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
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
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 on Charles Hamilton Houston
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.