The Nation’s Largest African American Video Oral History Collection Mobile search icon Mobile close search icon
Advanced Biography Search
Mobile navigation icon Close mobile navigation icon

The Honorable Harry Elam

Retired Judge Harry Justin Elam was the first African American appointed to the Boston Municipal Court of Massachusetts. Subsequently, Elam became the Chief Justice of this court and later was appointed as an Associate Justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court. Prior to his judgeship years, between 1971 and 1988, he was a prominent lawyer in the city of Boston from 1952 to 1971.

Elam was born on April 29, 1922 in Boston, Massachusetts, the second child of five born to Robert H. and Blanche Lee Elam. A graduate of Boston Latin School, he attended Virginia State College between 1940 and 1942. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II from 1942 to 1946 and earned an A.B. degree from Boston University in 1948 and his J.D. degree from Boston University’s Law School in 1951. In his early years of general law practice, Elam partnered with Edward W. Brooke, who went on to become a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, the first since Reconstruction.

As a judge in both the municipal and state courts, Harry Elam maintained a deep and sensitive connection to Boston’s neighborhoods. He saw the reduction of adult and juvenile crime as a responsibility of those leading the court system and so he linked himself and fellow jurists with social, cultural, and political issues in his community. Elam was the founder and first president of the Massachusetts Black Judges Conference. He was the founder and first president of the Roxbury Multi-Service Center, serving twelve years as the Center’s president. Elam also chaired the board of directors of the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts for ten years.

Elam’s signature community project was Project Commitment. He served as its creator and chair for twelve years. This project brought Black judges and lawyers into public school classrooms to mentor youth. His most coveted recognition is one received in 1983, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Drum Major for Justice Award presented jointly by two of Boston’s venerable Black Episcopal churches.

Elam retired to Buzzards Bay on Cape Cod in Massachusetts with his wife, Barbara, have four children, Patricia, Harry, Jr., Keith, and Jocelyn.

Judge Harry Elam passed away on August 16, 2012.

Accession Number

A2005.196

Sex

Male

Interview Date

8/11/2005

Last Name

Elam

Maker Category
Schools

Henry Lee Higginson Elementary School

Boston Latin School

Boston University School of Law

Virginia State University

First Name

Harry

Birth City, State, Country

Boston

HM ID

ELA01

Favorite Season

Spring

State

Massachusetts

Favorite Vacation Destination

Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Caribbean Islands

Favorite Quote

None

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

Massachusetts

Birth Date

4/29/1922

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Martha's Vineyard

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Lobster, Fried Chicken

Death Date

8/16/2012

Short Description

Municipal court chief justice The Honorable Harry Elam (1922 - 2012 ) was the first African American appointed to the Boston Municipal Court of Massachusetts, and was later appointed as an Associate Justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court.

Employment

Boston Municipal Court

Massachusetts Superior Court

Favorite Color

Blue

Timing Pairs
0,0:2340,38:2880,46:19022,316:19882,328:20570,337:25280,375:25872,385:27722,415:32236,540:54040,734:54368,739:55024,749:56500,771:56828,776:59944,832:60272,837:63470,889:64372,940:72314,993:74442,1020:74746,1049:75050,1057:78850,1114:79458,1124:83854,1182:87426,1225:89400,1266:91750,1307:92690,1323:96696,1339:98544,1380:108363,1525:109720,1530:112330,1597:121470,1691$0,0:3264,91:19650,293:20050,299:20450,305:21010,313:26798,415:29346,429:30482,451:30979,460:34103,522:34600,529:38190,570:38645,579:39295,645:39815,654:52030,903:52790,918:53246,925:53702,932:54994,956:57046,1004:57730,1015:58338,1023:60314,1067:66320,1125:66644,1130:69317,1174:78800,1297:83122,1354:88762,1476:92052,1523:95060,1599:120597,2060:121326,2071:121731,2077:122136,2083:125052,2139:136813,2363:144118,2453:145758,2512:156020,2643
DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of The Honorable Harry Elam's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - The Honorable Harry Elam lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - The Honorable Harry Elam describes his profession

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - The Honorable Harry Elam describes his mother's family history

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - The Honorable Harry Elam describes his mother

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - The Honorable Harry Elam describes his father's childhood

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - The Honorable Harry Elam describes his father's military service and auto shop

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - The Honorable Harry Elam describes his father

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - The Honorable Harry Elam describes his siblings

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - The Honorable Harry Elam describes his youngest sister, Harriet Elam-Thomas

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - The Honorable Harry Elam describes his neighborhood in Cambridge, Massachusetts

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - The Honorable Harry Elam describes his earliest childhood memory

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - The Honorable Harry Elam remembers his uncle, Ralph Lee

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - The Honorable Harry Elam remembers his mother's siblings

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - The Honorable Harry Elam remembers family and church picnics as a child

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - The Honorable Harry Elam describes his neighborhood in Roxbury, Boston

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - The Honorable Harry Elam describes his elementary schools

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - The Honorable Harry Elam remembers attending Boston Latin School

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - The Honorable Harry Elam recalls choosing Virginia State College

Tape: 2 Story: 10 - The Honorable Harry Elam remembers attending St. Mark Congregational Church

Tape: 2 Story: 11 - The Honorable Harry Elam remembers meeting his wife, Barbara Clark

Tape: 2 Story: 12 - The Honorable Harry Elam describes his studies in college

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - The Honorable Harry Elam remembers important professors at Virginia State College for Negroes

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - The Honorable Harry Elam remembers attending Virginia State College for Negroes

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - The Honorable Harry Elam remembers serving in the U.S. Army during World War II

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - The Honorable Harry Elam recalls his rejection from Harvard University

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - The Honorable Harry Elam describes the friends who inspired him to become a lawyer

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - The Honorable Harry Elam remembers attending Boston University

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - The Honorable Harry Elam describes his family's work after World War II

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - The Honorable Harry Elam remembers attending Boston University School of Law

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - The Honorable Harry Elam remembers getting married and passing the bar exam

Tape: 3 Story: 10 - The Honorable Harry Elam describes practicing law with HistoryMaker Edward Brooke

Tape: 3 Story: 11 - The Honorable Harry Elam remembers his legal and political work in the 1950s

Tape: 3 Story: 12 - The Honorable Harry Elam describes his political activity in Roxbury, Boston, Massachusetts

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - The Honorable Harry Elam describes his oldest daughter, Patricia Elam

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - The Honorable Harry Elam describes his oldest son, Harry Elam Jr.

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - The Honorable Harry Elam describes his third and fourth children, Keith Elam and Jocelyn Elam

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - The Honorable Harry Elam describes his appointment to the Boston Municipal Court

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - The Honorable Harry Elam remembers securing George Skelly's appointment as chief probation officer

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - The Honorable Harry Elam remembers his early work at the Boston Municipal Court

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - The Honorable Harry Elam remembers his term as chief justice of the Boston Municipal Court

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - The Honorable Harry Elam describes his civic activities

Tape: 4 Story: 9 - The Honorable Harry Elam describes his role models

Tape: 4 Story: 10 - The Honorable Harry Elam describes fighting for the appointment of Frank Barbour, pt. 1

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - The Honorable Harry Elam describes fighting for the appointment of Frank Barbour, pt. 2

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - The Honorable Harry Elam describes hearing two Boston Municipal Court cases

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - The Honorable Harry Elam recalls a difficult case, pt. 1

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - The Honorable Harry Elam recalls a difficult case, pt. 2

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - The Honorable Harry Elam describes serving on the bench of the Massachusetts Superior Court

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - The Honorable Harry Elam describes his post-retirement work

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - The Honorable Harry Elam describes his wife's career

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - The Honorable Harry Elam describes memorializing Wade H. McCree at Boston Latin School, pt. 1

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - The Honorable Harry Elam describes memorializing Wade H. McCree at Boston Latin School, pt. 2

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - The Honorable Harry Elam remembers meeting Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - The Honorable Harry Elam describes increased opportunities for African American lawyers

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - The Honorable Harry Elam reflects upon being interviewed by The HistoryMakers

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - The Honorable Harry Elam reflects upon his life and how he hopes to be remembered

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - The Honorable Harry Elam narrates his photographs

DASession

1$1

DATape

4$4

DAStory

6$9

DATitle
The Honorable Harry Elam remembers his early work at the Boston Municipal Court
The Honorable Harry Elam describes his role models
Transcript
And subsequently and--shortly after I came on board to the governor, [Francis W. Sargent], there was an eruption in the various prisons throughout--with the--starting with Attica [Attica Correctional Facility, Attica, New York] throughout the county, and we began to have eruptions in the Massachusetts prison so he appointed a citizens committee to look into the correction system in Massachusetts and asked me to chair it, and so I did and for about a year we traveled, this commission all over--this is between my work in the court, all over the state visiting all the state prisons, all of the correctional institutes, and the problem we had in each of them, we could talk to the warden and the inmates but the guards had a union that would not allow them to talk to this commission, 'cause we wanted to get some feel from them what they saw as the problem, because they were the ones that are the closest to the inmates, but we had no opportunity to talk and they were all--there were no black correction officers, they were all white and even then in those days, this is back in 1971 there was a significant number of blacks in prison, but in any event we made our report and recommendations to the governor and, as to what we felt ought to be done and made a point that you know we felt sorry, badly that we weren't able to get the viewpoint of the correction officers but this was prevented by--. But we had recommendations to make in that area as well, and so we did and some it could--those, those recommendations were taken up and by the legislature and--. But that was an experience that I had while shortly after coming on board as, as a justice of the Boston Municipal Court.$So you certainly well, I don't always like to use this term but you were a role model, who were your role models before you became a judge? You certainly had--$$My role model really was Wade [H.] McCree. I remember Wade McCree.$$Who is Wade McCree?$$Wade McCree went on to become one of the first black federal judges in the state, in the United States. He was the second black appointed to the federal district court and the second to the federal court of appeals. He later went on to become solicitor general of the United States. He gave up his judgeship on the court of appeals [U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit] which was a lifetime appointment to become--so he followed Thurgood Marshall. Thurgood Marshall had gone to the Supreme Court of the United States and he--Carter [President James Earl "Jimmy" Carter, Jr.] appointed Wade McCree solicitor general. The solicitor general represents the United States government in all cases before, in which the government has an interest before the Supreme Court. He's sometimes considered the tenth member of the Supreme Court of the United States, and I'm sure that had Wade--had Carter been elected to a second term that Wade would've gone on to the Supreme Court, but he was an outstanding, he was the first black appointed a judge in the State of Michigan. I can remember, now I'm living in Massachusetts I remember reading about Wade, I knew Wade from the time we were Boy Scouts together. He was two years older than I, but he was really somebody that I wanted--I always wanted to be like Wade, outstanding Boy Scout. The first boy--black Boy Scout in Massachusetts to become an Eagle Scout which is the highest honor you can attain in the Boy Scouts, and then he went, he was graduated from Fisk University [Nashville, Tennessee], magna cum laude, went on to Harvard Law School [Cambridge, Massachusetts] was twelfth in his class, and then couldn't get a job in Massachusetts, had to go to Detroit [Michigan] to get a job in a law--it was a black firm out there and then went on to become the first black judge in federal court, went on federal district court, court of appeals and then solicitor general. So he was my role model. I always wanted, when I saw--I said one day I hope I could be a judge like Wade.$$And you did it.$$And it did happen.$$Were there any other role models that sand out along the way?$$He was the principal one there to be honest with you and of course Ed Brooke [HistoryMaker Edward Brooke] was somebody that I always admired and, and watched, and he was very, as I said he was very instrumental in my starting out in the law practice.