Remembering Sherman Howell, long-time civil rights advocate and political activist

Remembering Sherman Howell, long-time civil rights advocate and political activist

Sherman Howell

At the funeral for Sherman Howell, a long-time civil rights advocate and political activist in Howard County and Maryland, at St. John Baptist in Columbia Friday, he was memorialized with speeches and resolutions by the Howard County  executive, the county council, the State House delegation, the governor and others.  He was a strong voice for progressive policies, particularly the need for more affordable housing.

The program celebrating his long life of public service includes an obituary detailing his career. His work on civil rights began as a teenager in his native Tennessee.

Here is what his good friend and political ally C. Vernon Gray, who served 20 years on the county council, had to say about Sherman Howell.

By C. Vernon Gray

The Poet intoned: “A golden heart stopped beating.”

C. Vernon Gray and Sherman Howell at the Community Engagement Center that was named in their honor May 22 at the Community Ecology Institute on Freetown Road in Columbia.

Sherman Howell — Community Advocate, Influencer, Freelance Writer, Activist, Visionary, Civil Rights Leader, Change Maker and in the words of his idol, John Lewis, a Good Troublemaker, and the one who is responsible for Dr. Martin Luther King Birthday being a holiday in Howard County.

I first met Sherman in September 1977. It was six years after his family moved to Columbia and four years after my family moved to Columbia.

During this period of major suburbanization of African-Americans and other demographic and political changes in Howard County, many of us concluded that the time was ripe for some serious political organization and mobilization. Consequently, in the fall of 1977, we organized the Alliance Towards an Active Community, whose purposes were to impact elections in the county and public policymaking by local and state officials.

Sherman was Treasurer and I was Parliamentarian of the Alliance. Other members, Dr. Noel Myricks, President; Harry Dunbar, Vice President; Charles Ware, Chair, Editorial Board; Tony Butler; Tom Weaver; Bill Wall; Norman Goodlett-Bowen; Ethel B. Hill; Zola Boone; B. Wayne Kong; Jim Fitzpatrick; Joe Collins; Donald Strong; Vivian Dixon; Akil Rahim; Wardell Lindsay; Bunny Mallory; Terry Oliver; Gail Clark; Harvey Anderson; Dr. Carl Barham; Lewis Andrews; E. Marie Johnson; Alice Haskins; Toni Cook; Reginald Williams and  Dr. James Chandler.

The Alliance first election forum was on June 3, 1978 and forums have been held ever since albeit under the name of African-American Coalition of Howard County with Sherman as the pivotal and guiding force. The Alliance first measure of success was four years later, with the countywide election of C. Vernon Gray to the county council and Bill Manning to the school board and Maggie Brown and E. Marie Johnson to the Democratic Central Committee. These were all firsts for African-Americans in Howard County.

Sherman and I forged a bond during this period and it matured to talking multiple times a week, after I retired from the council. After several times trying to reach him on his mobile phone, I would call his home number, disturbing his wife, Evonne. He always called me on my mobile. His tireless efforts and leadership manifested in continuation of the informative forums and candidate endorsement meetings through 2022 in the name of the African-American Coalition of Howard County and African-Americans in Howard County.

Sherman was authentic and passionate. He was relentless and shameless in his advocacy. What you saw is what you got — never confrontational but always forceful and respectful. In almost every meeting in which Sherman participated, he never failed to mention the values and vision of Columbia of which he was a strong believer. A belief which was branded and deepened through his many conversations with James Rouse, founder of Columbia. I think Rouse must have had Sherman’s number on speed dial. He called him often for his viewpoint and advice on issues regarding accomplishing Columbia’s vision of diversity, equity and inclusion.

Sherman’s leadership and impact was felt on such issues and policies as housing (for which he received the 2023 Housing Legacy Award from the Heritage Housing Partnership), minority business, education, healthcare and more. He was a stalwart for justice and equity. His desire, in working with many allies and partners, was to make Howard County a better place to live for ALL its residents.

Sherman was a member of Gov. Wes Moore’s Transition Committee, focusing on housing. He peppered them and others with many emails, stating his views of affordable housing.

I worked with Sherman very closely. He took no prisoners in his advocacy. He even sometimes made me cringe with what he said. Sherman knew the time for action was now and that you had to make those in positions of trust and power feel uncomfortable.  He felt “comfort was the enemy of progress”. Sherman knew that too often the privileged confuse inconvenience with oppression. He also knew that you can’t be privileged and a victim at the same time.

Working with Sherman all those years, I don’t think he had a sense of humor, at least, I never saw it. A joke here or there or a nice turn of phrase would have lightened things up. He was always serious. If any of you ever heard Sherman tell a joke, please share it with me.

But we had a friendship threaded through our common youthful experiences and circumstances. We went to schools that had the word “Colored” in front of elementary. We grew up on farms. We were “farm boys” Sherman- a cotton farm in Arlington, Tennessee and I a tobacco farm in Sunderland, Maryland (Calvert County). From time to time I would kid Sherman that I earned more money than he did when we hired ourselves out to other farmers. I would say, I made $10 per day, $1 per hour chopping tobacco. You made $3 per day picking cotton. We would chuckle and I am sure thinking — well our circumstances and experiences of our youth did not hinder but propel us to achieve.

The poet Maya Angelou said:

When great trees fall

Rocks on distant hills shudder

Lions hunker down

In tall grasses

And even Elephants

Lumber after safety


When great souls die

After a period, peace blooms

Slowly and always

Irregularly. Spaces fill

With a kind of

Soothing electric vibration

Our senses, restored, never

To be the same, whisper to us

[He] existed. [He] existed

We can be. Be and be

Better. For [He] existed.

About The Author

Vernon Gray

C. Vernon Gray was the first African American elected to the Howard County Council and served there for 20 years.