NEW YORK — Horace Ward was his high school’s valedictorian, graduated with honors from Morehouse College in Atlanta in only three years, and earned a master’s degree from Atlanta University. But when he applied to the University of Georgia’s law school in 1951, he was rejected because of his race, his qualifications notwithstanding.
With the support of Thurgood Marshall and others, Judge Ward later sued, challenging the university’s policy of racial exclusion. The suit was eventually dismissed as moot — by then he had gone to another law school, Northwestern University — but it laid the groundwork for the university’s desegregation a decade later.
In 1979 he was named Georgia’s first black federal judge. His swearing-in took place in the same courtroom where his lawsuit seeking admission to the university had been thrown out.
Judge Ward, 88, died Saturday in Atlanta. His death was confirmed by the University of Georgia, which awarded him an honorary law degree two years ago. Sharon Lane, his former legal assistant, said the cause was heart failure.
The University of Georgia rejected Judge Ward’s law school application because of the state’s segregation statutes and constitution, under which all state funding would have been withheld from a white school if a black student were admitted. The governor at the time, Herman E. Talmadge, supported the decision.
During the trial of his lawsuit, Judge Ward was represented principally by Constance Baker Motley, who was later elected Manhattan borough president and in 1966 became the first black woman to serve as a federal judge. The suit was ultimately dismissed in 1957 on the grounds that Judge Ward, by then enrolled at Northwestern, lacked standing.
After he became a lawyer, Judge Ward joined another legal challenge in which Motley and another civil rights lawyer, Donald Hollowell, argued successfully in federal court that the university’s refusal to admit black students was unconstitutional. (Among Judge Ward’s cocounsels was Vernon Jordan, who became a leading civil rights figure and prominent Washington lawyer.)
In a 1961 decision that prompted protests by brick-hurling white students, Judge William A. Bootle ordered the university to admit its first black students: Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes. Hunter became a journalist for NPR, PBS, and The New York Times; Holmes, a doctor and associate dean at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.
Horace Taliaferro Ward was born in LaGrange, Ga., about 65 miles southwest of Atlanta, in 1927. His mother was Minnie Ward, a maid, who lived with the white family for whom she worked. He never knew his father, Richard Morrison, and was raised in the home of his maternal grandparents until he began school when he was 9.
“None of my people had even finished high school,” Judge Ward once recalled.
His wife, the former Ruth LeFlore, and his son, Theodore, died before him. He leaves four grandchildren.
Judge Ward was educated at historically black institutions, receiving a bachelor’s degree in political science from Morehouse in 1949 and a master’s from Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University), where he met William Madison Boyd, the president of the Georgia chapter of the NAACP.
Boyd persuaded him to apply to the University of Georgia’s law school as a test case. His application was forwarded to the Board of Regents, which offered him tuition assistance to enroll in another school, out of state. Judge Ward refused. On June 7, 1951, his application was denied; the university subsequently imposed tougher new admissions criteria.
On June 23, 1952, his lawyers — including Marshall and Robert L. Carter from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, both of whom would go on to distinguished careers on the federal bench — sued.
At the time, the Georgia Constitution required segregation in all public schools and colleges. In 1955, the state threatened to shut down the law school if the federal courts forced it to admit Judge Ward.
The case dragged on while Judge Ward was drafted and served in the Army in Korea. The suit was dismissed in 1956 on the grounds that Judge Ward had not reapplied under the new criteria and because he had already enrolled at Northwestern’s law school.
He later practiced law and was elected to the Georgia state Senate, where he served for nine years. Governor Jimmy Carter appointed him the state’s first African-American civil judge, and Carter’s successor, George Busbee, elevated him to the Georgia Superior Court.
In 1979, Carter, by then the president of the United States, named him a US District Court judge.