Charles Hamilton Houston
September 3, 1895 – April 22, 1950
Charles Hamilton Houston was born in Washington, D.C. to Mary and William Houston and was seemingly the couple’s only child. His father was an attorney while his mother was a hairdresser who had several politicians as clients. Houston was an intelligent and inquisitive child with parents who doted on him. They provided him with enriching experiences and gave him access to books and a piano sparking Houston’s interest in both.
At the time, few high schools allowed Black students and most only provided a vocational education. D.C.’s M Street High School distinguished itself as both the first Black high school in America and one of the few to offer a classical education. Houston spent three years of his adolescence in attendance at M Street where he was educated by some of America’s most elite Black teachers. His academic performance earned Houston a partial scholarship to Amherst College.
While attending Amherst was a great academic opportunity, there were also some difficulties. Though middle class, the Houstons were of modest means, and paying the balance of Houston’s tuition was a financial burden. Also, as the only Black student in his class, Houston had few friends. Feeling alienated, he used the experience to further motivate himself to be independent and perform well academically. After graduating in 1915 as one of six valedictorians in his class, Houston returned to D.C. to teach English and Literature at Howard University.
Two years later when America entered World War I, Houston’s father lobbied and got him an assignment at Fort Des Moines in Iowa. Fort Des Moines was the location of America’s first Black training camp for officers. The majority of Black men who enlisted or were drafted into the military were sent to the army where they were often assigned menial and dangerous work. Howard hoped that he could avoid such assignments by becoming an officer while also creating a path to later advocate for improved conditions for Black people in America.
Unfortunately, Houston had a negative experience in the military due to racism. His first camp commander believed the Black officers training under him lacked the intelligence and character required to lead. During training, Houston was assigned to three different camps where his complaints about racial discrimination were met with further abuse. Later, as a judge-advocate, Houston witnessed firsthand multiple attempts to railroad Black soldiers and officers.
Houston’s time overseas would offer further injustices. Despite risking their lives to serve America, Black soldiers still found themselves having to contend with Jim Crow in the military. Black officers were denied access to the same facilities and resources as White officers. Houston and a few other Black officers narrowly escaped being lynched by a group of White servicemen who felt they were being uppity. And upon returning to America, a White man demanded that Houston and another Black officer be forced to move from sitting near him in a train’s dining car.
Riots erupted across America during 1919s Red Summer. A client of Houston’s father was convicted by an all-White jury after he shot and killed a White serviceman while attempting to escape from a mob during a riot in D.C. The experience motivated Houston to apply to Harvard Law School.
Houston excelled at Harvard earning A’s and B’s and the distinction of being the first Black person given an editorial position on the Harvard Law Review’s editorial board. He received a Frederick Sheldon Fellowship and furthered his law education at the University of Madrid.
After completing his law degree, Houston returned to D.C. He spent the next five years working at his father’s private law firm and teaching at the Howard University School of Law. The school was relatively new but at the time trained the majority of America’s Black lawyers. He would later leave his father’s practice to serve as a vice dean and later dean. During his tenure, Houston overhauled the law school’s structure and curriculum and helped guide the program through becoming accredited.
The law school was part of Houston’s vision for improving conditions for Black people. He believed that the fight for equality and civil rights would require well-trained Black lawyers. Thurgood Marshall was among the group of lawyers that Houston would train and mentor at Howard.
Houston’s work brought him to the attention of the NAACP and he left Howard to serve as the organization’s Special Council. Later, Houston had Marshall join him at the NAACP. They traveled the Jim Crow South gathering research about segregation, especially concerning Black education and school facilities.
Working with Marshall and other attorneys Houston helped to develop the strategies that the NAACP would use to fight segregation. The first courtroom battle that utilized these strategies took place in 1935. Houston would go on to serve as counsel in several notable cases. But he had sadly passed away by the time the campaign reach its zenith 20 years later with Brown v. Board of Ed.
Charles Hamilton Houston died on April 22, 1950, in Washington, DC at the age of 54 from a heart attack. After his death, Houston was awarded the NAACP Spingarn Medal and the Howard University School of Law’s main building was later named in his honor. Houston was married twice and had one son.
- Baskerville, Rashida. 2020. “Charles Hamilton Houston (1895-1950).” Blackpast.org. December 5, 2020. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/houston-charles-hamilton-1895-1950/.
- “Charles Hamilton Houston Residence, African American Heritage Trail.” n.d. Cultural Tourism DC. Accessed October 18, 2022. https://www.culturaltourismdc.org/portal/charles-hamilton-houston-residence-african-american-heritage-trail.
- “Charles Hamilton Houston.” 2021. NAACP. May 11, 2021. https://naacp.org/find-resources/history-explained/civil-rights-leaders/charles-hamilton-houston.
- “Charles Hamilton Houston.” 2022. Americans Who Tell The Truth. July 8, 2022. https://americanswhotellthetruth.org/portraits/charles-hamilton-houston/.
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, ed. 2022. “Charles Hamilton Houston.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. August 30, 2022. .
- Jamar, Steven D. 2004. “Charles Hamilton Houston (1895-1950).” Howard University School of Law. 2004.http://law.howard.edu/brownat50/BrownBios/BioCharlesHHouston.html.
- Linder, Douglas O. n.d. “Before Brown: Charles H. Houston and the Gaines Case.” UMKC School of Law. Accessed October 18, 2022. http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/trialheroes/charleshoustonessayF.html.
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