Houston, Charles Hamilton Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

African American civil rights lawyer Houston was instrumental in devising and using litigation strategy to establish the equal rights of African Americans before the law in a series of Supreme Court cases.

The only child of black, middle-class Washington, D.C., parents, Houston won honors at Amherst College and Harvard Law School. He won a scholarship to gain his S.J.D. degree and (with Felix Frankfurter’s recommendation) a fellowship to obtain the Doctor of Civil Law degree (University of Madrid, Spain). Houston returned in 1924 at a time when laws enforcing racial discrimination were deemed constitutional. He earnestly and tirelessly devoted his life to battling such laws. Joining his father in private law practice, he began part-time teaching at predominantly black Howard University Law School. In 1929-1935 he taught there full-time and was de facto dean. He helped the institute gain full accreditation in 1931 and made it a national center for rigorous study of law and a laboratory for civil rights advocacy, training African American lawyers to be social engineers.

Houston served as the first full-time counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored PeopleNational Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1935-1938, helping fashion its litigation strategy and choosing test cases to chip away at legal segregation. He challenged first those segregation laws that were most obviously inconsistent with established law, working toward the wholesale abolition of racially biased laws by the Supreme Court. Although Houston was also a publicist, educator, and some-time public official, seeing litigation as only one avenue for change, he was counsel for or a strategist behind most of the major civil rights cases to come before the Court during his career and mentor to civil rights lawyers including Thurgood Marshall. Houston’s Court victories included the law school admissions equal protection case of Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada (1938), the fair-representation labor case of Steele v. Louisville and Nashville Railroad Co. (1944), and the case against restrictive covenant housing of Shelley v. Kraemer (1948).

Legal Defense Fund, NAACP

Marshall, Thurgood

Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)

Race and discrimination

Segregation, de facto

Segregation, de jure

Shelley v. Kraemer

Categories: History