September 3, 1895:
Black in the Day
On this date Charles Hamilton Houston was born. Charles Hamilton Houston was a black lawyer who helped play a role in dismantling the Jim Crow laws and helped train future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall. 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 Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Houston’s brilliant plan to attack and defeat Jim Crow segregation 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.
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. 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 studying at the University of Madrid in 1924, Houston was admitted to the District of Columbia bar that same year and joined forces with his father in practicing law. Beginning in the 1930s, Houston served as the first special counsel to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and therefore was involved with the majority of civil rights cases from then until his death on April 22, 1950.
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.