Charles Houston

Charles Hamilton Houston – The Man Who Killed Jim Crow

One of the most influential figures in African American life between the two world wars was Charles Hamilton Houston. A scholar and lawyer, he dedicated his life to freeing his people from the bonds of racism.  Houston played a significant role in dismantling the Jim Crow laws, which earned him the title "The Man Who Killed Jim Crow".

Charles Houston grew up in a middle-class family in Washington, D.C. His father, William Le Pre Houston, was an attorney, and his mother, Mary Hamilton Houston, a seamstress. 

Charles Houston with his Father and Mother

Houston enrolled at Amherst College in Massachusetts, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and was one of six valedictorians in 1915. Determined to be a lawyer like his father, Houston taught English for a couple of years back in Washington in order to save enough money to attend Harvard Law School. Houston noticed while teaching, that blacks had not advanced meaningfully in the past 20 years and were becoming increasingly victimized by segregation in the public and private sectors.

As the U.S. entered World War I, Houston joined the then racially segregated U.S. Army as an officer and was sent to France. Houston was an artillery officer in France. He witnessed and endured the racial prejudice inflicted on black soldiers. These encounters fueled his determination to use the law as an instrument of social change. 

Lieutenant Houston in Artillery Unit, World War

Houston returned to the U.S. in 1919 and attended Harvard Law School. He was a member of the Harvard Law Review and graduated cum laude. Houston was also a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. He received his JD from Harvard in 1923 and that same year was awarded a Sheldon Traveling Fellowship to study at the University of Madrid. When he returned to Washington to join his father’s law firm, he began taking on civil rights cases. He was admitted to the Washington, DC bar in 1924.

William Houston practiced law in Washington, D.C., for more than four decades, and taught legal office management at Howard University’s law school.

Howard University School of Law: Preparing for Struggle

Mordecai Johnson, the first African-American president of Howard University, named Charles Houston to head the law school in 1929. Houston brought an ambitious vision to the school, he set out to train attorneys who would become civil rights advocates. At the time, courses were offered only part-time and in the evening. Houston created an accredited, full-time program with an intensified civil rights curriculum. In Houston's capacity as Dean, he had a direct influence on nearly one-quarter of all the black lawyers in the United States, including former student Thurgood Marshall. Houston transformed a second-rate law school into a first class institution that churned out generations of brilliant black lawyers. His determination to train world-class lawyers who would lead the fight against racial injustice gave African Americans an invaluable weapon in the civil rights struggle.

Howard Law School Course Syllabus

Houston diversified the course offerings and made sure students received more rigorous training for work in the field of civil rights. 

This 1931 memorandum from Houston asked all law school staff to provide an overview of their courses and stated his intention to strengthen the curriculum.

Original HU Law School Building

This row house in downtown Washington was the home of the Howard University law school when Charles Houston was dean. He strengthened the school’s academic standards and instilled a sense of social mission. Under Houston, the law school graduated a group of highly effective civil rights lawyers, the most illustrious of whom was Thurgood Marshall.
Professors at the law school plan a year of coursework.

Houston knew many of the foremost legal minds of his day and brought them to Howard as program advisors and speakers.

In this photograph he poses with Mordecai Johnson, president of the university, and Clarence Darrow, the famed lawyer who defended the theory of evolution in the Scopes trial in 1925.

Charles Houston arguing a case in court

Houston continued to argue cases in court and work for equality in the legal community during his years as dean of Howard’s law school. When the American Bar Association refused to admit African American attorneys, he helped found the National Bar Association, an all-black organization, in 1925.

A New Legal Team at the NAACP

In 1934 Charles Houston left the Howard University School of Law to head the Legal Defense Committee of the NAACP in New York City. Seeking out bright, dedicated attorneys to join the mission, he built an interracial staff that defended victims of racial injustice. Among the lawyers recruited was Thurgood Marshall, Houston’s star student from Howard’s law school.

In July 1938 policy disagreements and health problems caused Houston to relinquish the leadership of the NAACP legal committee to Thurgood Marshall. Summing up Houston’s contribution to the struggle against segregation and racism, Marshall later remarked, “We owe it all to Charlie.”

Through his work at the NAACP, Houston played a role in nearly every civil rights case before the Supreme Court between 1930 and Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Houston's plan to attack and defeat Jim Crow segregation by demonstrating the inequality in the "separate but equal" doctrine from the Supreme Court's Plessy v. Ferguson decision as it pertained to public education in the United States was the masterstroke that brought about the landmark Brown decision. In Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada (1939), Houston argued that it was unconstitutional for Missouri to exclude blacks from the state’s university law school when, under the “separate but equal” provision, no comparable facility for blacks existed within the state.

Houston’s efforts to dismantle the legal theory of “separate but equal” came to fruition after his death in 1950 with the historic Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision, which prohibited segregation in public schools.

 

In the documentary "The Road to Brown", Hon. Juanita Kidd Stout described Houston's strategy, 

"When he attacked the "separate but equal" theory his real thought behind it was that "All right, if you want it separate but equal, I will make it so expensive for it to be separate that you will have to abandon your separateness." And so that was the reason he started demanding equalization of salaries for teachers, equal facilities in the schools and all of that." 

Houston took a movie camera across South Carolina to document the inequalities between African-American and white education.

Then, as Special Counsel to the NAACP Houston dispatched Thurgood Marshall, Oliver Hill, and other young attorneys to work to equalize teachers' salaries. Houston led a team of African-American attorneys who used similar tactics to bring to an end the exclusion of African-Americans from juries across the South.

Charles Houston was one of the most important civil rights attorneys in American history. A lawyer, in his view, was an agent for social change—“either a social engineer or a parasite on society.” 


Part of the Court.rchp.com 2017 Black History Month Series


Much of the content above has been republished under license from the Smithsonian and Wikipedia

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