Charles Hamilton Houston

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Charles Hamilton Houston
Born (1895-09-03)September 3, 1895
Washington, D.C.
Died April 22, 1950(1950-04-22) (aged 54)[1]
Washington, D.C.
Nationality United States
Alma mater Amherst College
Harvard Law School
Occupation Lawyer

Charles Hamilton Houston (September 3, 1895 – April 22, 1950) was a prominent African-American lawyer, Dean of Howard University Law School, and NAACP Litigation Director who played a significant role in dismantling the Jim Crow laws, which earned him the title "The Man Who Killed Jim Crow".[2] He is also well known for having trained future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.[3]


Early years[edit]

Houston was born in Washington, D.C. His father worked as a lawyer. Houston started at Amherst College in 1911, was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa honor society,[1] and graduated as valedictorian in 1915. He returned to D.C. to teach at Howard University. As the U.S. entered World War I, he joined the then racially segregated U.S. Army as an officer and was sent to France. He returned to the U.S. in 1919, and began attending Harvard Law School. He was a member of the Harvard Law Review and graduated cum laude. Houston was also a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. He received his JD from Harvard in 1923 and that same year was awarded a Sheldon Traveling Fellowship to study at the University of Madrid. He was admitted to the Washington, DC bar in 1924.[4]

In 1924 he married Gladys Moran. They divorced in 1937 and he remarried Henrietta Williams. They had Houston's only child in 1940, Charles Hamilton Houston, Jr.[4]


Houston served as Vice-Dean and Dean of the Howard University School of Law from 1929-35. In this capacity he had direct influence on nearly one-quarter of all the black lawyers in the United States, including former student Thurgood Marshall.[5] While at Howard, Houston oversaw the law school's accreditation by the Association of American Law Schools and the American Bar Association. Houston left Howard in 1935 and served as special counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) until 1940. In this capacity he argued 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 before the Supreme Court between 1930 and Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Houston's plan to attack and defeat Jim Crow segregation by demonstrating the inequality in 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 masterstroke that brought about the landmark Brown decision. In Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada (1939), Houston argued that it was unconstitutional for Missouri to exclude blacks from the state’s university law school when, under the “separate but equal” provision, no comparable facility for blacks existed within the state.

Houston founded a law firm with Wendell P. Gardner, Sr. that later included, as name partners, William B. Bryant, Emmet G. Sullivan, and Joseph C. Waddy. [6] The firm was prestigious but their work not well-compensated.[7][8][9] Ten members of the firm would go on to become judges, including Theodore Newman and the son of Wendell Gardner.[9][10][8]

Houston’s efforts to dismantle the legal theory of “separate but equal” came to fruition after his death in 1950 with the historic Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision, which prohibited segregation in public schools. In the documentary "The Road to Brown", Hon. Juanita Kidd Stout described Houston's strategy, "When he attacked the "separate but equal" theory his real thought behind it was that "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." And so that was the reason he started demanding equalization of salaries for teachers, equal facilities in the schools and all of that." Houston took a movie camera across South Carolina to document the inequalities between African-American and white education. Then, as Special Counsel to the NAACP Houston dispatched Thurgood Marshall, Oliver Hill and other young attorneys to work to equalize teachers' salaries.[11] Houston led a team of African-American attorneys who used similar tactics to bring to an end the exclusion of African-Americans from juries across the South.[12]

Death and legacy[edit]

Houston died from a heart attack on April 22, 1950, at the age of 54.[13] He was posthumously awarded the NAACP's Spingarn Medal in 1950. In 1958, the main building of the Howard University School of Law was dedicated as Charles Hamilton Houston Hall. His significance became more broadly known through the success of Thurgood Marshall and after the 1983 publication of Genna Rae McNeil's Groundwork: Charles Hamilton Houston and the Struggle for Civil Rights.

Houston is the person for whom 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—are named. In addition, there is a professorship at Harvard Law named after him; Elena Kagan, formerly the Dean of Harvard Law School and now an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, was the Charles Hamilton Houston Professor of Law.

In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Charles Hamilton Houston on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.[14]

The Washington Bar Association annually awards the Charles Hamilton Houston Medallion of Merit to an individual who has advanced the cause of Houstonian jurisprudence.


  1. ^ a b NAACP History: Charles Hamilton Houston, Retrieved 6 March 2014.
  2. ^ "The Man Who Killed Jim Crow" Archived October 20, 2012, at the Wayback Machine.. Retrieved October 14, 2009.
  3. ^ "Charles Houston Bar Association Awards" Archived May 11, 2011, at the Wayback Machine., Price and Associates. Retrieved February 23, 2011.
  4. ^ a b Conyers 2012, p5
  5. ^
  6. ^ "Presentation of Portrait of the Honorable William B. Bryant, Chief Judge" (PDF). Historical Society of the District of Columbia Circuit. April 18, 1980. Retrieved August 9, 2016. 
  7. ^ J.Y. Smith (August 2, 1978). "Judge Joseph C. Waddy, 67, of U.S. District Court Here, Dies". The Washington Post. Retrieved August 9, 2016. 
  8. ^ a b Biography of Wendell Gardner at Superior Court of the District of Columbia website
  9. ^ a b Biography of Emmet Sullivan at District Court for the District of Columbia website
  10. ^ Biography of Theodore Newman at District of Columbia Court of Appeals website
  11. ^
  12. ^ Bradley, David (2014). The Historic Murder Trial of George Crawford: Charles H. Houston, the NAACP and the Case That Put All-White Southern Juries on Trial. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co. ISBN 978-0-7864-9468-2.
  13. ^ Jessie Carney Smith (ed.), "Houston, Charles Hamilton", Encyclopedia of African American Popular Culture, Greenwood, 2011 (pp. 701-704), p. 703.
  14. ^ Asante, Molefi Kete (2002). 100 Greatest African Americans: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books. ISBN 1-57392-963-8.

Further reading[edit]

  • David Bradley, The Historic Murder Trial of George Crawford: Charles H. Houston, the NAACP and the Case That Put All-White Southern Juries on Trial. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co, 2014.
  • James L. Conyers, Jr. (ed.), Charles H. Houston: An Interdisciplinary Study of Civil Rights Leadership. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2012.
  • Richard Kluger, Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality. New York: Vintage Books, 1977.
  • Kenneth W. Mack, Representing the Race: The Creation of the Civil Rights Lawyer. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.
  • Genna Rae McNeil, Groundwork: Charles Hamilton Houston and the Struggle for Civil Rights. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983.
  • James Rawn, Jr., Root and Branch: Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall, and the Struggle to End Segregation. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010.

External links[edit]