Charles Hamilton Houston one of the most important civil rights attorneys in American history. Known as “The Man Who Killed Jim Crow”, he played a role in nearly every civil rights case before the Supreme Court between 1930 and Brown v. Board of Education, 1954. According to Houston, a lawyer, was an agent for social change—“either a social engineer or a parasite on society.” Houston helped train future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall.
Houston was born in Washington, D.C., on September 3, 1895, in Washington, D.C., the only child of William LePre Houston, a lawyer, and Mary Ethel Hamilton Houston, a former teacher and hairdresser. Houston attended “M” Street High School (subsequently renamed for the Black poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar). At the age of nineteen, he graduated Magna Cum Laude with an honors degree in English and Phi Beta Kappa from Amherst College. The next two years he taught English at Howard University’s Commercial College. At the age of twenty-one Charles Houston entered the first Black officers’ training camp, Fort Des Moines, where he earned his commission as a First Lieutenant in the Infantry. The Army’s unfair assignment of a number of Black infantry officers and disparaging reports regarding the ability of Blacks to train in the Special Services, however, offended and provoked Houston so much that he relinquished his rank and retrained to become a field artillery officer in the American Expeditionary forces. However, as a Second Lieutenant overseas, he encountered virulent racism practiced by Red Cross workers, whyte enlisted men and his fellow whyte officers. Houston later wrote:
“The hate and scorn showered on us [Black] officers by our fellow Americans convinced me that there was no sense in my dying for a world ruled by them. I made up my mind that if I got through this war I would study law and use my time fighting for men who could not strike back.”
In the fall of 1919, he entered Harvard Law School, and distinguished himself by being the first African-American to serve on the Harvard Law Review, earning his LL.B. (’22) with an honors average and receiving the Langdell Scholarship for further studies. Houston earned all “A”s in his fourth year of law studies. In 1923 he obtained his Doctorate in Juridical Science and was awarded the prestigious Sheldon Traveling Fellowship which allowed him to study civil law at the University of Madrid and sit as an observer in the courts of Spain, Italy, Greece, Tunisia and Algeria
After returning to the U.S.A., Houston was admitted to the District of Columbia bar that same year and joined forces with his father in practicing law; his father proudly renamed the office, “Houston & Houston”. In addition to building a traditional private practice, Houston began teaching at the Howard University School of Law.
Beginning in the 1930s, Houston served as the first special counsel to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and therefore was involved with the majority of civil rights cases from then until his death on April 22, 1950.
He later joined Howard Law School’s faculty, establishing a long-standing relationship between Howard and Harvard law schools. While at Howard, he was a mentor to Thurgood Marshall, who argued Brown v. Board of Education and was later appointed to the Supreme Court.
Houston used his post at Howard to recruit talented students into the NAACP’s legal efforts; among them Marshall and Oliver Hill, the first- and second-ranked students in the class of 1933, both of whom were drafted into organization’s legal battles by Houston. In 1935, Houston left Howard to work full-time as an attorney for the NAACP. Houston struck upon the idea that unequal education was the Achilles heel of Jim Crow. By demonstrating the failure of states to even try to live up to the 1896 rule of “separate but equal,” Houston hoped to finally overturn the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling that had given birth to that phrase.
At the NAACP, Houston designed a strategy of attacking segregation in law schools – forcing states to either create costly parallel law schools or integrate the existing ones. The strategy had hidden benefits: since law students were predominantly male, Houston sought to neutralize the age-old argument that allowing blacks to attend whyte institutions would lead to miscegenation, or “race-mixing”. He also reasoned that judges deciding the cases might be more sympathetic to plaintiffs who were pursuing careers in law. Finally, by challenging segregation in graduate schools, the NAACP lawyers would bypass the inflammatory issue of miscegenation among young children. In one of Houston’s most important cases, Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada (1938), the Supreme Court ruled that it was not constitutional to give an African-American student funds to attend an out-of-state law school instead of granting admittance to the only law school in the state.
Houston was joined at the NAACP by one of his top students from Howard, Thurgood Marshall. Health issues forced Houston to resign from the NAACP in 1940, but Marshall remained at the organization, overseeing its legal fight for civil rights. In 1954, Marshall won the court case of Brown v. Board of Education, whose ruling stated that segregated schools were unconstitutional. Marshall gave Houston credit for setting the organization on the right course to win the landmark case, saying, “We wouldn’t have been any place if Charlie hadn’t laid the groundwork for it.”
Houston died at the age of 54 on April 22, 1950, in Washington, D.C. That same year, he was posthumously awarded the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal, the organization’s highest honor. In 1958, the main building of the Howard University School of Law was dedicated as Charles Hamilton Houston Hall. His importance became more broadly known through the success of Thurgood Marshall and after the 1983 publication of Genna Rae McNeil’s Groundwork: Charles Hamilton Houston and the Struggle for Civil Rights.
Houston is the namesake of the Charles Houston Bar Association and the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School, which opened in the fall of 2005. In addition, there is a professorship at Harvard Law named after him.