By Sean Yoes
AFRO Senior Reporter
University of Maryland law professor Larry S. Gibson is the unquestioned authority on the history of Maryland’s Black lawyers. And he chronicled part of that history in his seminal biography of Thurgood Marshall’s early years, Young Thurgood: The Making of a Supreme Court Justice. In it he relays the observations of Charles Hamilton Houston, Howard University’s unparalleled law professor and one of the greatest legal minds of the 20th century, who cited Baltimore’s Black lawyers as the nation’s best in a report he filed in the late 1920’s.
“…Houston’s nationwide study of African-American lawyers recognized that Black lawyers in Baltimore had a tradition of activism unlike any other group of lawyers he had seen. He wrote:
The marked exception to this statement is found in Baltimore…The reason for this exception is probably found in the fact of their attitude towards the profession. Without exception, these men consider the lawyer as a defender of rights and an officer of the court for the protection of the community. There has never been a case of discrimination or oppression brought to the attention of these men that they have not acted on with or without fee. As a result, they have no equal as a class in sober self-respect, quiet confidence, and a sense of duty.
Nearly 100 years since Houston’s survey of Black lawyers, Baltimore’s 21st century cadre of Black attorneys continues to perpetuate the tradition of Black excellence in the law.
To make it plain, if you get jammed up legally in Baltimore there are several people at the top of the call list (in no particular order): Billy Murphy, J. Wyndal Gordon, Ken Ravenell, A. Dwight Pettit, Russell Neverdon and Warren Brown. This is not to disparage others, but these men are at the top of my list of star defense attorneys over the last 30 years or so. Also of great importance is the fact that all these men do (or have done) pro bono legal work and are committed to their communities.
Yet, it is the flamboyant Brown who is stepping up in the midst of a global pandemic that has claimed more than 400,000 American lives, a disproportionate number of the dead being Black and other people of color. And the reality is COVID-19 has ravaged the Black community in many ways beyond the death toll.
“My offer of pro bono legal assistance in eviction matters to those who lost their job due to COVID, was born out of my concern for people in that situation,” Brown told the AFRO.
“Also impacted by those evictions will be small children. Many of those evicted will be homeless living off the street. I can’t stand by and simply feel sorry for them. I knew I must do something.”
On March 16, 2020, Gov. Hogan halted evictions for tenants who could prove their failure to pay rent stemmed from the onslaught of the coronavirus crisis. Yet, the political tumult of the times and budgetary constraints have left many feeling uneasy about the path forward for struggling renters.
“I will use my skill and influence, along with other lawyers I recruit to help prevent as many evictions as possible,” Brown said.
This isn’t the first time Brown has stepped up for the city in a time of crisis.
Between 1995 and 1999, Brown dipped into his own pockets to fund a very successful “gun buyback” program, which took hundreds of illegal guns off Baltimore’s streets.
It was during that time Brown also began to protest the so-called zero tolerance policing policy implemented by then-Mayor Martin O’Malley. I remember having a very frank conversation with Brown in his office back when it was on Lexington Street around the corner from the courthouse. He told how he couldn’t possibly handle all the illegal arrest cases coming his way, that young Black men would have been lining up out the door of his office and down the street if he hadn’t turned so many away. It probably wasn’t hyperbole.
I actually interviewed him as he stood on Auchentoroly Terrace and wore a sign that read, “Mr. Mayor Stop the Illegal Arrests.”
It was that serious.
He told the AFRO in 2005, “Unfortunately, it creates a mentality that we really can’t be safe in the streets from either the thugs or the police,” Brown said. “And for those of us who live in the community that’s a helluva’ situation to be in when you can’t trust either.”
Today, Brown’s observations seem eerily prescient.
Sean Yoes is the AFRO’s Senior Reporter and the author of Baltimore After Freddie Gray: Real Stories From One of America’s Great Imperiled Cities.