A pioneering jurist in the state’s courts, Harry Elam Sr. was accustomed to breaking ground. He was the first black judge appointed to the Boston Municipal Court bench, the court’s first black chief justice, and perhaps the first black man to drive into an area reserved for judges outside Salem Superior Court.
“Just as I pulled into the parking space, a court officer in the court ran out to me, ‘Hey, you can’t park there. Can’t you see it’s for judges?’ ” Judge Elam recalled in a video interview for the Boston University School of Law, his alma mater. He chuckled at the memory and added, “So I said, ‘What the hell do you think I am? Court officer?’ ”
During a 37-year career as a lawyer and judge, Judge Elam “was a real trailblazer,” said Roderick L. Ireland, who in 2010 became the first black chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.
“Every time I spoke with him, I thanked him for opening doors for the rest of us,” Ireland said. “He was what I would call an icon. He exemplified every aspect and quality you would expect in a leader, and I’m not just speaking from the perspective of an African-American.”
Judge Elam, who in 1983 was named an associate justice for the Superior Court, from which he retired five years later, died Thursday in Newton-Wellesley Hospital of complications from heart failure. He was 90 and was living in Needham, after many years on Buzzards Bay and in Dorchester.
“I always looked on him, and I know others did as well, as one of the pioneering giants in the legal community and the broader community,” said Wayne A. Budd, senior counsel at Goodwin Procter and a former US attorney.
“For those lawyers of color such as myself who were coming along, he was a role model,” Budd said. “He had been there and done that. He had been in private practice and was successful. We could say, ‘Hey, Harry Elam did this, and he’s there to support us, so we can do it.’ ”
Barbara Rouse, chief justice of the state Superior Court, called Judge Elam a considerate colleague and a compassionate judge “well known for fashioning sentences which not only met the goal of punishment, but also maximized the possibility of rehabilitation, particularly for youthful offenders.”
At his career’s outset, Judge Elam joined the law practice of Edward W. Brooke, who became the first black elected to the US Senate by popular vote.
Mindful of how much history was made in his lifetime, Judge Elam wrote a letter to the Globe in 2006 when Deval Patrick was elected governor.
“My wife, Barbara, and I had such a warm feeling as we marked our ballots on Election Day,” he wrote. “As octogenarians and as African-Americans, we had thought we would never live to see an African-American become governor of the state in which we were born.”
Born in Boston Lying-in Hospital, Harry Justin Elam Sr. was the second of five siblings and grew up first in Cambridge, where his father ran a service station, and then Roxbury, after his family lost the business during the Great Depression.
Judge Elam graduated from Boston Latin School and attended college in Virginia on a scholarship until finding a way to join the Army Signal Corps, which stationed him in Burma during World War II.
In an unpublished memoir, he wrote that after being turned down because of poor eyesight, he “got back into the place after-hours and memorized the eye chart so he could join,” said his daughter Tricia, a writer who lives in Washington, D.C.
After the war, he saw Barbara Clark singing in St. Mark Congregational Church in Boston. He joined the choir to meet her and in 1950 they married in the church.
“He loved my mother and they had an incredible love story,” Tricia said. “They showed us love and respect. This is the great gift they gave to their children.”
Judge Elam finished his undergraduate work at Boston University and graduated in 1951 from BU’s School of Law.
“He was the intellectual of the family,” said his sister Harriet Elam-Thomas, a former US ambassador to Senegal who directs the diplomacy program at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. “He could quote the first paragraphs of Homer’s ‘Iliad’ and Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’ from memory, and I was always in awe of that.”
Throughout his career and retirement, Judge Elam served on the boards of numerous organizations and was honored many times for his work on civil rights issues and his leadership role in the legal community.
“He lived his life with a sense of integrity,” said his son Harry Jr., vice provost for undergraduate education at Stanford University in California. “That drove him, but at the same time, he was able to change and adapt and grow.”
A case in point, Judge Elam’s family said, was that he initially discouraged his son Keith from entering the music business, and eventually came to embrace the choice. Judge Elam and his wife even appeared in a music video for Keith, who was known as Guru of Gang Starr, a duo that was among the first to weave jazz into hip-hop. Keith died of cancer in 2010.
“I used to say, ‘He’s in music,’ but I would never specify rap,” Judge Elam told the Globe in 1992. “I have to admit that I was wrong. I made an improper judgment at that time. But I’ve come a long way.”
In addition to his wife, daughter, son, and sister, Judge Elam leaves another daughter, Jocelyn of Baltimore; another sister, Annetta Capdeville of Yelm, Wash.; and six grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. Sept. 1 in St. Mark Congregational Church in Boston. Burial will be in Mount Hope Cemetery in Boston.
While first presiding in 1971, Judge Elam was surprised to learn his judicial demeanor was perceived as quite serious.
“I don’t want to give the impression that I’m stern and hard and cold,” he told the Globe. To the contrary, Judge Elam employed dry wit when the setting allowed, such as when he officiated several years ago at the wedding of his son Harry in California.
“He had his robe on,” his son recalled, “and he started the ceremony by saying, ‘The last time I wore this robe in the Superior Court, the sentencing required a life sentence. Today, the circumstances are different, but I propose the same.’ ”
Correction: Because of incorrect information provided to the Globe, an earlier version of this story gave an incorrect date for Mr. Elam’s memorial service. The service will be held at 10 a.m. on Sept. 1.