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Mourning a Longtime 'Freedom Fighter'

Hundreds Attend Funeral for Salome Howard, a Key Civil Rights Activist in Charles

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 8, 2004; Page SM03

The line of mourners inched forward along the carpeted aisle of St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Pomfret. The mourners approached the open casket, under a statue of Jesus on the cross, and looked down at the woman with white hair and glasses whose life of motion and activism and battles for equality had gone quiet.

There were state legislators, judges, police officers, friends and relatives -- hundreds of people who had been touched by the work and friendship of Salome Ann Freeman Howard, an icon in the struggle for civil rights in Charles County. They crossed themselves before her or rested a hand on her shoulder. An old man with bushy eyebrows wiped away his tears with a thumb.


Relatives of Salome Ann Freeman Howard's follow the hearse with the casket of the civil rights activist to the cemetery at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Pomfret. (Jonathan Ernst For The Washington Post)


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From the corner of the church where Howard was married 54 years earlier, a woman sang: "May the work I've done speak for me. May the life I've lived speak for me."

Howard, 81, died July 29 at Civista Medical Center in La Plata after battling lung cancer. The Pomfret resident spent 12 years, from 1974 to 1986, as president of the Charles County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She taught physical education at the all-black Bel Alton High School.

Her funeral Thursday was crowded with admirers who spoke in reverential tones about her commitment to the fight for freedom.

"You have made the roads of Charles County easier to travel," said William Braxton, president of the Charles County NAACP. "[Your] persistent push for justice and equality has been instilled in folks throughout this land."

Howard attended elementary school in Pomonkey and went to high school in Powhatan County, Va. After graduating from Xavier University in New Orleans, she returned to Powhatan County to teach. It was there she met Herbert M. Howard, whom she married in St. Joseph's Church.

Her husband said her desire to fight against segregation was galvanized when she attended the funeral of Medgar Evers, a Mississippi civil rights leader who was shot in the back in 1963. "That motivated her right then and there," he said.

Working with the NAACP, she participated in many protests and sit-ins in the county, advocating for employment and housing rights. She canvassed restaurants and hotels along Route 301 that posted signs designating entrances or seating areas for blacks and demanded that the signs be taken down. When confronted by a woman at a hotel who told her she could not drink from the water fountain reserved for white people, Howard replied, "I don't drink colored water," her husband recalled.

Herbert Howard remembered a former grocery store in La Plata that had no black employees and preferred to reserve shopping baskets for white customers. One day Howard brought in dozens of black youths who picked up all the shopping baskets and milled about in the store. She sought out the manager and asked that the store hire an African American, he said.

"They hired one shortly after that," he said. "She was a determined fighter, and not only for blacks, for all people."

In 1974, Carolyn Woodard joined the Charles County Sheriff's Office as the first black female deputy. Recalling that milestone last week, Woodard said "there are not enough words to describe" her struggles to be treated fairly and respectfully by citizens and colleagues. After one incident when a co-worker said "something very unprofessional and racist" to Woodward, Howard marched into then-Sheriff Buddy Garner's office and demanded an apology.

"She said, 'This is just not acceptable behavior,' " remembered Woodard, who retired in 2001. "Salome Howard came to my rescue on several occasions."

Pushing for change in Charles County required a thick skin, Howard's husband said. On one occasion, the couple were eating in a restaurant that tried to drive them out by turning up the heat and spraying cleaning chemicals near their table, he said. On another, someone stole an eight-foot wooden cross from outside their church and set it on fire in their front yard.

"That still didn't stop her from what she was doing," he said. "We were very determined after that."

Friends and relatives described Howard as a constantly outspoken, sweet and caring woman who could be stern and aggressive if necessary. A wooden sign posted in her yard reads, "If mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy."

She raised six foster children and took in three students from Guatemala. In her free time she took chartered fishing trips with her friends and played the slot machines in Delaware. Her house has a special room devoted to the Washington Redskins, decorated with autographed posters and pennants. Her husband placed a Redskins hat and button in her coffin.

"She was a die-hard fan," he said.

Howard volunteered as a member of the Board of License Commissioners and served on other panels helping to resolve many county issues, including one on minority contracting policy in the 1980s. She was also the head usher for the 4 p.m. Saturday service at St. Joseph's.

But she will be most remembered for advancing the cause of minorities in Charles County.

"She was just a young lady around in the '60s who decided to be a freedom fighter," Woodard said.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company