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Judge Baron H. Martin, a groundbreaking Black lawyer for MBTA, dies at 97

Judge Baron H. Martin.

To help support his mother after his father died, Baron H. Martin became a baggage handler at South Station in the 1940s, when the agency overseeing public transportation was called the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

By the time he became a judge nearly 30 years later, he had finished law school and risen to become deputy counsel of what was then the MBTA.

Brought in after law school initially to work as a claims investigator, Mr. Martin liked to say he was the first Black man “to work at the T that was not pushing a broom.”

A longtime jurist in Roxbury and Wareham, he inspired people of color in Greater Boston’s legal circles to aspire to higher roles than those available to previous generations. “I do think the example of what Baron did made it possible for other Black lawyers to think and dream big,” said his cousin Ralph C. Martin II, a former Suffolk district attorney.

Baron Haye Martin, who in the 1950s and ‘60s befriended the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, was 97 when he died Nov. 16. He lived in Mattapoisett and his health had been failing.

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“There were a bunch of Black lawyers, and he was one of them, who came out of the generation that defied gravity, who came through that era in the ‘50s and ‘60s and then had the professional careers that they had,” Ralph Martin said. “I think if people like them had come up in my era, there’s no telling what they would have accomplished.”

For some in Boston, such as Bay State Banner founder Mel Miller, Mr. Martin was a mentor and friend from boyhood, long before Mr. Martin imagined ever becoming a lawyer and a judge.

Mr. Martin’s only sibling, Cynthia, died at 11 of diabetes, a painful loss for his family of four. Miller and his family, who belonged to the same church as the Martins, were among those who gathered in mourning.

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“I was a little boy and came up to him and said, ‘Maybe I can be your brother too,’ " Miller recalled. “He was so touched by that, and we became very good friends ever since. We always stayed in communication. As I became a lawyer and produced the Banner, he came forward and helped when he could.”

Appointed to the bench in 1974 by Governor Francis Sargent, Mr. Martin became a mentor to many young people of color who wanted to become lawyers and succeed in the public or private sectors.

“There are Black lawyers around town who will tell you Baron steered some business their way,” Ralph Martin said. “That made their existence a little less stressful as private practice lawyers.”

As a judge in Roxbury and Wareham, Mr. Martin had a multifaceted impact on the lives of those he met.

On the bench, he might impose shorter sentences on first-time offenders with the understanding that longer stints in jail awaited if they appeared before him again.

Mr. Martin also worked to ensure that those with substance abuse issues got the treatment to turn their lives around.

“You have to try to get involved personally with each person,” he told The Standard-Times of New Bedford in 1996, as he reached the state’s mandatory retirement age of 70 for judges. “It’s terrifying standing up there in court. You feel like no one is on your side.”

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Born in Boston on Sept. 14, 1926, Baron Haye Martin never used Jr. as part of his name, even though his father was Baron Haye Martin Sr., a master mechanic.

His mother, Margaret Jones Elliot Martin, volunteered extensively in churches, working mostly with girls, after her daughter, Cynthia, died.

Baron Sr. and Margaret were Jamaican immigrants who returned to their home country while Baron was a boy, and then came back to Boston.

Mr. Martin graduated from Boston English High School and attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., before returning home to help support his mother.

While working as a baggage handler at South Station, he finished his undergraduate degree, taking classes at Boston University and at Suffolk University, and then graduated from Suffolk University Law School.

At BU, Mr. Martin was a leader of the Sigma Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha, the historic Black fraternity, when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a young pledge.

In a 2018 Globe interview, he recalled that one day King resisted joining other pledges in their assignment to paint a fence. As punishment, Mr. Martin gave the future civil rights leader “one smack” on the backside with a paddle. “You can’t do that anymore,” he noted.

He also worked on the 1960s campaigns of Robert F. Kennedy.

“Bobby always said that those of us who have something have an obligation to help others,” Mr. Martin told The Standard-Times. “I’ve never forgotten that.”

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During Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign, Mr. Martin said in Standard-Times interviews, he was standing not far away in Los Angeles when Kennedy was assassinated, and turned to see him on the floor.

Mr. Martin, whose first marriage ended in divorce, married Joan Kapolchok in 1994. She is a former deputy general manager of the MBTA.

“He swept me off my feet. He was dashing,” she said. “Who takes you to the UN on your first date? ‘Let’s go to New York. We’ll go to the UN.’ Dinner was at the Ritz-Carlton. It was just lovely.”

She said that through his many years of public service at the MBTA and in the judiciary, the job he liked most was being a judge.

“He was a student of the Constitution,” she said. “I would see him sit down and read a book as big as the dictionary and not move.”

Mr. Martin “was very, very easy to live with. We loved and respected one another,” Joan said.

“He was always proud of me. To the day he died, when he opened his eyes and looked at me you could see the light in his eyes,” she said. “How lucky I was that we were together for 30 years and never had a bad day. He really was the love of my life.”

In addition to his wife, Mr. Martin leaves a daughter from his first marriage, Lauren, of the Bronx, N.Y.

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“My father’s contributions to society make our entire family proud,” Lauren posted on Instagram in 2020.

A funeral service for Mr. Martin will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday in the Saunders-Dwyer funeral home in Mattapoisett.

Ralph Martin said he has met numerous employees and lawyers at the MBTA and the district courts in Roxbury and Wareham whose lives were improved by his cousin.

“There were many people who talked about how, if it wasn’t for Baron, they wouldn’t have had the opportunity to work at those places — I mean, lots of people,” he said. “For many people of color, if someone hadn’t looked out for them, they wouldn’t have had those opportunities.”

As a judge, and in all he did, Mr. Martin considered helping others to be part of his calling.

“If I made a difference in one life, just one,” he told The Standard-Times, “that’s important.”

In a previous version of this obituary, the name of the agency that preceded the MBTA was misidentified.


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.