Good evening Travelbox fans!
In writing these posts, I’ve explored probably just the tip of the iceberg of influential Chocolate Americans throughout our history. Many of these folks were the first to do something, or an innovator or rebel in some way. And there are so many people… SO MANY DAMN PEOPLE who took a look at what was going on around them and decided they would commit themselves to fighting injustice. In the past few months I’ve seen sentiments like “I’m not my grandparents,” and I will admit that at one point I felt like a few more well-placed ass-whuppins might have gotten us civil rights faster.
But what I’m learning is that plenty of folks did so much more than march and pray. And today I’m going to tell you a little bit about a man who has one of the most badass titles in history IMAAO*: “The Man Who Killed Jim Crow.”
Charles Hamilton Houston was born on September 3, 1895 in Washington, D.C. His father William was also a lawyer. Prior to his legal career, in the remarkable M Street High School, the first black high school in the United States. Houston then attended Amherst College in 1911 where he was elected Phi Beta Kappa and graduated as valedictorian in 1915. He would go on teach English at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
Later he joined the U.S. Army as an artillery officer during World War I. At the time the army was racially segregated, and Houston bore witness to numerous situations in which black enlisted officers were treated unfairly. These incidents occurred inside the barracks, inside the military courts, and on the streets outside the Army camps (where he and several other officers came close to being lynched by white officers due to “niggers forgetting themselves just because they had a uniform on”). The racism that Houston experienced while serving fueled his determination to continue fighting for freedom once he got home. In his eyes, Houston was glad he hadn’t died while serving the United States. His battlefield was back in America.
Houston returned to civilian life in America in 1919. During this time America was in turmoil: 25 race riots broke out in what became known as the “Red Summer” due in part to boll weevil damage to cotton crops that caused many black sharecroppers to migrate to the urban North in search of better jobs. In 1919 there were 78 lynchings, 10 of the victims were still wearing their army uniforms.
It was during this time that Houston entered Harvard Law School in 1919. While attending the prestigious university, he became the first African-American to serve as an editor for the Harvard Law Review (paving the way for another famous Harvardian) and graduated cum laude. He received his Juris Doctorate in 1923 and completed his post-doctorate work at the University of Madrid in Spain. Afterward, he would join his father’s law practice (which became Houston and Houston). He also joined Howard University’s law school, where he became vice dean in 1929 and helped the school gain accreditation in 1931. During this time, Houston’s goal was to train other Black lawyers to fight for equality and against injustice. As such, he was very demanding of his students his goal being to elevate Howard’s standards. Among those who he would teach and inspire: Oliver hill, who would become the first Black American elected to the Richmond City Council; William Hastie, the first black federal judge, and Thurgood Marshall, the first Black justice nominated to the Supreme Court.
When Houston left Howard University to join the NAACP, he recruited some of his top law students to serve with him (including Thurgood Marshall). His goal in joining the NAACP was to gain support in taking down the inherently racist “Jim Crow” laws of the land. Between 1930 and 1954, Attorney Houston was involved in almost every civil rights case tried before the Supreme Court. His strategy involved first challenging the equality of black and white schools (established from the “separate but equal” decision from Plessy v. Ferguson) by filing precedent cases demanding that black schools be made absolutely equal to white schools. In one of his most important cases, Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada (1938), Houston successfully argued that it was unconstitutional for Missouri to exclude blacks from the state’s only law school when no comparable facility for blacks existed within the state. Additionally, Houston and his fellow attorneys with the NAACP documented inequalities in facilities, salaries, and all throughout the educational system between white and black schools.
In 1940, Houston left the NAACP, but his efforts were carried on by a growing network of black civil rights attorneys. His former student and assistant Thurgood Marshall succeeded him as Special Counsel for the NAACP. This team would go on to argue the historic Brown v. Board of Education case that finally declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional. Even after leaving the NAACP, Houston continued to work for improved rights for African Americans, such as in the 1944 cases of Steele v. Louisville & Nashville Railroad Co. and Tunstall v. Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen. In these cases, the Supreme Court ruled that railway unions needed to fairly represent African-American employees. In Hurd v. Hodge (1948), Houston won the court’s agreement that race could not be a discriminatory factor in the use and sale of property.
Charles Hamilton Houston died at age 54 on April 22, 1950. He was said to have had heart problems, which were not helped by his 14-19 hour work days. 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. The Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School and the main building at Howard’s law school, Charles Hamilton Houston Hall, were named in his honor. Most importantly, when asked to sum up Charles Hamilton Houston’s contribution to the fight against segregation and racism, Thurgood Marshall stated “We owe it all to Charlie.” His role as architect of the long legal battle that would eventually integrate public schools, and the role of others to end Jim Crow can be watched in the documentary film The Road to Brown (a transcript can be found here).
That’s all for this late edition of Travelbox History Corner. More tomorrow! As always, feel free to comment on this post.
*In My Arrogant-Ass Opinion
Ayubu, Kani Saburi. “The Man That Killed Jim Crow: 9 Charles Hamilton Houstion Facts For You!” Black Art Depot Today, 2013. Web. 5 February 2017. http://blackartblog.blackartdepot.com/features/black-historical-facts/charles-hamilton-houston-facts.html.
“Charles Houston Hamilton.” Wikipedia, n.d. Web. 5 February 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Hamilton_Houston.
“Charles H. Houston Biography.” Biography.com, n.d. Web. 5 February 2017. http://www.biography.com/people/charles-h-houston-9344795.
“Charles Houston Hamilton.” Cornell Law, n.d. Web. 5 February 2017. https://www.law.cornell.edu/houston/.
“Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia.” Ferris State University, 2014. 5 February 2017. http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/.
Linder, Douglas O. “Before Brown: Charles H. Houston and the Gaines Case.” University of Missouri-Kansas City Law, n.d. Web. http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/trialheroes/charleshoustonessayF.html.
“Road to Brown Transcript.” California Newsreel (via the Internet Archive), n.d. Web. 5 February 2017. https://web.archive.org/web/20080615124003/http://www.newsreel.org:80/transcripts/roadtob.htm