wife, Barbara Clark, at his home church, St. Mark Congregational. He decided not to return to Virginia State, but remained in Boston, completing his undergraduate work at Boston University and then obtaining his law degree from Boston University School of Law.

On September 23, 1950, the beginning of his senior law school year, he married Barbara, at the church where they met.

After passing the Massachusetts Bar Exam, Judge Elam was invited by Edward. W. Brooke (who later became the first African American since Reconstruction to be elected to the United States Senate) to join his law practice on Humboldt Avenue.     After practicing law for some 20 years, Judge Elam had the good fortune, of being appointed the first black judge to sit on the Boston Municipal Court in 1971.

He always acknowledged that several women in the Roxbury community, including Melnea Cass, Edith Williams and Edith Brothers, were principally responsible for his judgeship coming to pass. The women took it upon themselves to urge the then governor, Francis Sargent, to make the appointment.

Later, in 1978, Judge Elam became the unanimous choice of the Supreme Judicial Court of the Commonwealth to serve a five-year term as the first Chief Justice of the Boston Municipal Court. He was the first African American to serve in that role.

In 1983, Governor Michael Dukakis appointed him to serve as an Associate Justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court. Judge Elam retired from the judiciary in 1988.

During his close to 20 years on the bench, he served as Chairman of the Affirmative Action Committee of the Trial Court of the Commonwealth, introducing strategies to bring diversity to all of the Commonwealth courts.

He was also one of the founders and first president of the Massachusetts Black Judges Conference and was one of the charter members of the National Judicial Council (Organization of Black Judges in the United States); a member of the Massachusetts Judges Conference; a member of the Massachusetts Judicial Counsel; chair of the Governor’s Citizens Commission on Prisons in Massachusetts; and the founder and chairman of the board of Project Commitment, a program that brought together judges, lawyers and other court personnel to work with youngsters in Boston’s middle schools serving as role models and motivators.