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Obituary: Judge Harry J. Elam, Sr.

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Obituary: Judge Harry J. Elam, Sr.
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. (Photo: 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.

 Judge Elam was very active over the years in community and civic affairs. A founder and first chairman of the Board of the Roxbury Multi-Service Center, he also served as chairman of the board of the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts, the Urban League of Greater Boston, the Roxbury-Dorchester Conference on Urban Renewal, the Advent School, the Board of Trustees of the Noble and Greenough School, the National Center of African American Artists, St. Mark Congregational Church, and Mass Council on the Humanities.

He also served as legal counsel of the Boston Branch chapter of the NAACP. A long-time member of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity, he served as basileus (president) of Nu Psi, Gamma and Eta Phi chapters. He was a member of the Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity (“The Boule”) and the Bachmar Club of Boston. During his retirement he spent several years working on his “labor of love” for his mentor, the Judge Wade McCree, solicitor-general in the Carter administration. The Judge Wade McCree Project at Boston Latin School resulted in Judge McCree’s recognition as one of the school’s most distinguished graduates and a scholarship in Judge McCree’s name.

Judge Elam was the recipient of many awards and citations over the years.

His parents; older brother, Charles Henry; younger brother, Clarence Richard and son, Keith “Guru” Elam all preceded him in death.

He leaves his wife of 62 years, Barbara; his daughters, Tricia and Jocelyn; his son, Dr. Harry Justin II; daughter in-law, Michele; his six grandchildren, Justin, Denzel, Nile, Claire, Keith Casim and Brian; his two sisters, Annetta Capdeville and Harriet Elam-Thomas; brother-in-law, Wilfred Thomas and a legion of other relatives and friends, all of whom he loved madly.

The wake is Friday, Aug. 31, 6-9pm. The funeral is Saturday, Sept. 1 at 10:00am. Both services are at St. Mark Congregational Church, 200 Townsend Street, Dorchester, MA. Also in lieu of flowers, donations may be may to The Harry J. Elam Fund, Boston Latin School Association, 101 Huntington Avenue, Suite #200, Boston, MA 02199.

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