Southern California native Patrick J. O’Guinn admits that Columbia, Maryland’s reputation for being a “nurturing, diverse community” was a “big attraction” when he settled his family in Howard County nearly two decades ago, having given up a career in law enforcement to become a public defender in Baltimore City. As such, he wanted to learn more about his new home.
Being the first anything can be very brutal and unforgiving.
Patrick J. O'Guinn
“We always spent a lot of time at the library, exposing our [four] kids to different books and literature,” explains O’Guinn, who, in the process, would himself “peruse the book stacks and look for things of local interest.” But, to his surprise, O’Guinn found something conspicuously absent.
“[Going] through the stacks, I noticed that there was really no information about [local] African-Americans,” he says, noting a singular exception: Alice Cornelison’s History of Blacks in Howard County, Maryland: Oral History, Schooling and Contemporary Issues, published in 1986 by the Howard County NAACP. “Outside of that, there was nothing written in Howard County that in any way evidenced the accomplishments of African-Americans, or [more particularly] African-American lawyers.”
And with that, O’Guinn found himself a man on a mission. Armed with the fruits of Cornelison’s labor as well as a strong network within the African-American legal community, O’Guinn spent countless hours over the next 15 years submitting questionnaires and surveys to friends and colleagues, collecting photographs and poring over old newspaper clippings and documents. “I started along the line of taking what I knew about the lawyers that I practiced with, then looked a little deeper to see how they got here, how things developed in the county,” he explains.
Eventually, others took notice. In 2007, at the behest of the Honorable Wayne Brooks, then-President of the Howard County Bar Association (HCBA), O’Guinn wrote an article on the subject for HCBA’s monthly newsletter, The Barrister. In February 2009, O’Guinn was called upon to draft another article for the newsletter, this time by current HCBA President Jack Willis, in honor of Black History Month and the historic election of President Barack Obama.
“It replaced the President’s Message on the front page,” O’Guinn admits humbly. “I’ve never seen that before.”
But for O’Guinn, the years of painstaking research really paid off in March 2009, when he launched www.hocoblacklawyers.com, an online pictorial of his own design chronicling the ongoing history of Howard County’s African-American attorneys, judges and community advocates. “It’s not so much about court cases as it is about the practitioners and what they’ve been involved with and how they got there, and their challenges,” says O’Guinn, whose primary goals included “making sure that the individuals who preceded me and my work are properly recognized beyond a mere newspaper article.”
“Being the first anything can be very brutal and unforgiving,” he adds. “As in any arena, those who start the fight, if you will, are the people who are forgotten quickly, because the beneficiaries continue on, never knowing that it was such a very difficult challenge to begin with. I’m trying to get the background, the essence of the person and what they went through and provide those positive links to how they took their steps.”
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The pictorial is the first of three components which, O’Guinn notes, will ultimately include an educational PowerPoint presentation as well as a book. “Each one of these has a different audience that it will connect with, because everyone is using different media,” he explains. Moreover, the scope of individuals his project seeks to highlight will eventually be just as varied; because the history of black private-practitioners and judges in the county traces back only a few decades, O’Guinn decided to include advocates of the African-American community – not all of whom, strictly speaking, are or have been a part of that community themselves.
“Although the essential focus of my work is African-Americans, it will include a number of non-African-Americans,”
O’Guinn says. “I make that point because, although African-Americans were the central focus of the civil rights era [for example], we know that could not have been possible without the help of other people.”
But for O’Guinn, simply documenting the past is not as important as emphasizing its connection to future generations.
“It’s very important to have positive role models and figures [with whom] you can in some way identify,” he stresses. “They don’t necessarily have to be your own race – just someone [from whom] you get a message that says, ‘I can do this. I can become a lawyer,’ or ‘I can become a judge.’”
O’Guinn – who researches, coordinates and funds the project entirely on his own – acknowledges that the work can be “grueling” on top of a busy practice. Prioritizing is key; as such, future development of the website is on hold pending the publication of the book in June 2009. Still, “there’s going to be a complete updating of the website, to add more variability to it,” he notes. “Right now, it’s just there to give you those pieces. It’s still a work in progress.”
Nevertheless, O’Guinn foresees ongoing additions and revisions to all of the project’s components, hoping that one day “it provides the impetus for someone else” with the same “passion, time and desire…to come along and say, ‘Okay, we’re going to continue this preservation into the future.’”