Among the thousands of blacks lured to Washington during the early 1970s by the prospect of affirmative action jobs in the construction industry, Don Thomas and Fred Howell stand out as examples of the success and failure of those efforts.

Theirs is a story of two home boys from Gary, W.Va., classmates at U.H. Prounty Vocational School, sons of coal miners who decided early that walking mules beneath the earth was not the job for them. Both had dated sisters in school, both had graduated as certified welders and both set their sights on the nation's capital as a place to ply their trade.

Now, one of them has made it; the other has not. How they feel about what has happened to them reflects a larger conflict within black America today.

At 36, Fred Howell has been out of work since 1977.

"Plato says what has happened to justice amounts to theft," Howell says. "Well, that sure enough happened to me. They always give the jobs to whites, and not me. I have the skill. I know the trade. But I also know how to act like a man and if there is one thing the white man can't stand it's a black who acts like a man."

While Howell is bitter, Thomas, 35, is confident and nonchalant, enjoying the good life as one of a few black foremen in his union, Local 2311 of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners. His home is a modest split-level set on a neatly manicured lawn. He owns three cars, including a shiny white Lincoln Continental.

"A lot of blacks are qualified," Thomas says. "But they have negative attitudes. He Howell got hung up on that black and white thing, but you can't let that happen on the job. A lot of those white guys will test you and if they find out that it bothers you they'll stay on you."

Howell says Thomas simply sold out. "See, I believe that he was a 'handkerchief head,' one of those Negroes who could get along with the white man even if it meant acting like we were in slavery days."

Tracing their past back to the days they first arrived in town sheds some light on why things happened the way they did. For one, Thomas got a big break--or made his own break, depending on one's viewpoint.

He was working in a Metro subway hole like other temporary workers, almost all of whom were black then, when he noticed the walls on the line near the Connecticut Avenue station were shifting each day. He said he recognized this from working in the mines in his hometown, and each day left his foreman a report about it.

The reports were ignored--until the wall came crashing in. When the reports were discovered the supervisor called Thomas in and made him foreman.

Howell remained a temporary permit worker and when the job slowdown hit Metro construction during the mid-1970s, he was laid off. Howell then tried to organize black welders into an Afro-American welders association, but that effort failed when Local 2311 began admitting more blacks. But not him.

Meanwhile, Thomas' stature continued to rise. He was placed in charge of men in some of the largest construction projects in town. And he was even given the option of picking any two men to work with him.

He did not pick Fred Howell.

As their friendship came apart at the seams, Howell saw Thomas drive past his house one day in a new car--headed for the annual Local 2311 union picnic. Howell cursed him again as a "handkerchief head."

Statistics on blacks in construction work, released this week by the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, show small but consistent gains in minority hiring over the past 15 years. But it is in the lives of Howell and Thomas that the mixed impact of affirmative action can be seen.