28 days ain’t enough. Based on my research as a history teacher and human, I will be using the month of July to periodically post about a figure or group that you may or may not have heard of, but who has left a critical imprint on American society. Feel free to comment and spread the message with friends and loved ones. Focus on the roots–don’t worry about the branches.
3. Charles Hamilton Houston
Meet the civil rights lawyer with the relentless work ethic that Thurgood Marshall, America’s first black Supreme Court Justice, once claimed was “better than all of us, including me.”
“The black lawyer is a soldier, taking the battle into the courtroom, serving as an advisor to the people.”
These are the words of the most accomplished and prolific black civil rights lawyer of the first half of the 20th century: Charles Hamilton Houston. In addition to wielding the legal system like a sword to strike down the inequities of Jim Crow segregation, Houston made it his life’s work to train an army of highly skilled black lawyers who would ride for the same cause across the nation.
Born in 1895 to a family descended from slaves, Houston’s father worked as a lawyer and his mother as a hairdresser. Houston was always a brilliant student, but it wasn’t until he enlisted in the armed services that he that he decided what career path he would take. While stationed in France, an accusation against him and three other black officers regarding fraternization with white French women nearly resulted in their lynching had it not been for the intervention of military police. From that day forward, Houston dedicated his life to advancing the condition of his people while exposing and attacking inequalities in all walks of life.
Enrolling in Harvard Law School, he became the first black editor of their prestigious Law Review journal. Graduating in 1923, he and his father opened up their own law firm in Washington D.C. before Houston went to work at Howard University. He rose to become Dean of a law school which would produce 3/4 of the country’s black lawyers in the 1920’s. He made many reforms to the law school in order to gain accreditation as well as to raise standards, ensuring that his students were the highest skilled, best trained, and most prepared lawyers to ever enter a court room.
His teachings married book knowledge with experience as he often took his students to neighborhoods, penitentiaries and insane asylums. Deeply ingrained in his legal pedagogy was the idea that blacks had to be better than their white counterparts to offset racial prejudice. During this time, Washington D.C. was still deeply divided, Union Station being the only place that a man like Houston could meet with white lawyers to have lunch.
Prior to the 1930’s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had relied solely on white attorneys, believing that the black attorney was inadequate. Houston strongly objected to this practice, and was hired in 1933 by the NAACP to defend a black man in Boston accused of murdering two white women in Virginia. When the man was extradited to Virginia, the NAACP suggested a white attorney should take over. Houston refused, instead adding more talented black attorneys to his team, including a precocious 3rd year legal student at Howard named Thurgood Marshall. The defendant was eventually sentenced to life in prison by an all white jury, but avoiding the death penalty in Jim Crow Virginia was no small accomplishment for Houston and his team.
Houston never tired of battling discrimination, and would go on to win multiple Supreme Court cases, earning more property ownership rights in a time where certain property could never be transferred to a person of color, and effectively desegregating all-white law schools and unions. With regards to the law schools, Houston understood that many whites were afraid of miscegenation, the mixing of races. He was correct in thinking this would be less of an issue with older and mostly male students.
His conviction mirrored his work ethic and active participation in the community. After being named head of the Fair Employment Practice Commission, formed to ban racial discrimination in government based war industries, he found himself in a battle against the Capital Area Transportation System in Washington D.C. They had refused to hire negroes as bus and street car operators when Houston and the FEPC got involved. However, as the case gained traction it was brought to the attention of the president’s administration, which told the FEPC to back off. When Houston was denied a meeting with the president, he abruptly stepped down as the the commission’s chairman.
Realizing that the achilles heel of Jim Crow segregation was the inequality in education, Houston and others set out to film the separate but unequal conditions that whites and blacks experienced in their school systems. This visual evidence was invaluable and often cited in future court cases as it highlighted the deplorable conditions of black schools and materials in contrast to the white ones. Separate was not equal, and much like today, public opinion began to shift thanks to technology opening people’s eyes to uncomfortable truths.
Sadly, Houston never lived to see the crowning achievement of his legal civil rights efforts, dying of a heart attack in 1950. However, four years later when the Supreme Court unanimously ruled to desegregate the nation’s schools in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, many of the defense team, including Marshall, were Houston’s former students or employees at Howard University .
Many agree that Houston worked himself to death in the tireless advocacy for racial equity. Marshall stood up and spoke at his funeral: “We wouldn’t have been anyplace if Charlie hadn’t laid the groundwork for it.”