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Houston, Charles Hamilton 1895–1950

Charles Hamilton Houston 18951950

Lawyer, educator, civil rights activist

At a Glance

Excelled in School, Became Activist-Dean

Pursued Civil Rights as a Teacher and Lawyer

Argued Against Discrimination Before Supreme Court

Sources

Charles Hamilton Houston, a groundbreaking lawyer and educator, is credited with having recognized in the 1930s that the fledgling civil rights movement would achieve its greatest and most lasting successes in the courtroom. Endowed with a legal mind celebrated for its precision, Houston believed that the U.S. Congress and state legislaturesmired in the politics of race and beholden to constituencies that might be reluctant to disavow institutional discrimination against blackswere more likely to frustrate the advances sought by civil rights leaders. In Houstons eyes, the courts would be more responsive to sound, analytical, legal arguments demonstrating the nature and consequences of state-sanctioned segregation and of Jim Crow laws, which enforced discrimination against blacks after the Civil War.

Whether plotting strategy for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), arguing cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, or retooling a second-rate law school into a first class institution that churned out generations of brilliant black lawyers, Houston helped focus politicians and courts in the United States on the patently unconstitutional foundation of racial inequality. Although he labored quietly and without self-promotion, his famous students and more flamboyant colleagues were always quick to point out that he effectively laid the groundwork for many of the centurys milestone court decisions that progressively undid the knot of legal discrimination in the United States.

Unlike the more prominent civil rights leaders of the twentieth century, Charles Hamilton Houston did not experience abject poverty or suffer the injurious tentacles of blatant discrimination as a child. He was born on September 3,1895, in Washington, D.C., the only child of William, a lawyer, educator, and future assistant U.S. attorney general, and Mary, a public school teacher who abandoned her career for hairdressing and sewing in order to provide additional money for the family. The Houstons revered education, surrounding young Charles with books and encouraging his prodigious intellect. Legend had it that Houstons grandfather, a Kentucky slave, constantly provoked the ire of his illiterate master by reading books that had been smuggled onto the plantation. Largely insulated from the ways in which society denigrated blacksincluding inadequate housing, lower wages for doing the same work as whites, and racial violenceCharles Houston attended what was arguably the best all-black high school

At a Glance

Born September 3,1895, in Washington, DC; died of a heart attack, April 22,1950; son of William (a lawyer) and Mary (a teacher, hairdresser, and seamstress) Hamilton; married Margaret Gladys Moran, August 23, 1924 (divorced, 1937); married Henrietta Williams, September 14, 1937; children: Charles, Jr. Education: Amherst College, A.B., 1915; Harvard University, LL.B., 1922, S.J.D., 1923; attended University of Madrid, Spain, 1923-24.

Admitted to the Bar of Washington, DC, 1924; worked as an attorney with father, William Houston, Houston & Houston, 1924-39; vice-dean, Howard University School of Law, Washington, Dc, 1929-35; special counsel, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), 1935-40; partner, Houston, Houston, Hastie & Waddy, 1939-50; NAACP National Legal Committee, member, 1940-48, chairman, 1948-50; member of Washington, DC Board of Education, 1933-35, American Council on Race Relations, 1944-50, and Fair Employment Practices Committee, 1944-45. Military service: American Expeditionary Forces, 1917-19.

Member: National Bar Association, National Lawyers Guild, Phi Beta Kappa.

Selected awards: Spingarn Medal, NAACP, 1950.

in the country, from which he graduated as class valedictorian in 1911.

Excelled in School, Became Activist-Dean

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. With an ever-sharpening analytical eye, Houston saw his choice of career validated when, while teaching, he came to see that blacks had not advanced meaningfully in the past 20 years and were becoming increasingly victimized by segregation in the public and private sectors.

After serving in the army during World War I, Houston entered Harvard Law School, where his intellectual zeal and worldly curiosity found a home. Author Richard Kluger wrote in his 1976 book Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black Americas Struggle for Equality, From the start, it was evident that [Houston] had a mind ideally contoured for a career at law. He relished the kind of abstract thinking needed to shape the building blocks of the law. He had a clarity of thought and grace of phraseology, a retentive brain, a doggedness for research, and a drive within him that few of his colleagues could match or understand.

After his first year, Houston was elected to the Harvard Law Review, a prestigious scholastic honor, and discovered a legal mentor in the eminent professor and future Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter. Graduating with honors, Houston decided to obtain his doctorate degree in juridical science under Frankfurter, who taught his student not only the finer points of constitutional law but also the need to incorporate the lessons of history, economics, and sociology into a comprehensive, legalistic world view. These teachings, in combination with his own growing awareness of the second-class citizenship forced on blacks, forged in Houston the conviction of a social activist and the strategic thinking of a lawyer who understood the power of law to effect social change.

Houston received his doctorate in 1923 and then obtained a one-year fellowship at the University of Madrid in Spain. He went on to practice law with his father, an experience that exposed him to the details of case preparation and provided courtroom opportunities for him to exercise his blossoming forensic talents. In 1929 Houston was appointed vice-dean at the Howard University School of Law, a black institution that, despite glaring weaknesses, had produced nearly all the distinguished black lawyers in the country for two generations after the Civil War. Recognizing the need for blacks to thoroughly understand constitutional law with an eye toward dismantling the legal basis of segregation, and for black students to have higher education institutions on a par with those available only to whites, Houston set about reconstituting the law school. He shut down the night school, from which his father had graduated, toughened admissions standards, improved the library and curriculum, and purged from the faculty those he believed were not tapping the intellectual potential of the next generations black lawyers and leaders.

By 1935, although there was still only one black lawyer for every 10,000 blacks in the country, Houston was optimistic. August Meier and Elliot Rudwick, writing in the Journal of American History in 1976, quoted Houston as saying at an NAACP convention, The most hopeful sign about our legal defense is the ever-increasing number of young Negro lawyers, competent, conscientious, and courageous, who are anxious to pit themselves (without fee) against the forces of reaction and injustice.... The time is soon coming when the Negro will be able to rely on his own lawyers to give him every legal protection in every court.

Pursued Civil Rights as a Teacher and Lawyer

It was not only as an administrator that Houston advanced his cause. As a professor, he was empowered to directly shape the future of black law. His principal goal was to elucidate for his studentsthe future fighters for racial justicethe stark differences between the laws governing whites in American society and those governing blacks. In his book Black Profiles, George R. Metcalf wrote that Houston called it making social engineers. He had become dean in 1929 with but one purpose: to make Howard, which was then second rate, a West Point of Negro leadership so that Negroes could gain equality by fighting segregation in the courts.

Of the students who braved Houstons intense mock court proceedings and military-style cerebral drillings, none would more successfully carry the torch that Houston had lit than Thurgood Marshall, who would ultimately be appointed to the Supreme Court. First off, you thought he was a mean so-and-so, Marshall was quoted as saying in Simple Justice. He used to tell us that doctors could bury their mistakes but lawyers couldnt. And hed drive home to us that we would be competing not only with white lawyers but really well-trained white lawyers, so there just wasnt any point crying in our beer about being Negroes.... He made it clear to all of us that when we were done, we were expected to go out and do something with our lives.

In the mid-1930s Houston was retained by the NAACP, then the dominant civil rights organ of the century, to chip away at segregation by leading a legal action campaign against racially biased funding of public education and discrimination in public transportation. One of his first cases, in which his legal artfulness was fully displayed, involved a black man from Maryland who wished to attend the University of Maryland Law School, the same school that years earlier had denied Thurgood Marshall admission on the grounds that he was black. Houston operated on the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision, which validated separate but equal public education. University officials had told Donald Murray that because he was black he would not be admitted, but that he was qualified to attend Princess Anne Academy, a lackluster, all-black institution that was an extension of the university. Houston and Marshall set out to prove that Princess Anne Academy, without a law school or any other graduate programs, did not provide an education on a par with the University of Maryland, and therefore, the state had violated Plessy.

Houston and Marshall were victorious, not only in getting Murray into the University, but in showing that states that wanted to sustain separate but equal education had to face the onerous and expensive task of making black institutions qualitatively equal to white institutions. The courts, it became clear, were going to carefully scrutinize the allegedly equal education in states hiding behind Plessy. Segregation took on an impractical quality to those who tried to defend it on moral grounds. In subsequent pioneering cases, Houston would further lead the attack on segregated education by using the testimony of psychologists and social scientists who claimed that black children suffered enormous and lasting mental anguish as a result of segregation in public schools and the societal ostracism of blacks.

Argued Against Discrimination Before Supreme Court

Houstons first case before the U.S. Supreme Court involved a black man named Jess Hollins who had been convicted of rape in Oklahoma by an all-white jury and sentenced to death. Brandishing arguments he had used before in lower courts, Houston claimed that because blacks historically had been denied jury placements in Sapulpa, Oklahoma, only on the basis of their race, black defendants could maintain that they had been denied due process under the law. The Supreme Court, citing one of its recent decisions, concurred. Houston became the first black to successfully represent the NAACP before the highest court in the land.

During his tenure at the NAACP, Houston was praised not only for his legalistic virtuosity but for his foresight in picking cases that would collectively help erode segregation in the country. In his second major Supreme Court victory, he succeeded in guaranteeing that an all-white firemen labor union fairly represent in collective bargaining black firemen excluded from the union. Houston also persuaded the court that racially restricted covenants on real estatesuch as deeds prohibiting blacks from occupying a housewere unconstitutional. In 1945 he argued and won a case involving a black woman from Baltimore who, on the basis of her skin color, had been denied entry into a training class operated by a public library and funded by tax-payer dollars.

Always trying to expand the scope and appeal of the NAACP, Houston suggested the establishment of satellite offices on college campuses and advised the associations officials to attend conferences of religious leaders as a way of better accessing black communities. As a native Washingtonian with many political contacts, he was also expected to comment on the racial consequences of legislation that was being considered by Congress, where he frequently testified before legislative committees. In 1944 Houston was appointed to the Fair Employment Practices Committee, created to enforce integration in private industries, but quit 20 months later, decrying what he viewed as a transparent commitment to racial equality on the part of the administration of President Harry S Truman.

Houston died in 1950, four years before his star pupil, Marshall, succeeded in arguing before the Supreme Court that the separate but equal defense of segregated education was unconstitutional. The precedent set in Brown v. Board of Education was the culmination of decades of legal challenges, many of which had been masterminded and implemented by Houston. Although his name never would be as widely known as others in the civil rights community, many lawyers and activists who worked with him, including Marshall, have never strayed from their belief that Charles Hamilton Houston was one of the early, unsung heroes of the assault on segregation. Richard Kluger quoted Howard University Professor Charles Thompson in Simple Justice as saying, [Houston] got less honor and remuneration than almost anyone else involved in this fight. He was a philanthropist without money.

Sources

Books

Auerbach, Jerold, Unequal Justice, Oxford University Press, 1976.

Bardolph, Richard, The Negro Vanguard, Vintage Books, 1959.

Franklin, John Hope, and August Meier, editors, Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century, University of Illinois Press, 1982.

Kluger, Richard, Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black Americas Struggle for Equality, Knopf, 1976.

Metcalf, George R., Black Profiles, McGraw-Hill, 1970.

Segal, Geraldine, In Any Fight Some Fall, Mercury Press, 1975.

Periodicals

Journal of American History, March 1976.

Additional information for this profile was obtained from papers housed at Howard University, Washington, D.C.

Isaac Rosen

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Charles Hamilton Houston

Charles Hamilton Houston

While with the NAACP, Houston (1895-1950) teamed with the American Fund for Public Service to direct a program of legal action and education aimed at the elimination of segregation.

Charles Hamilton Houston, a groundbreaking lawyer and educator, is credited with having recognized in the 1930s that the incipient black civil rights movement would achieve its greatest and most lasting successes in the courtroom. Endowed with a legal mind celebrated for its precision, Houston believed that the U.S. Congress and state legislatures, mired in the politics of race and beholden to constituencies that might be reluctant to disavow institutional discrimination against blacks, were more likely to frustrate the advances sought by civil rights leaders. In Houston's eyes, the courts, as ostensibly apolitical forums, would be more responsive to sound, analytical, legal arguments elucidating the nature and consequences of Jim Crow laws—which enforced discrimination against blacks after the Civil War—and state-sanctioned segregation.

Whether plotting strategy for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), arguing cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, or retooling a second-rate law school into a first class institution that churned out generations of brilliant black lawyers, Houston helped focus politicians and courts in the United States on the patently unconstitutional foundation of racial inequality. Although he labored quietly and without self-promotion, his famous students and more flamboyant colleagues were always quick to point out that he effectively laid the groundwork for many of the century's milestone court decisions that progressively undid the knot of legal discrimination in the United States.

Unlike the more prominent civil rights leaders of the 20th century, Charles Hamilton Houston did not experience abject poverty or suffer the injurious tentacles of blatant discrimination as a child. He was born on September 3, 1895, in Washington, D.C., the only child of William, a lawyer, educator, and future assistant U.S. attorney general, and Mary, a public school teacher who abandoned her career for hairdressing and sewing in order to provide additional money for the family. The Houstons revered education, surrounding young Charles with books and encouraging his prodigious intellect. Legend had it that Houston's grandfather, a Kentucky slave, constantly provoked the ire of his illiterate master by reading books that had been smuggled onto the plantation. Largely insulated from the ways in which society denigrated blacks— including inadequate housing, lower wages for doing the same work as whites, and racial violence—Charles Houston attended what was arguably the best all-black high school in the country, from which he graduated as class valedictorian in 1911.

Excelled in School, Became Activist-Dean

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. With an ever-sharpening analytical eye, Houston saw his choice of career validated when, while teaching, he came to see that blacks had not advanced meaningfully in the past 20 years and were becoming increasingly victimized by segregation in the public and private sectors.

After serving in the army during World War I, Houston entered Harvard Law School, where his intellectual zeal and worldly curiosity found a home. Author Richard Kluger wrote in his 1976 book Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality, "From the start, it was evident that [Houston] had a mind ideally contoured for a career at law. He relished the kind of abstract thinking needed to shape the building blocks of the law. He had a clarity of thought and grace of phraseology, a retentive brain, a doggedness for research, and a drive within him that few of his colleagues could match or understand."

After his first year, Houston was elected to the Harvard Law Review, a prestigious scholastic honor, and discovered a legal mentor in the eminent professor and future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. Graduating with honors, Houston decided to obtain his doctorate degree in juridical science under Frankfurter, who taught his student not only the finer points of constitutional law but also the need to incorporate the lessons of history, economics, and sociology into a comprehensive, legalistic world view. These teachings, in combination with his own growing awareness of the second-class citizenship forced on blacks, forged in Houston the conviction of a social activist and the strategic thinking of a lawyer who understood the power of law to effect social change.

Returning from a one-year fellowship at the University of Madrid in Spain, Houston practiced law with his father, an experience that exposed him to the minutiae of case preparation and provided courtroom opportunities for him to exercise his blossoming forensic talents. In 1929 Houston was appointed vice-dean at the Howard University School of Law, a black institution that, despite glaring weaknesses, had produced nearly all the distinguished black lawyers in the country for two generations after the Civil War. Recognizing the need for blacks to thoroughly understand constitutional law with an eye toward dismantling the legal basis of segregation, and for black students to have higher education institutions on a par with those available only to whites, Houston set about reconstituting the law school. He shut down the night school, from which his father had graduated, toughened admissions standards, improved the library and curriculum, and purged from the faculty those he believed were not tapping the intellectual potential of the next generation's black lawyers and leaders.

By 1935, although there was still only one black lawyer for every 10, 000 blacks in the country, Houston was optimistic. August Meier and Elliot Rudwick, writing in the Journal of American History in 1976, quoted Houston as saying at an NAACP convention, "The most hopeful sign about our legal defense is the ever-increasing number of young Negro lawyers, competent, conscientious, and courageous, who are anxious to pit themselves (without fee) against the forces of reaction and injustice. … The time is soon coming when the Negro will be able to rely on his own lawyers to give him every legal protection in every court."

Pursued Civil Rights as a Teacher and

Lawyer

It was not only as an administrator that Houston advanced his cause. As a professor, he was empowered to directly shape the future of black law. His principal goal was to elucidate for his students—the future fighters for racial justice—the stark differences between the laws governing whites in American society and those governing blacks. In his book Black Profiles, George R. Metcalf wrote that Houston "called it making 'social engineers.' He had become dean in 1929 with but one purpose: to make Howard, which was then second rate, a 'West Point of Negro leadership' so that Negroes could gain equality by fighting segregation in the courts."

Of the students who braved Houston's intense mock court proceedings and military-style cerebral drillings, none would more successfully carry the torch that Houston had lit than Thurgood Marshall, who would ultimately be appointed to the Supreme Court. "First off, you thought he was a mean so-and-so, " Marshall was quoted as saying in Simple Justice. "He used to tell us that doctors could bury their mistakes but lawyers couldn't. And he'd drive home to us that we would be competing not only with white lawyers but really well-trained white lawyers, so there just wasn't any point crying in our beer about being Negroes. … He made it clear to all of us that when we were done, we were expected to go out and do something with our lives."

In 1934 Houston was retained by the NAACP, then the dominant civil rights organ of the century, to chip away at segregation by leading a legal action campaign against racially biased funding of public education and discrimination in public transportation. One of his first cases, in which his legal artfulness was fully displayed, involved a black man from Maryland who wished to attend the University of Maryland Law School, the same school that years earlier had denied Thurgood Marshall admission on the grounds that he was black. Houston operated on the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision, which validated separate but equal public education. University officials had told Donald Murray that because he was black he would not be admitted, but that he was qualified to attend Princess Anne Academy, a lackluster, all-black institution that was an extension of the university. Houston and Marshall set out to prove that Princess Anne Academy, without a law school or any other graduate programs, did not provide an education on a par with the University of Maryland, and therefore, the state had violated Plessy.

Houston and Marshall were victorious, not only in getting Murray into the University, but in showing that states that wanted to sustain separate but equal education had to face the onerous and expensive task of making black institutions qualitatively equal to white institutions. The courts, it became clear, were going to carefully scrutinize the allegedly equal education in states hiding behind Plessy. Segregation took on an impractical quality to those who tried to defend it on moral grounds. In subsequent pioneering cases, Houston would further lead the attack on segregated education by using the testimony of psychologists and social scientists who claimed that black children suffered enormous and lasting mental anguish as a result of segregation in public schools and the societal ostracism of blacks.

Argued Against Discrimination Before

Supreme Court

Houston's first case before the U.S. Supreme Court involved a black man named Jess Hollins who had been convicted of rape in Oklahoma by an all-white jury and sentenced to death. Brandishing arguments he had used before in lower courts, Houston claimed that because blacks historically had been denied jury placements in Sapulpa, Oklahoma, only on the basis of their race, black defendants could maintain that they had been denied due process under the law. The Supreme Court, citing one of its recent decisions, concurred. Houston became the first black to successfully represent the NAACP before the highest court in the land.

During his tenure at the NAACP, Houston was praised not only for his legalistic virtuosity but for his prescience in picking cases that would collectively help erode segregation in the country. In his second major Supreme Court victory, he succeeded in guaranteeing that an all-white firemen labor union fairly represent in collective bargaining black firemen excluded from the union. Houston also persuaded the court that racially restricted covenants on real estate—such as deeds prohibiting blacks from occupying a house—were unconstitutional. In 1945 he argued and won a case involving a black woman from Baltimore who, on the basis of her skin color, had been denied entry into a training class operated by a public library and funded by tax-payer dollars.

Always trying to expand the scope and appeal of the NAACP, Houston suggested the establishment of satellite offices on college campuses and advised the association's officials to attend conferences of religious leaders as a way of better accessing black communities. As a native Washingtonian with many political contacts, he was also expected to comment on the racial consequences of legislation that was being considered by Congress, where he frequently testified before legislative committees. In 1944 Houston was appointed to the Fair Employment Practices Committee, created to enforce integration in private industries, but quit 20 months later, decrying what he viewed as a transparent commitment to racial equality on the part of the administration of President Harry S. Truman.

Houston died in 1950, four years before his star pupil, Marshall, succeeded in arguing before the Supreme Court that the separate but equal defense of segregated education was unconstitutional. The precedent set in Brown v. Board of Education was the culmination of decades of legal challenges, many of which had been masterminded and implemented by Houston. Although his name never would be as widely known as others in the civil rights community, many lawyers and activists who worked with him, including Marshall, have never strayed from their belief that Charles Hamilton Houston was one of the early, unsung heroes of the assault on segregation. Richard Kluger quoted Howard University Professor Charles Thompson in Simple Justice as saying, "[Houston] got less honor and remuneration than almost anyone else involved in this fight. He was a philanthropist without money."

Further Reading

Auerbach, Jerold, Unequal Justice, Oxford University Press, 1976.

Bardolph, Richard, The Negro Vanguard, Vintage Books, 1959.

Franklin, John Hope, and August Meier, editors, Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century, University of Illinois Press, 1982.

Kluger, Richard, Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality, Knopf, 1976.

Metcalf, George R., Black Profiles, McGraw-Hill, 1970.

Segal, Geraldine, In Any Fight Some Fall, Mercury Press, 1975.

Journal of American History, March 1976.

Additional information for this profile was obtained from papers housed at Howard University, Washington, D.C. □

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Houston, Charles Hamilton

HOUSTON, CHARLES HAMILTON

Charles Hamilton Houston was a law professor and civil rights lawyer who argued many landmark cases on behalf of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (naacp).

Houston was born September 3, 1895, in Washington, D.C. His father, William Houston, was trained as a lawyer and worked for a while as a records clerk to supplement the family's income; his mother, Mary Ethel Houston, worked as a hairdresser. Houston's father eventually began practicing law full-time and later became a law professor at Howard University, a predominantly black institution located in Washington, D.C. An only child, Houston received his primary and secondary education in segregated Washington, D.C., schools. After graduating from high school, he received a full scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh. At the urging of his parents, he instead entered Amherst College, where he was the only black student enrolled. An outstanding student, he was elected Phi Beta Kappa, and graduated magna cum laude in 1915.

After Amherst, Houston taught English composition and literature at Howard for two years. In 1917, shortly after the United States entered world war i, Houston left teaching for military service. He enrolled in an officer candidate school for blacks, established at Des Moines. After four months of training, Houston became a first lieutenant in the infantry and was assigned to duty at Camp Meade, Maryland. He later entered field artillery school, despite the widely held belief that blacks could not serve effectively as field artillery officers.

Houston served in France until 1919, then returned to the United States to enroll at Harvard Law School. He was one of the few black students admitted at that time. His outstanding academic record earned him a place on the editorial board of the Harvard Law Review, making him the first black student to be so honored. In 1922, he received a bachelor of laws degree cum laude. He remained at Harvard for an additional year of graduate study, and earned a doctor of juridical science degree in 1923. He then won a fellowship to study for a year at the University of Madrid, where he earned a doctor of civil law degree.

In 1924, his studies completed, Houston was admitted to the bar of the District of Columbia and became his father's partner in the law firm of Houston and Houston. He quickly developed a successful practice, specializing in trusts and estates, probate, and landlord-tenant matters. He also taught law part-time at Howard University. In 1929, he left law practice to become an associate professor and vice dean of the School of Law at Howard. In 1932, he became dean, a post he held until 1935.

While at Howard, Houston worked to upgrade the law school's facilities, reputation, and academic standards and was instrumental in securing full accreditation for the school. He also found time to participate in important civil rights cases. He helped write the brief for Nixon v. Condon, 286 U.S. 73, 52 S. Ct. 484, 76 L. Ed. 984 (1932), in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that a "whites-only" primary election was unconstitutional. He also helped argue Norris v. Alabama, 294 U.S. 587, 55 S. Ct. 579, 79 L. Ed. 1074 (1935), where the Court overturned the convictions of nine black men charged with rape, because Alabama's systematic exclusion of blacks from juries violated the fourteenth amendment of the Constitution.

In 1935, Houston left Washington, D.C., to become the first special counsel for the NAACP, headquartered in New York City. As special counsel, Houston initiated legal challenges in support of civil rights and argued landmark cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, including Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada, 305 U.S. 337, 59 S. Ct. 232, 83 L. Ed. 208 (1938). In Gaines, the Supreme Court ruled that a state could not exclude a black applicant from a state-supported all-white law school. Houston also argued Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1, 68 S. Ct. 836, 92 L. Ed. 1161 (1948). In the Shelley decision, the Court held that a clause in a real estate contract prohibiting the sale of property to nonwhites could not be enforced by state courts. Houston was widely praised for the thorough and sometimes painstaking preparation of his legal briefs and his impassioned oral arguments before the Court.

In 1940, Houston left the NAACP to return to private practice in Washington, D.C., though he remained a member of the NAACP's national legal committee. He was succeeded as special counsel by thurgood marshall, a colleague at the NAACP whom he had taught at Howard and who later became the first African American justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. Houston remained active in civil rights work, winning before the U.S. Supreme Court two cases that struck down racially discriminatory practices by the railroads: Steele v. Louisville and Nashville Railroad Company, 323 U.S. 192, 65 S. Ct. 226, 89 L. Ed. 173 (1944), and Tunstall v. Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, 323 U.S. 210, 65 S. Ct. 235, 89 L. Ed. 187 (1944).

In 1944, Houston was appointed by President franklin d. roosevelt to the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC). He resigned the following year after a dispute with President harry s. truman over alleged discriminatory hiring practices on the part of the Capital Transit Company, of Washington, D.C. Capital Transit Company was the transportation system in Washington, D.C. Houston alleged that it engaged in discriminatory policies by not hiring black workers or promoting current black workers to positions as bus operators or streetcar conductors. The FEPC wanted to issue a directive ending discrimination. Truman did not respond to Houston's efforts to have the directive issued, so Houston resigned from the FEPC. Truman finally did respond, maintaining that, because Capital Transit had earlier been seized under the War Labor Dispute Act because of a labor dispute, enforcement of the order ending discrimination should be postponed.

"Whether elected or appointed, public officials serve those who put and keep them in office. We cannot depend upon them to fight our battles."
Charles Hamilton Houston

After battling heart disease for several years, Houston died in Washington, D.C., on April 22, 1950, at the age of fifty-four.

further readings

Elliott, Stephen P., ed. 1986. A Reference Guide to the United States Supreme Court. New York: Facts on File.

Fairfax, Roger A., Jr. 1998. "Wielding the Double-Edged Sword: Charles Hamilton Houston and Judicial Activism in the Age of Legal Realism." Harvard Blackletter Law Journal 14 (spring): 17–44.

Jones, Nathaniel R. 2001. "The Sisyphean Impact on Houstonian Jurisprudence." University of Cincinnati Law Review 69 (winter): 435–51.

McNeil, Genna Rae. 1983. Groundwork: Charles Hamilton Houston and the Struggle for Civil Rights. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.

Smith, J. Clay, Jr, and E. Desmond Hogan. 1998. "Remembered Hero, Forgotten Contribution: Charles Hamilton Houston, Legal Realism, and Labor Law." Harvard Blackletter Law Journal 14 (spring): 1–16.

Witt, Elder, ed. 1990. Guide to the U.S. Supreme Court. 2d ed. Washington D.C.: Congressional Quarterly.

cross-references

Powell v. Alabama.

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Houston, Charles Hamilton

Houston, Charles Hamilton 1895-1950

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Charles Hamilton Houston was born in 1895, one year before the U.S. Supreme Courts decision in Plessy v. Ferguson. In Plessy, the Court upheld laws requiring racially segregated public facilities, known as Jim Crow laws, ruling that separate but equal facilities for blacks and whites did not violate the U.S. Constitution. Charles Houston dedicated his life to destroying Jim Crow and ending racial segregation by law in the United States.

Houston believed that the law could be used to bring about social change and that black lawyers should be trained as social engineers. He attended law school at Harvard University, where he was the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review. In 1929 Houston was appointed head of the law school at Howard University, a historically black institution. Houston raised admissions standards, improved the faculty, strengthened the curriculum, and achieved accreditation for the school. His mission was to train a cadre of black lawyers that would successfully challenge government-sanctioned discrimination. One of Houstons students, Thurgood Marshall (19081993), went on to argue Brown v. Board of Education (1954) before the U.S. Supreme Court and later to serve as the Courts first black justice.

In 1935 Houston took a leave of absence from the law school to serve as special counsel to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Within a few months of joining the NAACP, Houston initiated a legal campaign to end racial discrimination in public education. The first step in Houstons strategy was to attack Plessy s separate but equal doctrine as it applied to graduate and professional schools. Most states offered legal education only to white students, thus failing to meet the separate requirement, and Houston brought test cases to challenge these policies. In Murray v. Maryland (1936) and Missouri ex. rel. Gaines v. Canada (1938), the Maryland Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states must either admit black students to their established institutions or provide blacks with equal facilities for graduate and professional training.

Houston resigned as NAACP special counsel in 1938, but he remained active in civil rights litigation. He turned his attention to racial discrimination in labor and housing. In the Steele and Tunstall cases of 1944, Houston successfully challenged preferential hiring in the railroad industry, and in Hurd v. Hodge (1948), he took on restrictive covenants among homeowners and prevailed.

Houston also continued to advise Thurgood Marshall, who had taken over the education litigation. The next step was to challenge the separate graduate and professional schools created in the wake of Murray and Gaines and to show that equality was impossible, or at least too expensive, to achieve. In Sweatt v. Painter (1950) and McLaurin v. Oklahoma (1950), the NAACP argued that the education offered to black law and graduate students was substantially inferior to that available to white students, and the Supreme Court unanimously agreed.

Houston died of heart failure in 1950 and did not live to see the culmination of his strategy to overturn Plessy v. Ferguson. In Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and its companion cases, the Supreme Court was unanimous in striking down segregation in primary and secondary education, declaring that in the field of public education the doctrine of separate but equal has no place.

SEE ALSO Brown v. Board of Education, 1954 ; Marshall, Thurgood; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Klebanow, Diana, and Franklin L. Jonas. 2003. Peoples Lawyers: Crusaders for Justice in American History. Armonk, NY: Sharpe.

McNeil, Genna Rae. 1983. Groundwork: Charles Hamilton Houston and the Struggle for Civil Rights. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Malia Reddick

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Houston, Charles Hamilton

Houston, Charles Hamilton

September 3, 1895
April 22, 1950


Charles Hamilton Houston, a lawyer, was born in the District of Columbia, the son of William L. Houston, a government worker who attended Howard University Law School and became a lawyer, and Mary Hamilton Houston, a teacher who later worked as a hairdresser. He attended Washington's M Street High School and then went to Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1915, then taught English for two years at Howard University. In 1917 Houston joined the army and served as a second lieutenant in a segregated unit of the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I. Following his discharge, he decided on a career in law and entered Harvard Law School. Houston was the first African-American editor of the Harvard Law Review. He received an L.L.B. degree cum laude (1922) and an S.J.D. degree (1923). He received the Sheldon Fellowship for further study in civil law at the University of Madrid (19231924).

In 1924 Houston was admitted to the Washington, D.C., bar, and he entered law practice with his father at Houston & Houston in Washington, D.C. (later Houston & Hastie, then Houston, Bryant, and Gardner), where he handled domestic relations, negligence, and personal injury cases, as well as criminal law cases involving civil rights matters. He remained with the firm until his death. Throughout his career Houston served on numerous committees and organizations, including the Washington Board of Education, the National Bar Association, the National Lawyers Guild, and the American Council on Race Relations. He also wrote columns on racial and international issues for The Crisis and the Baltimore Afro-American. In 1932 he was a delegate to the NAACP's second Amenia Conference.

In 1927 and 1928, after receiving a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, Houston wrote an important report, "The Negro and His Contact with the Administration of Law." The next year, he was appointed vice dean at Howard University, where he served as professor of law and as head of the law school. He transformed the law program into a full-day curriculum that was approved by both the American Bar Association and the Association of American Law Schools. Houston mentored such students as Thurgood Marshall, William Bryant, and Oliver Hill. Under his direction, Howard Law School became a unique training ground for African-American lawyers to challenge segregation through the legal system.

In 1935 Houston took a leave of absence from Howard to become the first full-time, salaried special counsel of the NAACP. As special counsel Houston argued civil rights cases and traveled to many different areas of the United States, sometimes under trying conditions, in order to defend blacks who stood accused of crimes. He won two important Supreme Court cases, Hollins v. Oklahoma (1935) and Hale v. Kentucky (1938), which overturned death sentences given by juries from which blacks had been excluded because of their race.

Houston persuaded the joint committee of the NAACP and the philanthropic American Fund for Public Service to support an unrelenting but incremental legal struggle against segregation, with public education as the main area of challenge. In 1896 the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that "separate but equal" segregated facilities were constitutional. Houston realized that a direct assault on the decision would fail, so he designed a strategy of litigation of test cases and a slow buildup of successful precedents based on inequality within segregation. He focused on combating discrimination in graduate education, a less controversial area than discrimination in primary schools, as the first step in his battle in the courts. University of Maryland v. Murray was his first victory and an important psychological triumph. The Maryland Supreme Court ordered that Donald Murray, an African American, be admitted to the University of Maryland Law School because there were no law schools for blacks in the state. Two years later, Houston successfully argued Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada in the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court ordered that Lloyd Gaines be admitted to the University of Missouri, which had no black graduate school, ruling that granting scholarships for black students to out-of-state schools did not constitute equal admission.

In 1938, suffering from tuberculosis and heart problems, Houston resigned as chief counsel, and two years later he left the NAACP. However, he remained a prime adviser over the next decade through his membership on the NAACP Legal Committee. His position as special counsel was taken over by his former student and deputy Thurgood Marshall, who formed the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc. (LDF), to continue the struggle Houston had begun. Their endeavor culminated with the famous 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which overturned school segregation. Houston remained active in the effort. Shortly before his death, he initiated Bolling v. Sharpe (1954), a school desegregation suit in Washington, D.C., which later became one of the school cases the Supreme Court consolidated with and decided in Brown.

In 1940 Houston became general counsel of the International Association of Railway Employees and of the Association of Colored Railway Trainmen and Locomotive Firemen. He and his co-counsel investigated complaints of unfair labor practices and litigated grievances. Houston successfully argued two cases, Steele v. Louisville & Nashville Railroad and Tunstall v. Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen, involving racial discrimination in the selection of bargaining agents under the Railway Labor Act of 1934. Houston also worked as an attorney for hearings of the President's Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC). Appointed to the FEPC in 1944, he dramatically resigned in December 1945 in protest over President Truman's refusal to issue an order banning discrimination by Washington's Capital Transit Authority, and of the committee's imminent demise.

In the late 1940s Houston led a group of civil rights lawyers in bringing suit against housing discrimination. He helped draft the brief for the LDF's Supreme Court case Shelley v. Kramer and argued a companion case, Hurd v. Hodge, in which the Supreme Court barred enforcement of racially restrictive covenants in leases.

In 1948 Houston suffered a heart attack, and died of a coronary occlusion two years later. He received the NAACP's Spingarn Medal posthumously in 1950. In 1958 Howard University named its new main law school building in his honor.

See also Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas ; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Marshall, Thurgood; NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Plessy v. Ferguson

Bibliography

Kluger, Richard. Simple Justice. New York: Vintage, 1975.

McNeil, Genna Rae. "'To Meet the Group Needs': The Transformation of Howard University School of Law, 19201935." In New Perspectives on Black Educational History, edited by V. P. Franklin and James D. Anderson, pp. 149172. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978.

McNeil, Genna Rae. Groundwork: Charles Hamilton Houston and the Struggle for Civil Rights. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983.

Ogletree, Charles J. All Deliberate Speed: Reflections on the First Half Century of Brown v. Board of Education. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004.

Rowan, Carl. Dream Makers, Dream Breakers: The World of Justice Thurgood Marshall. Boston: Little, Brown, 1993.

Segal, Geraldine. In Any Fight Some Fall. Rockville, Md.: Mercury, 1975.

Tushnet, Mark V. The NAACP's Legal Strategy Against Segregated Education, 1925-1950. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987.

genna rae mcneil (1996)
Updated bibliography

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Houston, Charles Hamilton

Houston, Charles Hamilton 1895–1950

Charles Hamilton Houston was born on September 3, 1895, in Washington, D.C. He would go on to become one of the greatest lawyers in American history. Houston developed a systematic approach to the use of the courts to advance individual rights, and he trained a generation of lawyers to battle an entrenched system of racial oppression and segregation. Houston’s colleague William H. Hastie defined Houston as “a genius,” “the architect of the NAACP legal program,” and “the Moses” of the civil rights movement. Houston believed that lawyers were “social engineers” who had a responsibility to work for the common good. He was instrumental in revamping Howard Law School as a training ground for generations of black lawyers, and he thus created a nationwide network of lawyers who could help fulfill his mission.

These efforts created a foundation that lawyers would use to topple the system of “separate but equal” and the assumptions of many about racial inferiority. Houston’s strategic approach involved the preparation of hundreds of legal challenges to discrimination, which eventually led to the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education that “separate but equal” facilities are unconstitutional. Through his life’s work, Houston exemplified an excellence of character and ability that transcended racial categories and spoke to the promise of equal opportunity and education.

Houston was born into a society in which segregation was both de facto and de jure in much of the country. Blacks and whites lived, worked, and were educated separately, either by custom or by law. Houston’s father was a lawyer who, for a time, worked as a clerk in the federal Record and Pension Office to supplement his income from the practice of law. His mother was an accomplished hairdresser whose clients included the wives of senators and diplomats. Houston’s parents had high expectations of their only son, and when he received a scholarship to attend the University of Pittsburgh they encouraged him to attend a more prestigious school. He therefore attended Amherst College in Massachusetts. While schools like Amherst and Harvard occasionally accepted blacks as students, they were not fully integrated into school organizations, and clubs and fraternities often barred their entry. As a result, Houston led a singular but not lonely existence at Amherst. He made some friends and acquaintances, but he was never fully accepted into the fabric of college life. Nonetheless, Houston distinguished himself as a student and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. In 1915, he graduated magna cum laude and was one of the college’s six valedictorians.

After graduation, Houston taught English at Howard University, the prestigious black college in Washington, D.C. His career was interrupted by World War I, in which he served as a second lieutenant in the field artillery. During his service, Houston experienced overt racism, and he observed that in the face of discrimination, intelligence, talent, skill, and character provided little, if any, protection. Systemic racial prejudice allowed whites to belittle, threaten, humiliate, and abuse their fellow soldiers of color with impunity. Houston began to recognize the impact that legal skill and strategy could have in combating the inequities of racism and segregation. He remarked, “I would never get caught again without knowing something about my rights; that if luck was with me … I would study law, and use my time fighting for men who could not strike back” (McNeil 1983, p. 42).

In 1919, Houston enrolled in Harvard Law School, where he again experienced the stings of de facto segregation. Nonetheless, he demonstrated a keen legal mind and distinguished himself as a law student, receiving praise from his professors. Based on his academic achievements, he became the first black student elected to the editorial board of the Harvard Law Review. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1922, earned a doctorate in juridical science from the same institution in 1923, and then studied civil law at the University of Madrid. Houston’s pursuit of an advanced legal education was driven, in large part, by his belief that a complete understanding of the Constitution and the legal structures of the nation was essential in the fight for justice and civil rights for African Americans.

Houston joined his father’s legal practice, and from 1924 to 1929 he worked in the Washington, D.C. firm of Houston & Houston. At that time, he developed a reputation for a willingness to represent the underrepresented, despite their inability to pay. In 1924, Houston began teaching at Howard Law School, and in 1929 he became the vice-dean of the school. He helped to transform Howard from an evening program to a fully accredited law school that would become a training ground for some of the country’s greatest lawyers. He worked at Howard until 1935, when he joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as its first full-time salaried attorney and special counsel, and he became the “architect” of its legal civil rights program. After resigning from the NAACP in 1940, Houston returned to private practice, where he worked tirelessly against infringements on the right to work; unfair labor practices; and segregation in housing, land ownership, and transportation. He remarked to friends that his grandmother’s stories of slavery inspired him to protect African Americans against discrimination and prejudice. He also applied this fundamental belief in equality to international struggles for human rights and freedom when he protested economic imperialism in Latin America and colonization in Africa.

Houston’s work was grounded in a belief in equality in education, in lawyers as agents of social change, and in human rights. He firmly believed that discrimination in education had to be eradicated for racial equality to be possible. Houston’s strategy involved attacking racial inequities in teacher’s salaries, transportation, and graduate and professional education. He tied the inadequacy of advanced educational opportunities for blacks to efforts to impede the development of black leadership and economic development in the black community. His brilliance and success rested on his careful preparation of legal briefs and the use of the Constitution to advance equality and equal rights, and to force reforms where they could have no chance through politics. He advanced the idea of using law as an instrument to achieve equality.

The development of socially conscious and prepared lawyers was integral to Houston’s strategy of attaining racial equity in education. He believed lawyers had to use their understanding of the Constitution in “bettering conditions of the underprivileged citizens.” According to Houston, the lawyer was a “mouthpiece of the weak and a sentinel guarding against wrong” (McNeil 1983). He emphasized the role of black lawyers in these efforts in particular, and he worked to strengthen the National Bar Association, which represented the interests of black lawyers at a time when nonwhites were excluded from the American Bar Association.

Houston is perhaps best known as an advisor to the first black Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall. He mentored and taught legions of lawyers and was always available for consultation in their work. Erin W. Griswold, a former dean of Harvard Law School, noted that “It is doubtful that there has been a single important case involving civil rights during the past fifteen years in which Charles Houston has not either participated directly or by consultation and advice” (Hine 1995, p. 39). Most important, however, according to Houston, was the need to “work for the social good.” Houston stressed the role of law in advancing civil rights, stating that human beings are “each equally entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and that good governments are bound to protect these rights “without prejudice or bias” (Hine 1995, p. 39).

SEE ALSO Brown v. Board of Education; Civil Rights Movement; Marshall, Thurgood; NAACP; NAACP: Legal Actions, 1935–1955; Plessy v. Ferguson.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Greenberg, Jack. 1995. Crusaders in the Courts: Legal Battles of the Civil Rights Movement. New York: Basic Books.

Hine, Darlene Clark. 1995. “Black Lawyers and the Twentieth-Century Struggle for Constitutional Change.” In African Americans and the Living Constitution, edited by John Hope Franklin and Genna Rae McNeil, 33–55. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

McNeil, Genna Rae. 1983. Groundwork, Charles Hamilton Houston and the Struggle for Civil Rights. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Ogletree, Charles J. Jr. 2004. All Deliberate Speed, Reflections on the First Half Century of Brown v. Board of Education. New York: W. W. Norton.

Deseriee A. Kennedy

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