CHARLES T. DUNCAN, who will be memorialized today at the Dunbarton Chapel of the Howard University Law School, was a calm and reserved man who is best known for having successfully handled a torrent of legal firestorms, criminal and civil, in his native Washington over several decades. From the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, to which Mr. Duncan contributed a brief, to the drafting of the curfew order quelling the violence in Washington after the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Mr. Duncan was a key lawyer on the scene of some of the city's greatest trials. His service as corporation counsel from 1966 to 1970 officially made him the District's top lawyer during that era and the first African American to hold the post. The role of chief legal officer, however, was rivaled by the special relationship he enjoyed as one of the late mayor Walter E. Washington's closest advisers -- a status that made Mr. Duncan a ranking figure involved in a broad range of District affairs. He died May 4 at his home in Annapolis.
The District government was not the only institution Charles Duncan touched. He was principal assistant U.S. attorney for the District and the first general counsel of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Racial segregation at Glen Echo Park was challenged in a lawsuit filed and argued by Mr. Duncan in behalf of protesting Howard University students and neighbors of the park. That the amusement park opened its gates to African Americans in 1961 rather than proceed to trial is a testament to the strength of Mr. Duncan's case as well as the temper of the times. Howard University Law School underwent a less public but equally turbulent time under Mr. Duncan's deanship from 1974 to 1977 as he embarked on an effort to revitalize the school, which had served as a think tank for the civil rights movement in the 1940s and '50s.
Mr. Duncan, Dartmouth College cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, 1947, and Harvard Law School, 1950, was the adopted son of noted baritone and Howard music school professor Todd Duncan, creator of the role of Porgy in the Gershwin opera "Porgy and Bess." His last official service was as a member of the Iran-United States Claims Tribunal, a nine-member international arbitration tribunal in The Hague from 1994 to 2000.
In a 1985 newspaper interview, Mr. Duncan told about being summoned to Capitol Hill along with then-Mayor Washington and Public Safety Director Pat Murphy during the first week of the 1968 riots and asked by South Carolina Rep. John L. McMillan, chairman of the House District Committee, why police didn't shoot the looters. "We had to explain why we didn't shoot them and he was very unhappy."
Graceful, statuesque and always lawyerly, Charles Duncan was made for moments like that.