Updated: Feb 4
As a child born to a middle-class family in 1895, Charles Hamilton Houston already had advantages that most Black children could only imagine. His father, the son of enslaved parents, had defied the odds and become a lawyer. Both his parents encouraged his ambition and were able to provide Charles with a high school education that was hardly available to most Black teens. He then attended Amherst College and graduated Valedictorian as the only Black man in his class. If he had done nothing else, this alone would have made him worthy of recognition. But he was just getting started.
When the U.S. entered WWI, Houston joined the Army as a First Lieutenant in the Infantry. He served in a racially segregated unit for two years and saw battle in France. While Europe was more racially tolerant than America, the hostility and discrimination Houston experienced within his own country’s military left an indelible mark on him. He explained:
“The hate and scorn showered on us Negro officers by our fellow Americans convinced me that there was no sense in my dying for a world ruled by them. I made up my mind that if I got through this war I would study law and use my time fighting for men who could not strike back.”
True to his word, he returned to the U.S. in 1919 and entered Harvard Law School. There, he was the first Black student elected to the editorial board of the Harvard Law Review and graduated cum laude. Houston earned his bachelor's of law in 1922 and his Juris Doctorate in 1923. He was admitted to the Washington, D.C. bar in 1924 and joined his father's practice.
When several Black lawyers were refused admission to the American Bar Association in 1925 due to discrimination, they founded the National Bar Association and Houston became one of the first members of the affiliated Washington Bar Association. Recognizing his willingness to forge new paths, Howard University recruited him to serve as Vice-Dean and then Dean of its School of Law. There, Houston grew the program from part-time to full-time and achieved accreditation from the Association of American Law Schools and the American Bar Association. He brought prominent attorneys to the school as speakers and helped his students build an essential network of professional connections. He influenced nearly one-quarter of all the black lawyers in the United States at the time, including his student and future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Houston believed that the law could be used to fight racial discrimination and he encouraged his students to work for social reform.
In 1935, Houston left Howard to become the first special counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In this role, he developed litigation strategies to fight racial housing covenants and segregated schools. Through his work at the NAACP, Houston played a strategic role in nearly every civil rights case that reached the U.S. Supreme Court between 1935 and 1954. He laid the groundwork for Brown v. Board of Education (1954) but the case would be argued by protégé Thurgood Marshall after Houston’s death.
Houston's strategy was to fight school segregation by highlighting that there was no “equal” actually happening in the “separate but equal” education system created by the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Furguson decision in 1897. He devised a campaign to pressure southern states to build facilities for Blacks that were actually equal to those for Whites, or else integrate their facilities. He first focused on law schools because, at the time, mostly males attended them. He felt this would remove the fear based argument that Whites used when claiming that integrated schools would lead to interracial dating and marriage.
In the state court of Maryland, in Murray v. Pearson (1936), Houston and Marshall attained a legal order stipulating that a Black person was entitled to admission to the University of Maryland Law School because he couldn’t otherwise get an equal legal education in the state, and it wasn’t feasible to create a whole new law school for Blacks. The case was a particularly satisfying win, since Thurgood Marshall himself was from Maryland and hadn’t been allowed to attend the law school in his state. Escalating the attack against segregated education, Houston argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in Gaines v. Canada (1938), persuading the Court to declare that under the separate-but-equal doctrine, Missouri had to admit a Black student to its law school, or create a second school for Blacks. Money often wins out over policy and Black students suddenly found themselves being admitted to previously White law schools.
Houston’s work also included efforts to end the exclusion of Blacks from juries. At the time, southern states systematically excluded Blacks from juries, in part because state barriers to voter registration kept most Blacks off the voter rolls. This battle unfortunately continues to this day. But Houston also won cases that chipped away at discrimination in the electoral system, criminal justice system, and employment. His litigation ended the exclusion of Blacks from labor unions and ended the use of restrictive covenants banning Blacks, Jews and other “undesirables” from purchasing or renting homes in White neighborhoods.
Houston’s use of economics to end systemic racism was summed up as "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."
Unfortunately, Houston's efforts to dismantle the legal theory of "separate but equal" would not be completed in his lifetime. He died in 1950 from a heart attack at the age of fifty-four. Thurgood Marshall would bring Houston’s dream to fruition when he argued and won the historic Brown v. Board of Education (1954) ruling, prohibiting segregation in public schools.
The Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice was founded to preserve Houston’s legacy and to continue his work. The institute’s mission focuses on achieving equality in education, safety and healing, employment, and other areas. Despite his significant legal achievements, Houston himself knew that there remains a big difference between law on the books and law on the ground. The reality on the ground is African-Americans and other racial minorities - including students - are disadvantaged in terms of resources and still are subjected to discrimination. The fight continues.
To learn more about Charles Houston, we recommend:
Charles H. Houston: An Interdisciplinary Study of Civil Rights Leadership James L. Conyers, Jr. 2012
Root and Branch: Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall, and the Struggle to End Segregation James Rawn, Jr. 2010