CHARLES H. HOUSTON

CHARLES H. HOUSTON

1895-1950

Charles H. Houston, an influential civil rights lawyer and the designer of Howard University’s Law School — which came to lead the world in the training of African- American lawyers — was bom the grandson of an Underground Railroad “engineer” in Washing¬ ton, DC. He attended the nation’s first black high school, M Street High, and went on to Amherst College at the age of 15, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.

By 1915, he was teach¬ ing English at Howard University, which he did for two years before entering into the service during World War I. He was made a second lieutenant field artillery officer, but was still subjected to life- threatening racism. Upon his return, Hous¬ ton entered Harvard Law School.

After editing the Harvard Law Review, receiving a Ph.D. from Harvard, and doing post-doctoral work in Madrid, he was accepted into the Washington, DC Bar in 1924. He was then invited to teach at Howard University, which was already turning out 25 percent of the nation’s African-American lawyers.

In 1929, Houston launched a massive program destined to turn Howard Law School into the world’s finest school for African-American lawyers, “the West Point of Negro leadership.” Promoting the idea that a new approach to law would help African-American lawyers influence gov¬ ernment policy, economic freedom and social systems, Houston not only redesigned Howard’s policy, but the nation’s. Building a place where young

lawyers like Thurgood Marshall (see no. 67) could be trained as “civil engineers,” Houston began a second program to slow¬ ly chip away at the roots of the Jim Crow system, the set of laws that made segregation and racism legal, and very difficult to rise above.

The first case was against the University of North Carolina in 1933. It was lost on a technicality. The second was fought by Marshall, who convinced the Maryland Court of Appeals to force the Uni¬ versity of Maryland to admit Donald Mur¬ ray. Case by case, Houston and his associ¬ ates attacked Jim Crow laws, until they broke through.

It was Houston’s tireless work that kept the “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy v. Fergusson from succeeding in all cases. The final battle, Brown v. Board ofEduca¬ tion, was fought by Thurgood Marshall, who had followed Houston passionately. Without him, the US Supreme Court may not have declared segregation of public schools illegal in 1954, four years after Houston’s death.

In 1934, Houston was asked to direct both the Joint Committee of the NAACP and the American Fund for Public Service, both of which drove passionately toward desegregation.

Houston’s influence on men like Thur¬ good Marshall was invaluable to the fight for equality, and his influence on Howard University made it possible for African- Americans to educate themselves in the word of law and defend themselves in United States courts.