Charles Hamilton Houston (September 3, 1895 – April 22, 1950) was a American lawyer who played a role in dismantling the Jim Crow laws and outlawing racial segregation in American public schools. Known as "The Man Who Killed Jim Crow,” he played a role in nearly every civil rights case before the Supreme Court between 1930 and 1950. Houston had experienced racism first hand during his time in the military during World War I. With his outstanding academic record he was able to enter Harvard Law School and became the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review. Houston then developed Howard University law school, achieving its accreditation. A tireless worker for human rights until his early death, Houston laid the foundation for victory in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, which prohibited segregation in public schools. He was posthumously honored by the NAACP for his outstanding work which has since been recognized as vital in the battle to end laws supporting racism in the United States. While he did not live even to see the laws struck down, let alone the social victories that came later through the efforts of the Civil Rights Movement, Houston's work was foundational to the establishment of a society that recognizes the equal value of all human beings.
Charles Hamilton Houston was born on September 3, 1895 in Washington, D.C., just blocks away from the Supreme Court building. His mother, Mary Hamilton Houston, was a hairdresser of famous clientele; his father William Houston, was a general practice lawyer. Houston graduated from famous M Street High School, the first elite black high school in America. He received a scholarship for Amherst College in 1911, and graduated from there in 1915, as the only African-American student in the class. He graduated with highest honors at the age of only 19 years old.
Upon leaving Amherst, Houston returned to Washington. He found a job at Howard University, where he taught English and “Negro Literature.” After the United States entered the First World War in 1917, to avoid being sent to the front-line, he enlisted to become an officer. His father helped him to enter the first black officers’ training camp, Fort Des Moines in Iowa.
In the camp he witnessed inequality and racial segregation, and it is said that numerous times he was harassed and abused. Later in his military appointment, he again saw injustice. It is there that he decided to dedicate his whole life to fight racism. He served abroad in France and in Germany.
After his return from the war, in 1919, he left the army and enrolled in Harvard Law School. He became the first African-American editor of the Harvard Law Review. In 1922 he graduated, earning an LL.B degree, cum laude. After that he went on to obtain an S.J.D. degree from Harvard, and spent several months at the University of Madrid, Spain, where he studied civil law. He was accepted to the Washington, DC bar in 1924.
Houston joined the faculty at Howard Law School in 1924, and became its vice-dean in 1929. During his tenure, the school became training ground for African-American lawyers. At the time, Houston was training almost a quarter of America's black law students.
Between 1935 and 1940, Houston worked as a special counsel to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In that duty, he fought to end legal segregation, winning numerous cases before the United States Supreme Court. From 1935 to 1948, he argued eight cases before the Supreme Court, winning seven of them.
In 1940, Houston became general counsel of the International Association of Railway Employees and the Association of Colored Railway Trainmen and Locomotive Fireman. There he also argued several cases that included racial discrimination, among others Steele v. Louisville & Nashville Railroad (1944) 323 U.S. 192 and Tunstall v. Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen (1944) 323 U.S. 210.
In 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Houston to serve as a member of the Fair Employment Practices Committee. He stayed there for only a year, resigning in protest when the White House refused to issue an order to outlaw racial discrimination in the Washington, DC public transit system.
In the mid-1940s, Houston started to work on a case named Bolling v. Sharpe, which was one of the cases that preceded Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the case that outlawed segregation in schools. He was awarded the NAACP's Spingarn Medal in 1950 for his work.
Due to his health problems, Houston resigned as chief counsel of the NAACP. He died on April 22, 1950, in Washington, DC at age 54.
As a professor, Houston was famous for his strictness. He demanded excellence from his students. As Thurgood Marshall remembered from his student days, “In our first year, [Houston] told us, ‘Look at the man on your right, look at the man on your left…and at this time next year, two of you won’t be here.’”. His students called him “Iron Shoes and Cement Pants,” for his demanding curriculum and high expectations.
Houston's brilliant plan to attack and defeat Jim Crow segregation laws by using the inequality of the "separate but equal" doctrine (from the Supreme Court's Plessy v. Ferguson decision) as it pertained to public education in the United States was the master stroke that brought about the landmark Brown decision.
In the mid-1930s, Houston started his battle to end segregation in public education. He planned his strategy on three different levels. First, he argued that inequality existed in the educational opportunities of blacks and whites. Second, he claimed that equality was too expensive for states to maintain. And finally, he attacked the “separate but equal” principle upon which segregation rested.
In his first two victories, University of Maryland v. Murray and Missouri ex rel Gaines v. Canada, the high court proclaimed it unconstitutional for states to exclude African-Americans from the state law school, when according to the “separate but equal” doctrine, no comparable school for blacks existed.
In his other cases, particularly Hollins v. State of Oklahoma (1935) 295 U.S. 394 and Hale v. Kentucky (1938) 303 U.S. 613, Houston overturned death sentences for his clients because they had been denied fair jury trials, based on their race.
In Hurd v. Hodge (1948) 334 U.S. 24, Houston persuaded the high court that the Civil Rights Act prohibited the lower courts from enforcing laws that supported racial discrimination. In particular, he argued against housing restrictions for African Americans, according to which some lots in the Washington, DC area were forbidden from being “rented, leased, sold, transferred or conveyed unto any Negro or colored person, under a penalty of Two Thousand Dollars.” The lower courts were successfully enforcing those laws, but after Houston won his case in front of the United States Supreme Court, their decisions were found unconstitutional.
Houston was posthumously awarded the NAACP's Spingarn Medal in 1950 for his fight against racial discrimination. His worked paved the path for the greatest victory against discrimination, Brown v. Board of Education (1954).
In 1958, the main building of the Howard University School of Law was dedicated as Charles Hamilton Houston Hall. Houston’s importance became more broadly known through the success of his former student, Thurgood Marshall, who became the first African-American U.S. Supreme Court Justice.
Houston's name is on the Charles Houston Bar Association and the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School, which opened in the fall of 2005. In addition, there is a professorship at Harvard Law School named after him.
All links retrieved February 3, 2017.
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