Just over twenty years ago saw the passing of a true pioneer in Maryland history. It’s hard to find someone who broke more barriers in Maryland’s history than did former Maryland State Senator and Court of Appeals Judge Harry A. Cole. The first African-American elected to the Maryland State Senate, the first African-American to serve as an Assistant Attorney General in Maryland, and the first African-American to serve as a Judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals, Cole would truly break ground for countless individuals who would follow him.
Born in Washington, D.C. in 1921, Cole came to Maryland as a toddler upon the passing of his father. His mother, having grown up in Baltimore, chose to bring Harry and his four siblings to a place familiar to her and close to her family.
Cole would spend his childhood and adolescence in Baltimore and go on to graduate from Douglass High School in 1939. He then made his way to Morgan State College where he would graduate as class valedictorian in 1943. While at Morgan State, Cole became engaged in the causes of justice and developed a keen interest in law. Because of this engagement and interest, he would help to organize the 1942 “March on Annapolis” to protest Jim Crow laws that were sadly in place in Maryland.
Cole’s interest in justice and law was interrupted upon his graduation from Morgan State in 1943. He would join the United States Army in the midst of World War II and be commissioned as a 1st Lieutenant in the Quartermaster Corps. He would go on to honorably conclude his military career shortly after the end of World War II in 1946.
Upon the completion of his military service, Cole then reaffirmed his interest in justice and law by enrolling at the University of Maryland School of Law, where he would receive his law degree in 1949. Admitted to the Maryland Bar shortly thereafter, Cole then quickly moved on to pursue a career in Maryland’s judicial sector. Because of his clear intellect and acute legal acumen, he would rise quickly to become Maryland’s first African-American Assistant Attorney General in 1953.
In 1954, Cole would embark on a new venue for service as he would again make history upon his election to the Maryland State Senate. Upon his election, he became the first African-American ever elected to such a position. While a distinguished legislator, the first love of Cole would always be the judiciary.
He would return to full-time service to the law upon his appointment to the Municipal Court of Baltimore City in 1967 by then Governor and future United States Vice President Spiro Agnew. Once again making history in 1977, he was appointed as a Judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals (Maryland’s highest court) by Acting Governor Blair Lee III. He would go on to serve on the Maryland Court of Appeals until his mandated retirement in 1991.
A champion of justice for all Marylanders. Cole’s career would see him serve as one of Maryland’s earliest and strongest advocates for the rights of people of color, women, children, and those incarcerated. Additionally, he was a distinguished member of numerous civic and scholarly advocacy organizations including the NAACP, the YMCA, the Urban League, and the Alpha Kappa Mu Honor Society.
In his life, the commitment to the law of Senator Cole was only surpassed by his commitment to, his wife of forty-one years, the former Doris Freeland, and his three daughters Susan, Harriette, and Stephanie. Cole would succumb to pneumonia on Valentine’s Day of 1999 and leave behind a life and legacy paralleled by very few.
In a June 2012 article from the Afro Newspaper, former Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert Bell paid Cole the great and all-encompassing compliment when he said: “When dealing with an issue that was of importance – a legal issue or one involving human or civil rights – you had no more fierce an advocate than Harry Cole.”