Charles Hamilton Houston: Civil Rights Attorney and Mentor

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Charles Hamilton Houston. Public Domain

Overview

When attorney Charles Hamilton Houston wanted show the inequality of segregation, he did not only present arguments in a courtroom. While arguing Brown v. Board of Education, Houston took a camera throughout South Carolina to identify examples of inequality existing in African-American and white public schools.  In the documentary The Road to Brown, judge Juanita Kidd Stout described Houston’s strategy by saying, "...All right, if you want it separate but equal, I will make it so expensive for it to be separate that you will have to abandon your separateness." 

Key Achievements

  • First African-American editor of the Harvard Law Review.
  • Served as Dean of Howard University Law School.
  • Helped dismantle Jim Crow laws as the litigation direction of the NAACP.
  • Trained future U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall.

Early Life and Education

Houston was born on September 3, 1895 in Washington DC. Houston’s father, William, was an attorney and his mother, Mary was a hairstylist and seamstress.

Following a graduation from M Street High School, Houston attended Amherst College in Massachusetts. Houston was a member of Phi Betta Kappa and when he graduated in 1915, he was the class valedictorian.

Two years later, Houston joined the U.S. Army and trained in Iowa. While serving in the army, Houston was deployed to France where his experiences with racial discrimination fueled his interest in studying law.

In 1919 Houston returned to the United States and began studying law at Harvard Law School.

Houston became the first African-American editor of the Harvard Law Review and was mentored by Felix Frankfurter, who would later serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. When Houston graduated in 1922, he was received the Frederick Sheldon Fellowship which allowed him to continue studying law at the University of Madrid.

Attorney, Law Educator and Mentor

Houston returned to the United States in 1924 and joined his father’s law practice. He also joined the faculty of Howard University School of Law. He would go on to become the school’s dean where he would mentor future lawyers such as Thurgood Marshall and Oliver Hill. Both Marshall and Hill were recruited by Houston to work for the NAACP and its legal efforts.

Yet it was Houston’s work with the NAACP that allowed him to rise to prominence as an attorney. Recruited by Walter White, Houston began working the NAACP as its first special counsel in the early 1930s.  For the next twenty years, Houston played an integral role in civil rights cases brought before the U.S. Supreme Court. His strategy for defeating Jim Crow laws was by showing that the inequities present in “separate but equal” policy established by Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896.

In cases such as Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada, Houston argued that was unconstitutional for Missouri to discriminate against African-American students wishing to enroll in the state’s law school since there was no comparable institution for students of color.

While waging civil rights battles, Houston also mentored future lawyers such as Thurgood Marshall and Oliver Hill at Howard University School of Law.

Both Marshall and Hill were recruited by Houston to work for the NAACP and its legal efforts.

Although Houston died before the Brown v. Board of Education decision was handed down, his strategies were used by Marshall and Hill.

Death

Houston died in 1950 in Washington D.C. In his honor, the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School opened in 2005.