Charles Hamilton Houston (1895–1950), law professor, litigator, and civil rights legal strategist, played a principal role in conceptualizing, defining and setting the pace of the legal phase of the African-American struggle against racial discrimination and segregation in education from the 1930s to 1950. His work was pivotal in the education of African-American lawyers; the development of a legal strategy to destroy the constitutional under-pinnings of racial segregation; the litigation of suits challenging racial discrimination in education, employment, and housing; and the incorporation of an activist philosophy of social engineering into the jurisprudential matrix of the United States.
Born Charles Hamilton Houston in Washington, D.C., on September 3, 1895, to William LePre Houston, a lawyer, and Mary Ethel Hamilton Houston, a hairdresser and former teacher, Houston attended racially segregated public schools until his graduation from M Street High School in 1911. He graduated with honors from Amherst College in Massachusetts in 1915. After teaching briefly at Howard University and serving as an officer in the segregated armed forces during World War I, Houston attended Harvard Law School. There he became the first African-American editor of the Harvard Law Review (in 1921) and earned both his LL.B. with honors (1922) and the Doctorate in Juridical Science (1923). He was admitted to the District of Columbia bar in 1924 and joined his father to form a law practice, Houston and Houston.
During the Great Depression and the New Deal era, Houston practiced and taught law. As the chief academic officer and Vice Dean of Howard University's Law School, Houston not only instituted new procedures and standards, but also reallocated funds to satisfy the requirements for the law school's approval by the American Bar Association and accreditation by the Association of American Law Schools. As a professor of law, Houston introduced to Howard's students a non-traditional philosophy of law he called social engineering. The principal concepts of Houston's philosophy of social engineering were two: first, the propriety of creative and strategic use of the legal system by lawyers to bring about just results and equal protection of the law; second, the duty of lawyers in the United States to use law as an instrument of social change, democratic advancement, and racial justice. Beyond that, he challenged African-American lawyers to serve as interpreters and proponents of the race's rights and aspirations. Practicing lawyers and Howard's students, among them Thurgood Marshall and Oliver Hill, were further challenged to work for African Americans' full citizenship rights and equality under the law.
As the first salaried special counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 1934 to 1950, Houston conceptualized and implemented, with Thurgood Marshall as his assistant special counsel, a protracted litigation campaign to have racial segregation in public education declared illegal. Taking into account institutionalized racism and the Supreme Court's reliance upon precedent, the campaign's scores of skilled and committed lawyers affiliated nationally and locally with the NAACP and its separately incorporated legal defense and educational fund focused on gradually but systematically invalidating the controlling precedent for racial segregation—the "separate but equal" doctrine set forth in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)—and on establishing new precedents for interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause. These lawyers included, but were not limited to Marshall, Hill, Robert Carter, William Hastie, Z. Alexander Looby, James Nabrit, Constance Baker Motley, Conrad Pearson, Louis Redding and Arthur Shores. With Houston's direction during the latter 1930s and his advice to Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund, and cooperating attorneys throughout the 1940s, test cases were argued until adequate precedents had been established to launch in 1950 a direct attack on the legality of racially segregated schools in the states and the District of Columbia. This final phase of the litigation campaign culminated in the 1954 Brown v. Board and Bolling v. Sharpe rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court, that declared racially segregated public schools illegal.
Although serving as a consultant-legal counsel to the NAACP and its Legal Defense Fund after returning to private practice in 1940, Houston focused his practice on racial discrimination in employment and housing. With Joseph Waddy, Spottswood Robinson III and other attorneys, Houston won precedent-setting cases before the U.S. Supreme Court concerning the duty of fair representation of workers and African Americans seeking to purchase homes. In 1944, efforts to protect African American railroad workers against discriminatory treatment and racially-motivated violence culminated in two cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, William Steele v. Louisville & Nashville Railroad and Tom Tunstall v. Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen & Enginemen. Agreeing with Charles Houston's argument, Supreme Court justices handed down an opinion in Steele and Tunstall that established the duty of statutory bargaining agents to represent fairly and impartially all workers whose interest by statute they were designated to represent in negotiations with employers. In Hurd v. Hodge and Urciolo v. Hodge, Houston successfully argued against judicial enforcement of racially restrictive covenants to purchase agreements in the District of Columbia and in 1948 the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited court enforcement of covenants to housing contracts that restricted by race the sale of homes.
On April 20, 1950, Charles Houston succumbed to a heart attack in Washington, D.C. Although best known as Thurgood Marshall's mentor-teacher, Houston's lasting legacy includes his transformation of Howard University's law school during the Great Depression and his training of civil rights lawyers, his articulation of a jurisprudence of social engineering, and his contributions as legal architect and strategist of the legal phase of the early civil rights movement.
Harper, Conrad. "Houston, Charles H.," in Dictionary of American Negro Biography, edited by Rayford Logan and Michael Winston. 1982.
Hastie, William H. "Charles Hamilton Houston." Negro History Bulletin 13 (1950): 207.
Houston, Charles H. "The Need For Negro Lawyers." Journal of Negro Education 4 (1935): 49–52.
Kluger, Richard. Simple Justice. 1976.
McNeil, Genna Rae. Groundwork: Charles Hamilton Houston and the Struggle for Civil Rights. 1983.
Robinson, Spottswood W. "No Tea for the Feeble: Two Perspectives on Charles Hamilton Houston." Howard Law Journal 20 (1977): 3–4.
Smith, J. Clay, Jr. Emancipation. 1993.
"Tributes to Charles Hamilton Houston." Harvard Law Review 111 (1998).
Genna Rae McNeil