Barely 18 in 1969, he was dropped into the area by the Army after the draft just in time for perhaps the most painful period in the city's history.
To a white youth growing up in southern California, the racial hatred he saw in the South was a shock.
Back home, Howell had black friends, learned in integrated classrooms and doted on a black girlfriend on weekends.
"It blew me away," Howell said. "I just could not understand the mindset of the people I met down here."
After he settled in Aiken to open a dog-grooming business in the 1970s, Howell took an interest in civil rights. He joined the Aiken NAACP branch in the late 1980s and would become one of its most active members.
On Tuesday, Howell's dedication to the group was recognized at his swearing-in as the branch's first white president.
The Rev. David Walker, a former president of the Aiken chapter, said Howell is also the first white branch president in South Carolina history.
"Everybody feels comfortable with him even though he's the first white president," Walker said. "Our major goals are still to fight discrimination and injustice in any place for any color."
Howell, 61, was elected after former president Brendolyn Jenkins was disqualified for the 2011 presidency because she had not paid membership dues.
At the time, Howell was Jenkins' vice president, and with no other name on the ballot, he moved up in rank.
It was a smooth transition, Howell said, because his service to the black community has been established for decades.
Howell traveled locally and nationally with NAACP members, fighting for voting awareness and civil rights.
"(Members) don't really look at me as a white person anymore," he said. "They see me as one of them. I have proven my loyalty and my dedication, and they have seen that."
For the past 10 years, the Aiken group has marched on the state Capitol to challenge the display of the Confederate flag on a monument after it was moved from atop the Statehouse, Howell said.
He has also pushed for racial fairness in disciplining students in schools and equality in the local work force.
For the next two years of his term, Howell said, the Aiken chapter will be more visible than ever, primarily in raising money for college scholarships for students.
Former branch president James Gallman said he has not heard any member voice concerns about Howell's presidency.
That sentiment, he said, reflects the NAACP's aim as a universal organization to help people of all races.
"The NAACP is not about black people, it's about people," Gallman said. "We don't even think about Phil being white. We just look at Phil as a good guy who is real concerned about everybody treating everybody with equality."