Hastie, William H. 1904–1976
William H. Hastie 1904–1976
U.S. Federal Appeals Court judge
One could argue that the advancement of African-American civil rights was delayed in part because so few blacks were in positions of power among America’s legal and judicial community during the first half of the 20th century. Not until 1949, was an African American named to a federal judgeship in the United States. In that year U.S. president Harry Truman appointed William Hastie to the Federal Court of Appeals, a position in which Hastie would serve with great distinction over the next 21 years.
While the appointment was controversial—some U.S. Senators tried to block Hastie’s judgeship—many others saw Truman’s action as a sensible move, considering Hastie’s stunning academic and public service record. Hastie had already served as the first black governor of the Virgin Islands, a U.S. territory, and over the following years, his name was repeatedly mentioned as a possible appointment to the United States Supreme Court. Throughout his career, Hastie was a staunch opponent of all forms of racial discrimination.
Hastie was born in Knoxville, Tennessee. He was extremely intelligent, and from childhood onward, excelled at academics. But given the nation’s racial climate at the time of his graduation from college, his future was somewhat uncertain.
According Richard Bardolph in The Negro Vanguard, only one black lawyer existed for every 10,000 African Americans in 1936, while the ratio of white lawyers to white clients was 1 to 700. In Mississippi, only one black lawyer was available for every 162,286 black citizens. But Hastie had a slight edge as he pursued his law career: his cousin, Charles H. Houston, who would later become vice dean of the Howard University School of Law, blazed the trail for him.
Hastie followed his cousin to Amherst College in Massachusetts, where he graduated first in his class, with Phi Beta Kappa honors. He then attended Harvard Law School, and performing well, became editor of the Law Review. Immediately after passing the bar examination, Hastie went into practice with Houston, but continued his education and even taught law. He received a doctorate in judicial sciences from Harvard, and then began his career in public service.
In 1933, Hastie became assistant solicitor for the U.S. Department of Interior, focusing his efforts mainly on racial matters. His talents were noticed quickly by his superiors, especially by the then-secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes. Another early Hastie supporter was Robert Weaver,
Born William Henry Hastie, November 17, 1904, in Knoxvilie, TN; son of William Henry (a government clerk) and Roberta (a schoolteacher; maiden name Child) Hastie; married Beryl Lockhart, 1943; two children, William Jr. and Karen, both lawyers; died April 14, 1976, in Philadelphia, PH. Education: Amherst College, BA, 1925; Harvard University, LLB., 1930, S.J.D., 1933.
Admitted to bar, 1930; private law practice, 1930-33; US, Department of Interior, assistant solicitor, 1933-37; U.S. District Court of the Virgin Islands, judge, 1937-39; Howard University School of Law, dean, 1939-40; civilian aide to U.S. Secretary of War, 1940-43; elected first black governor of the Virgin islands, 1946-49; first black US Circuit Court of Appeals Judge, 1949-71.
Memberships: American Academy of Arts and Sciences (fellow).
Awards: Spingarn Medal, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1943; honorary degrees from numerous universities.
who would later become the first black to serve in a president’s cabinet, when he was appointed secretary of Housing and Urban Development during the Lyndon Johnson Administration. Weaver was a member of Franklin Roosevelt’s unofficial “Black Cabinet,” a group of African-American government workers, journalists, and other influential individuals who advised the president on race issues.
In 1937, Ickes and Weaver persuaded Roosevelt to name Hastie as judge of the District Court on the United States’ Virgin Islands. In assuming that position, Hastie became the first black judge to hold that position on the islands. He resigned the post in 1939, when Howard University in Washington, D.C. asked Hastie to become Dean of the Law School there. Hastie had been a law professor at the school during his earlier governmental service in the District of Columbia.
Such a comfortable academic position could have been considered the cap of a successful career for some people; Hastie, however, had different plans. As tensions in Europe heated up and America considered its war effort, Hastie was lured back into the government. In 1940, on the advice of the “Black Cabinet,” President Roosevelt named Hastie as civilian aide to Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson. Again, Hastie was directed to focus on race relations in the armed services. What he found did not impress him. The New York Times quoted him as saying the racial situation in the military was “far from what it should be.”
During World War I, whites and blacks were trained separately. That was not the case—for the most part—during World War II. However, fighting units were still divided between whites and blacks. Also, black Air Force pilots and technicians were trained at a segregated facility in Tuskegee, Alabama. Other forms of prejudice existed, too. Langston Hughes, in his book Fight for Freedom pointed out the following statistics: blacks had to score a 39 on Army qualification tests; whites only a 15. Most black units had white officers commanding them. Only 7 blacks existed among the 5,220 colonels in 1946, and only one black general—Benjamin O. Davis—among 776 generals. Hastie realized the sorry state of the U.S. military’s racial policies after conducting a 10-month survey of the problem. He immediately attempted to rectify the situation.
Hastie persuaded Stimson to rewrite policies so that blacks could receive advanced officer’s training by composing scathing memos, such as a note from September of 1941, in which he noted: “The isolation of Negro combat troops, the failure to make any of them parts of large combat teams, the refusal to mingle Negro officers—many of whom have had little opportunity to command and train soldiers—in units with experienced officers of the Regular Army, all are retarding the training of Negro soldiers….” Hastie was especially miffed with the training of black combat pilots at Tuskegee, Alabama; many black leaders felt the Tuskegee program was incomplete and not up-to-par with the instruction given white pilots.
The army bureaucracy responded to Hastie’s criticisms by asking, essentially: how can the military solve problems of discrimination, when the nation as a whole has not been able to? It was a weak argument, countered vociferously by many in the black press and by Hastie himself. Proponents of desegregation argued: how can you fight Nazi fascism while practicing prejudice at home? Finally on January 6, 1943, Hastie resigned his post in protest and received national attention for doing so. According to the New York Times, Hastie reasoned, “The simple fact is that the air command does not want Negro pilots flying in and out of various fields, [and] eating, sleeping and mingling with the other personnel, as a service pilot must do in carrying out his various missions.” After his resignation, Hastie continued speaking out on the military’s segregation policies.
Of Hastie’s actions, Langston Hughes divulged in Fight for Freedom that “his criticisms of official policy were given wide press coverage, and his carefully documented charges were published later in pamphlet form by the NAACP. They were helpful in eventually effecting reforms that in postwar years led to the almost complete abolition of discrimination at the lower levels of our military forces.”
In 1943, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People awarded Hastie the Spingarn Medal, its highest award, presented to an individual who has made “outstanding contributions” affecting the standing of blacks in society. The New York Times would later determine that Hastie “was instrumental in shaping some of the strongest attacks made by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People against segregation in education and public service.
Once out of federal government service, Hastie’s thoughts returned to the Virgin Islands. In 1946, he was elected governor of the islands and served with distinction. He was the first African American to hold that post. In October of 1949, U.S. president Harry Truman nominated Hastie to serve on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which presided over not only the Virgin Islands but also New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. Hastie was the first African American ever to be nominated to the federal appeals court.
An editorial appearing in the New York Times opined, “We hope this means another long step toward the day when a Negro of learning, character, and achievement, such as Governor Hastie is, can be raised to high office without the fact of race being an important consideration one way or the other.” Hastie was sworn in as an interim appointee in December of 1949, but had to receive confirmation from the U.S. Senate before assuming the post on a permanent basis. That confirmation proved more difficult than expected.
It was not until July of 1950, that Hastie gained Senate approval. Several senators had managed to block his confirmation for more than six months. As was reported in the New York Times, the senators charged that Hastie “had been a member of the left-wing National Lawyers Guild and other alleged Communist front organizations.” Ironically, on the same day that the news story appeared—July 18, 1950—the paper also revealed that a senate panel had voted to denounce Communist witchhunter Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Once on the Appeals Court, Hastie became one of America’s most respected judges. And he used his position as the United States’ highest-ranking black jurist to speak out on racism and segregation. For instance, on November 22, 1953, he addressed a forum sponsored by the Anti Defamation League of B’Nai B’rith. He was quoted in the New York Times as saying housing segregation was “one of the most sinister breeders of bigotry.” Such segregation, he further alleged, made “members of the segregated minority, and particularly Negroes as the largest such minority, strangers in what is nominally their home community.” Envisioning the end of government-sponsored segregation, Hastie said, “the forces now cooperating to cause government to stop its part in this shabby segregation business are insistent, strong, and constantly growing more powerful.”
In the following years, Hastie continued to gain prominence. Other jurists suggested to U.S. president Eisenhower that he nominate Hastie to the U.S. Supreme Court. And Yale University paid Hastie—a Harvard man—the ultimate compliment by presenting an honorary degree to the alumni from a rival Ivy League school, in 1957.
Of course, Hastie’s judicial activities were not limited to matters of segregation and race. He also participated in one of the most important economic cases of Eisenhower’s administration: the national strike of steel workers. That strike affected more than one million workers, and had a tremendous effect on the U.S. economy, since manufacturing—particularly of automobiles—was severely restricted. President Eisenhower wanted to invoke provisions of the Taft-Hartley Labor Act, which would order the steel workers back to their plants. The Appeals Court eventually sided with the president, but Hastie disagreed.
Hastie drafted the minority opinion, arguing that allowing a Taft-Hartley back-to-work injunction would do more harm than good. His decision, reprinted in the New York Times, emphasized that the strike and the trouble it was causing both sides resulted in “rapidly mounting economic pressure” that was more likely to result in a labor agreement than a presidential order forcing the workers back to the plant. Hastie’s reasoning was hailed by labor groups.
At the close of 1970, Hastie had spent more than two decades on the federal bench. He blamed President Richard Nixon, in part, for his retirement plans. For two and one half years, Nixon failed to fill a seat on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, a vacancy produced by the retirement of one of Hastie’s colleagues. Hastie called Nixon’s inaction an “inexcusable delay” and chose to remove himself from the court on June 1, 1971.
One month later, Hastie addressed the 62nd annual convention of the NAACP in Minneapolis. His speech on black separatism was summarized in the New York Times as having stunned the audience, since Hastie was critical of the separatist movement. Hastie decried the segment of “black society that is no better in its aping of white materialism, and its accommodation of hucksters, hustlers, and other operators as predatory and cynical as their white counterparts; in its spawn of sick, violent men who murdered Malcolm X just as viciously as whites murdered Dr. King, and who continue to disfigure the black community with sporadic homicidal guerilla strife among rival separatist groups.” Hastie rampaged, “For too long in America, whites have been up, and blacks have been down. We are trying as never before to correct this racial disparity. In the process whites must free themselves from the false pride in their whiteness, and many of them are doing so. But it will not help for blacks, aping the worst characteristics of whites, to acquire false pride and arrogance in their blackness.”
Hastie never gave up trying to better society for all people. Toward the end of his life, he devoted his energies to the field of public interest law. He was active in a 1975 project that attempted to raise money and assistance for law firms and programs that helped consumers, environmentalists, and minorities.
Hastie died on April 14, 1976, in Philadelphia. The honorary degree presented to him by Yale in 1957 sums up well his life and contributions: “Your work has earned the admiration of your peers. Skilled and creative in your employment of legal knowledge, sensitive arbiter of social conflicts, you speak for the finest tradition of Anglo-American law.”
Bardolph, Richard, The Negro Vanguard, Vintage Books, 1959, pp. 255, 295, 328, 346, 348, 353-58, 360-65, 372, 430, 433-34, 449.
Hughes, Langston, Fight for Freedom: The Story of the NAACP, W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1962, pp. 91, 92, 126.
New York Times, October 16, 1949, p. 1; October 17, 1949, p. 22; November 11, 1949, p. 22; December 2, 1949, p. 22; July 18, 1950, p. 48; July 21, 1950, p. 18; November 23, 1953, p. 3; October 12, 1954, p. 19; June 11, 1957, p. 32; October 23, 1959, p. 16; October 28, 1959, p. 29; December 31, 1970, p. 41; July 8, 1971, p. 10; October 28, 1973, p. 97; March 19, 1975, p. 11; April 15, 1976, p. 36.
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Hastie, William Henry
Hastie, William Henry
November 17, 1904
April 14, 1976
The lawyer and educator William Henry Hastie was considered one of the best legal minds of the twentieth century. He was once suggested for the presidency of Harvard University and twice considered as a nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, reflections of the high regard in which he was held.
Hastie was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, where he spent his early years. His father, a clerk in the United States Pension Office, and his mother, a teacher until his birth, offered him early examples of resistance to discrimination. Rather than ride on segregated streetcars, they provided alternative means for young Hastie to go to school, which sometimes meant walking.
In 1916 the family moved to Washington, D.C., which gave Hastie the opportunity to attend Dunbar High School, the best secondary school in the nation for African Americans. There he excelled athletically and academically, graduating as valedictorian of his class in 1921. He went on to Amherst College, where he again established an excellent athletic and academic record. In addition to winning prizes in mathematics and physics, he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa as a junior, serving as its president during his senior year. In 1925 he graduated magna cum laude as class valedictorian.
After teaching mathematics and general science for two years at the Bordentown Manual Training School in New Jersey, Hastie pursued legal studies at Harvard Law School, where he distinguished himself as a student. He was named to the editorial board of the Harvard Law Review, the second African American to earn that distinction, and was one of its most active editors. Hastie received his LL.B. degree from Harvard in 1930, and he returned there to earn an S.J.D. in 1933.
His academic career closely followed that of his second cousin Charles Hamilton Houston, who had also excelled at Dunbar High, Amherst College, and Harvard Law School. Upon completion of his legal studies, Hastie became a lawyer and went into practice with his father, William, in the Washington, D.C., firm of Houston and Houston. He also became an instructor at Howard University Law School, where Houston was vice dean. Working together, the two men transformed the law school from a night school into a first-class institution. As Robert C. Weaver recalled, "It was during this time that the Houston-Hastie team became the principal mentors of Thurgood Marshall, as well as symbols for, and teachers of, scores of black lawyers, many of whom played a significant role in Civil Rights litigation" (Weaver, 1976, p. 267).
In 1930, the year that Hastie completed his first law degree, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) decided on its legal strategy for fighting against racism: to attack the "soft underbelly" of segregation, the graduate schools. Hastie, Houston, and Marshall became the principal architects of that strategy. In 1933 Hastie was one of the lawyers who argued the first of these cases, Hocutt v. University of North Carolina. Although the case was lost, his performance won him immediate recognition. More important, it laid the groundwork for future cases that would lead to the end of legal segregation in the United States.
As assistant solicitor for the Department of the Interior (1933–1937), Hastie challenged the practice of segregated dining facilities in the department. He also played a role in drafting the Organic Act of 1936, which restructured the governance of the Virgin Islands. In 1937, as a result of his work on the Organic Act, he was appointed federal judge of the U.S. District Court for the Virgin Islands, the first African American to be appointed a federal judge. He left this post in 1939 and returned to Howard Law School as a professor and dean. In 1946 he went back to the Virgin Islands as its first black governor.
In 1940 Hastie was appointed civilian aide to the secretary of war and given the charge of fighting discrimination in the armed services. While he was able to make some progress after a little more than two years, conditions remained intolerable. Hastie decided that he could fight segregation more effectively if he were outside the constraints of an official position, and he resigned in January 1943.
In 1949 Hastie left the position of governor of the Virgin Islands to take a seat as judge on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, where he established a positive reputation. His cases were never overturned, and they often established precedents that were upheld by the Supreme Court. He served the Third Circuit as chief justice for three years before retiring in 1971 and taking a position as senior judge.
Hastie received over twenty honorary degrees, including two from Amherst College (1940, 1960) and one from Harvard (1975). He was the recipient of the NAACP's Spingarn Medal (1943), the Philadelphia Award (1975), and the Washington Bureau Association's Charles Hamilton Houston Medallion of Merit (1976). He was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1952) and was made a lifetime trustee of Amherst College (1962). His alma maters have also honored him with portraits: One, dedicated in 1973, hangs in the Elihu Root Room of the Harvard Law Library; the other, a gift of the Amherst College class of 1992, hangs in Johnson's Chapel at Amherst.
Wade, Harold, Jr. Black Men of Amherst. Amherst, Mass., 1976.
Ware, Gilbert. William Hastie: Grace under Pressure. New York, 1984.
Weaver, Robert C. "William Henry Hastie, 1904-1976." The Crisis (October 1976): 267–270.
robert a. bellinger (1996)
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