Civil rights leader Theodore Roosevelt Mason Howard was born on 4 March 1908 in Murray, Kentucky. His father was a tobacco twister, while his mother worked as a cook for Will Mason, a prominent white doctor. Mason hired the boy to perform menial hospital jobs and was so impressed that he helped pay for Howard’s medical education. In gratitude, Howard added Mason to his name. Howard attended three Adventist colleges: the all-black Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama; Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska; and the College of Medical Evangelists in Loma Linda, California. At Union College, he won the American Anti-Saloon’s League’s 1930 national oratorical contest.
While in California, Howard was active in civil rights and politics and wrote a regular column for the California Eagle, the main black newspaper in Los Angeles. He was also the president of a self-help political organization, the California Economic, Commercial, and Political League. In 1935 he married prominent black socialite Helen Boyd.
In 1942 Howard became chief surgeon at the hospital of the Knights and Daughters of Tabor in the all-black town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi. Within five years, he had founded an insurance company, a hospital, a home construction firm, and a large farm, where he raised cattle, quail, hunting dogs, and cotton. He also built a small zoo and a park as well as Mississippi’s first swimming pool for blacks. In 1947 he broke with the Knights and Daughters, organized the rival United Order of Friendship, and opened the Friendship Clinic.
Howard entered the civil rights limelight in 1951 when he founded the Regional Council of Negro Leadership. One of its officials was Medgar Evers, whom Howard had hired as an agent for his Magnolia Mutual Life Insurance Company. The council mounted a successful boycott against service stations, distributing twenty thousand bumper stickers bearing the slogan, “Don’t Buy Gas Where You Can’t Use the Restroom.”
The council organized yearly rallies for civil rights and voter registration, sometimes drawing audiences of ten thousand or more. The rallies featured nationally known speakers such as Rep. William Dawson of Chicago, alderman Archibald Carey of Chicago, Rep. Charles Diggs of Michigan, and attorney Thurgood Marshall of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
In 1954 Howard ran afoul of a credit squeeze that the white Citizens’ Councils launched against civil rights activists. He was instrumental in organizing a counteroffensive to encourage black businesses, churches, and voluntary associations to transfer their accounts to the black-owned Tri-State Bank of Memphis. The $280,000 that poured into the bank were made available for loans to victims of the squeeze.
The fallout from Emmett Till’s August 1955 murder represented the beginning of the end of Howard’s career in Mississippi. When Till’s mother came to testify at the trial of his attackers, she stayed at Howard’s house, and he played a highly visible role in tracking down witnesses and evidence. Faced with death threats, Howard sold most of his property in Mound Bayou and permanently relocated to Chicago in 1956.
In early 1956 the Chicago Defender gave Howard the top spot on its annual national honor roll of black leaders. He founded a successful clinic on the city’s South Side and served as president of the National Medical Association and as chair of the board of the National Negro Business League.
In 1958 Howard ran for Congress as a Republican against Dawson, the powerful Democratic incumbent. Howard’s campaign struggled in the face of Dawson’s well-oiled political machine and voter discontent with the Republicans because of the 1958 recession. Nevertheless, his bid helped pave the way for the black independent movement, which eventually propelled two of Howard’s friends to higher office: Ralph Metcalfe took Dawson’s seat in Congress in 1970, while Harold Washington not only held the same seat from 1981 to 1983 but subsequently became Chicago’s mayor.
By the early 1960s Howard was largely forgotten as a national leader but remained important in Chicago, where he helped to found Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity). He increasingly indulged in his favorite pastime, big-game hunting, and made several trips to Africa for this purpose. He died in Chicago on 1 May 1976.
- David T. Beito, From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services, 1890–1967 (2000)
- David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito, A.M.E. Church Review (2001), in Before Brown: Civil Rights and White Backlash in the Modern South, ed. Glenn E. Feldman (2004)
- David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito, T. R. M. Howard: Doctor, Entrepreneur, Civil Rights Pioneer (2018)