Benjamin Everett Howell, African-American physician and civil rights activist, was born on June 4, 1886, to Isom and Belle (Gist) Howell, in Florence, Alabama. During his adolescence he attended the rural schools in Florence before attending Alabama A&M University and eventually earning a doctor of medicine (M.D.) in 1913 from Meharry Medical College—the first medical school for African Americans in the South—in Nashville, Tennessee. That same year, at twenty-seven years of age, he moved to Dallas, Texas, where he eventually opened the Thomas Avenue Clinic, one of the largest clinics for African Americans in the state. Howell met and married Hortense Brooks in about 1913. The couple settled in the Hall Street-Thomas Avenue neighborhood and had two daughters, Bernice and Vesterline, born in 1915 and 1917, respectively.
During his lifetime, Howell was highly active in the civic affairs of Dallas. He helped organize the Dallas branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the late 1930s and served as its first president. The group was led by Dallas businessmen and clergy, including Maceo Smith, Maynard H. Jackson, Ernest C. Estell, and Charles T. Brackins. In this capacity, Howell and the other leaders played a primary role in putting political pressure on and presenting grievances of Blacks to the city commission and local government in Dallas.
Before 1940 the primary objective of the Dallas NAACP was to challenge the exclusion of Blacks from jury service. Following a favorable United States Supreme Court ruling in one of the Scottsboro, Alabama, cases, the chapter stepped up its activity in the hope of securing a test case. In August 1938 Dr. B. E. Howell, president of the branch, outlined the procedure for Blacks to follow when summoned for jury service. He urged them not to disqualify themselves voluntarily, but to take witnesses with them to court. Two months later, an attempt was made by George F. Porter, accompanied by Howell, Reverend Estell, and Charles Graggs.
In 1946 Howell was one of the delegates of the NAACP’s Texas State Conference of Branches that accompanied Heman Marion Sweatt to his meeting with the president of the University of Texas, Theophilus Painter, concerning admission to the university’s law school. Led by R. A. Hester, president of the Dallas-based Progressive Voters League, and accompanied by fellow Dallas citizen Reverend C. D. Knight, among others, this committee helped lead to the United States Supreme Court case of Sweatt v. Painter (1950), which reversed the doctrine of “separate but equal” in graduate education and helped pave the way for Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954).
As chairman of the Dallas NAACP branch’s executive committee in 1955, Howell participated in the filing of a petition to force immediate integration of the city’s public schools. The petition was filed for twenty-eight Black children that were denied enrollment in six White schools. According to one of the NAACP attorneys, U. Simpson Tate, this was the first desegregation suit on the public school level filed by the association in Texas. The suit claimed the Brown v. Board decision was being ignored by the “do nothing” policy of a Dallas Independent School District board in charge of researching the issue.
In addition to his work with the NAACP, Howell was active in the Dallas community in many other ways. During the Great Depression, he taught a Red Cross class in first aid for Blacks that was open to the public but principally meant for men at work on Civil Works Administration projects. In 1948 Howell was one of the founding members of the Dallas County Democratic Progressive Voters League, a state chartered organization whose objective was “to promote among all classes of people the knowledge and enlightenment which are essential to right living and good citizenship.” He also served as vice-president of the Lone Star Medical Association, an association composed of Black Texas physicians and surgeons. For several years, Howell served as co-chairman of the North Texas Roosevelt Day Dinner, arranged by the Dallas chapter of the Americans for Democratic Action.
In 1954 more than 300 White doctors at St. Paul’s Hospital voted unanimously to allow five Black physicians—Lee G. Pinkston, William K. Flowers Jr., George L. Shelton Jr., Joseph R. Williams, and Frank H. Jordan—to practice medicine at their heretofore segregated institution. However, although they were allowed privileges at the hospital they were not allowed on the medical staff due to rules in the Texas Medical Association’s constitution preventing Blacks from becoming members and therefore from serving as staff members in White hospitals. The following year at the Texas Medical Association’s annual meeting, the organization voted to remove the word “White” from its constitution, 102 to 32. That same year at the sixtieth Annual National Medical Association Convention, Howell was recognized as one of the 199 “Forty Year Men” for contributing forty years or more to the medical profession. Finally, in June of 1956, St Paul’s Hospital admitted the original five Black physicians, as well as Dr. Emmett J. Conrad and Howell, to membership on the institution’s staff, making them the first Blacks to gain that status at a Dallas hospital.
Howell was a member, deacon, and chairman of the trustee board of the Good Street Baptist Church of Dallas and received an award from that organization for his outstanding work for the church and community. He also served as the chairman of the Religion and Education Committee of the Moorland Branch YMCA and was on the association’s board of directors. Howell died on September 21, 1966, in Denison, Texas. The funeral was held at Good Street Baptist Church, and he was buried in Carver Memorial Park Cemetery in Dallas.