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Charles Hamilton Houston
Charles Hamilton Houston
September 3, 1895|
Washington, D.C., U.S.
|Died||April 22, 1950
Washington, D.C., U.S.
|Alma mater||Amherst College
Harvard Law School
Charles Hamilton Houston (September 3, 1895 – April 22, 1950) was a prominent African-American lawyer, Dean of Howard University Law School, and NAACP first special counsel, or Litigation Director. A graduate of Amherst College and Harvard Law School, Houston played a significant role in dismantling Jim Crow laws, especially attacking segregation in schools and racial housing covenants. He earned the title "The Man Who Killed Jim Crow".
Houston is also well known for having trained and mentored a generation of black attorneys, including Thurgood Marshall, future founder and director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the first Black Supreme Court Justice. He recruited young lawyers to work on the NAACP's litigation campaigns, building connections between Howard's and Harvard's university law schools.
Houston was born in Washington, D.C., to a middle-class family who lived in the Striver section. His father William Le Pré Houston, the son of a former slave, had become an attorney and practiced in the capital for more than four decades. Charles' mother, Mary (née Hamilton) Houston, worked as a seamstress. Houston attended segregated local schools, graduating from the academic (college preparatory) Dunbar High School. He studied at Amherst College beginning in 1911, was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa honor society, and graduated as valedictorian in 1915, the only black student in his class. He returned to D.C. and taught English at Howard University, a historically black college.
As the U.S. entered World War I, Houston joined the U.S. Army as an officer. The military was racially segregated. From 1917 to 1919, he served as a First Lieutenant in the United States Infantry, based in Fort Meade, Maryland, with service in France. After being chastised for, during a brief detail as a Judge Advocate, finding a Black sergeant not worthy of prosecution, Houston wrote later:
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.
After his return to the U.S. in 1919, he entered Harvard Law School. He was the first black student elected to the editorial board of the Harvard Law Review and graduated cum laude. Houston was also a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. He earned a bachelor's of law in 1922 and a JD from Harvard in 1923. That same year he was awarded a Sheldon Traveling Fellowship to study at the University of Madrid. After his return, he was admitted to the Washington, DC bar in 1924 and joined his father's practice.
In 1924 Houston married Gladys Moran. They divorced in 1937. He next married Henrietta Williams. They had Houston's only child in 1940, Charles Hamilton Houston, Jr.
When several black lawyers were refused admission to the American Bar Association in 1925, they founded the National Bar Association. Houston was a founding member of the affiliated Washington Bar Association.
He was recruited to the Howard University faculty by the school’s first African-American president, Mordecai Johnson. From 1929 to 1935, Houston served as Vice-Dean and Dean of the Howard University School of Law. He influenced nearly one-quarter of all the black lawyers in the United States at the time, including former student Thurgood Marshall, who became a United States Supreme Court justice. Houston believed that the law could be used to fight racial discrimination and encouraged his students to work for such social purpose.
Houston left Howard in 1935 to serve as the first special counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), serving in this role until 1940. In this capacity he created litigation strategies to attack racial housing covenants and segregated schools, arguing several important civil rights cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. Through his work at the NAACP, Houston played a role in nearly every civil rights case that reached the US Supreme Court between 1930 and Brown v. Board of Education (1954).
Houston worked to bring an end to the exclusion of African Americans from juries across the South. He defended African-American George Crawford on charges of murder in Loudoun County, Virginia, in 1933, and saved him from the electric chair.
In the related Hollins v. State of Oklahoma (1935), Houston led an all-black legal team before the US Supreme Court to appeal another murder case in which the defendant was convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to death.
The defense team had challenged the all-white jury during the trial, but the conviction was upheld by the appeals court. Hearing the case a certiorari, the Supreme Court reversed the lower court's decision and ordered a new trial. Hollins was tried a third time, again before an all-white jury, and was convicted in 1936. He was sentenced to life in prison, where he died in 1950. "It is now widely believed that he was innocent."
At the time, Oklahoma and southern states systematically excluded blacks from juries, in part because they were not on the voter rolls, having been disenfranchised across the South since the turn of the century by state barriers to voter registration. In the 21st century, attorneys continue to have to challenge prosecutorial strategies that exclude blacks from juries.
Houston's strategy on public education was to attack segregation by demonstrating the inequality resulting from the "separate but equal" doctrine dating from the Supreme Court's Plessy v. Ferguson (1897). He orchestrated a campaign to force southern districts to build facilities for blacks equal to those for whites, or to integrate their facilities. He focused on law schools because, at the time, mostly males attended them.
Houston founded a law firm, Houston & Gardner, with Wendell P. Gardner, Sr. It later included, as name partners, William H. Hastie, William B. Bryant, Emmet G. Sullivan, and Joseph C. Waddy, each of whom were later appointed as federal judges. The firm was prestigious but their work not well-compensated. Ten members of the firm advanced to become judges, including Theodore Newman, Wendell Gardner, Jr., the son of Wendell Gardner; and Emmet Sullivan.
Houston's efforts to dismantle the legal theory of "separate but equal" were completed after his death in 1950 with the historic Brown v. Board of Education (1954) ruling, which prohibited segregation in public schools.
Houston died from a heart attack on April 22, 1950, at the age of 54.
Legacy and honors
- In 1950, Houston was posthumously awarded the NAACP's Spingarn Medal.
- In 1958, the main building of the Howard University School of Law was dedicated as Charles Hamilton Houston Hall.
- The Charles Houston Bar Association and the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, established at Harvard Law School in 2005, were named for him. Elena Kagan, formerly the Dean of Harvard Law School, was also the Charles Hamilton Houston Professor of Law there; she is now an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court.
- The Washington Bar Association annually awards the Charles Hamilton Houston Medallion of Merit to an individual who has advanced the cause of Houstonian jurisprudence.
- In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante included Charles Hamilton Houston on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.
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