Charles Hamilton HoustonAug 4th, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Journalism & Law
1895-1950 Charles Hamilton Houston was an attorney, a professor, and a law school dean. He devised and implemented the legal strategy that set the stage for the unanimous 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed segregation in public schools.
Houston was born in Washington, DC, just a few blocks from the Supreme Court, on September 3, 1895. His mother, Mary Hamilton, was a hairdresser with a clientele that included members of Washington’s elite political establishment. His father, William Houston, was an attorney with a successful, if modest, law practice. An only child, Houston was raised with every advantage his parents could afford, including frequent outings to the National Zoo, and attendance at musical and other cultural events. When he was old enough for high school, his parents enrolled him in Washington’s innovative, prestigious, and all-black M Street School, where he developed an outstanding academic record and a reputation as a highly principled young man. Houston was so rigidly principled, in fact, that one teacher referred to him as “persistently annoying.”
Amherst College in Massachusetts offered Houston a scholarship after his graduation from high school. He found the intellectual atmosphere stimulating and flourished academically, but was troubled by a greater degree of discrimination, hostility, and enforced isolation than he had experienced growing up in Washington. Graduating in 1915, the only African American in his class, Houston returned to the nation’s capital to take a position teaching history and literature at Howard University.
In 1917, with Europe at war, Houston took leave from Howard to join the American Expeditionary Forces in France. As an African American officer in the Army, he was again frustrated by discrimination and animosity from Whites, even more so than during his years at Amherst. On one occasion, Houston feared for his life when harassed by a gang of white soldiers. On his return from Europe in late 1917, he found an America immersed in racial turmoil. Tension and violence increased over the next two years and led, in the summer of 1919, to a deadly series of race riots in major cities and a renewed spate of lynchings in the south.
Houston’s reaction was to dedicate the rest of his life to fighting racial intolerance and injustice. He was not the only citizen to make such a resolution, but events over the next three decades would demonstrate the wisdom of the path on which he embarked, beginning with his decision to apply to Harvard Law School. Houston was accepted, and in the fall of 1919, he entered the school and became the first African American named to the Harvard Law Review editorial board. He received a law degree in 1922, standing near the top of his class. The following year, Houston received his Doctor of Law degree. He then took on additional studies in Spain and North Africa, traveling, learning languages, and examining civil law in Madrid. When Houston returned to America in 1924, he joined his father’s law firm where he would remain a partner for the rest of his career. The same year, he married Margaret Moran.
Houston made his mark in history outside the family law firm. In the realm of education, he used his positions at Howard Law School, first as professor and later as dean, to lead a successful drive to bring the institution into the top ranks of law schools. Houston established a rigorous curriculum and pushed to recruit the best students, among them future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. It was in the battle against segregation, however, that he forever changed the dynamics of race and equity in the United States. Working with the NAACP over a period of two decades, he devised and implemented a strategy of mounting an all-out attack on the legal underpinnings of segregation, in coordination with attacks on every other front, from the political to the literary.
Houston divorced his first wife in 1937. He was then remarried to Henrietta Williams, with whom he had a son. He remained committed to the goal of gradually undermining the doctrine of “separate but equal” that had been pronounced constitutional by the Supreme Court in prior decisions. The method he devised was to file a long series of narrowly focused lawsuits at the state level to obtain rulings, and thus set precedents, under a variety of circumstances that “separate” was inherently inequitable. The first significant victory came in 1938 when the Supreme Court ordered the University of Missouri law school to admit a black student named Lloyd L. Gaines. The decision was a great victory, but the case ended with a chilling twist: Gaines never did enter law school, but disappeared without a trace in 1939.
Houston pressed the attack against segregation over the next 10 years, establishing and extending the legal principles embodied in the Gaines case. It was a dangerous time for civil rights advocates as institutions, politicians, and citizens mounted fierce and sometimes violent resistance. As he continued to file one antisegregation case after another, Houston slowly adopted a more assertive public persona. He testified against segregation before Congress and gained widespread notoriety for his scathing indictment of the Daughters of the American Revolution when the venerable, but then-racist, organization barred singer Marian Anderson from performing at Washington’s Constitution Hall. In the late 1940s, however, Houston’s health began to decline, leading to a heart attack in 1949, followed a few months later by a second incident. He died on April 22, 1950, at age 55.
Without Houston’s diligent and methodical work, the unanimous 1954 Supreme Court decision that outlawed segregation in public schools would have floundered for lack of necessary legal precedent. Houston is remembered for laying the groundwork that allowed the U.S. Civil Rights Movement to take root on a legal, as well as social, level. At his funeral, pallbearers included Supreme Court Justices Hugo Black and Tom Clark, and future justice Marshall, a fitting testimony to his achievements.