Perry Wilbon Howard was one of the shrewdest and most enduring Southern black politicians of the early 20th Century. Howard was a dominant figure in Mississippi Republican politics for half of the twentieth century. For thirty-five years between 1924 until shortly before his death in 1961 at the age of eighty-four, Howard served as Republican national committeeman from Mississippi.
Howard was born in Ebenezer, Mississippi in 1877 as the first son to former slaves Sallie and Perry Wilbon Howard, Sr. As a child, Howard and his family farmed their own land and placed the highest priorities and expectations on education. The Howard family sent all seven of their sons to college at various institutions. Perry, Jr. graduated with his degree at Rust College and later studied mathematics at Fisk University and law at Illinois College in Chicago. By 1905, Howard had been admitted to the state bar of Mississippi and for the next fifteen years began his practice as a young attorney from an office in Jackson that soon became the center of black business and professional life in Mississippi’s capital.
Despite Howard’s exceptional ability and ambition, his law practice quickly began to prove financially inadequate and in his spare time he began to pursue his passion for politics. He quickly rose in the ranks of the small and mostly powerless Mississippi Republican Party. In 1924 Howard defeated Michael Mulvihill to become the first black to serve on the Republican National Committee in twenty-five years. Howard acknowledged his unique position by asserting himself as a symbol to northern Negroes of the party’s concern for blacks.
Perry Howard was an accommodationist whose public statements often aroused greater enthusiasm among whites than among African Americans. This political stance enabled Howard to outlast many other politicians of his era. Moreover, Howard’s position in the Mississippi GOP (“Grand Old Party,” or Republican) at a time when the overwhelming majority of whites in the state were Democrats and the vast majority of blacks were prevented from voting, meant that he had little power to affect meaningful change. Nonetheless Howard basked in the spotlight as the only national black Republican Party official for much of the early 20th Century.