Houston, Charles Hamilton

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Houston, Charles Hamilton

Charles Hamilton Houston was a law professor and Civil Rights lawyer who argued many landmark cases on behalf of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Houston was born September 3, 1895, in Washington, D.C. His father, William Houston, was trained as a lawyer and worked for a while as a records clerk to supplement the family's income; his mother, Mary Ethel Houston, worked as a hairdresser. Houston's father eventually began practicing law full-time and later became a law professor at Howard University, a predominantly black institution located in Washington, D.C. An only child, Houston received his primary and secondary education in segregated Washington, D.C., schools. After graduating from high school, he received a full scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh. At the urging of his parents, he instead entered Amherst College, where he was the only black student enrolled. An outstanding student, he was elected Phi Beta Kappa, and graduated magna cum laude in 1915.

After Amherst, Houston taught English composition and literature at Howard for two years. In 1917, shortly after the United States entered World War I, Houston left teaching for military service. He enrolled in an officer candidate school for blacks, established at Des Moines. After four months of training, Houston became a first lieutenant in the infantry and was assigned to duty at Camp Meade, Maryland. He later entered field artillery school, despite the widely held belief that blacks could not serve effectively as field artillery officers.

Houston served in France until 1919, then returned to the United States to enroll at Harvard Law School. He was one of the few black students admitted at that time. His outstanding academic record earned him a place on the editorial board of the Harvard Law Review, making him the first black student to be so honored. In 1922, he received a bachelor of laws degree cum laude. He remained at Harvard for an additional year of graduate study, and earned a doctor of juridical science degree in 1923. He then won a fellowship to study for a year at the University of Madrid, where he earned a doctor of Civil Law degree. In 1924, his studies completed, Houston was admitted to the bar of the District of Columbia and became his father's partner in the law firm of Houston and Houston. He quickly developed a successful practice, specializing in trusts and estates, probate, and landlord-tenant matters. He also taught law part-time at Howard University. In 1929, he left law practice to become an associate professor and vice dean of the School of Law at Howard. In 1932, he became dean, a post he held until 1935.

While at Howard, Houston worked to upgrade the law school's facilities, reputation, and academic standards and was instrumental in securing full accreditation for the school. He also found time to participate in important civil rights cases. He helped write the brief for Nixon v. Condon, 286 U.S. 73, 52 S. Ct. 484, 76 L. Ed. 984 (1932), in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that a "whites-only" primary election was unconstitutional. He also helped argue Norris v. Alabama, 294 U.S. 587, 55 S. Ct. 579, 79 L. Ed. 1074 (1935), where the Court overturned the convictions of nine black men charged with rape, because Alabama's systematic exclusion of blacks from juries violated the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution.

In 1935, Houston left Washington, D.C., to become the first special counsel for the NAACP, headquartered in New York City. As special counsel, Houston initiated legal challenges in support of civil rights and argued landmark cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, including Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada, 305 U.S. 337, 59 S. Ct. 232, 83 L. Ed. 208 (1938). In Gaines, the Supreme Court ruled that a state could not exclude a black applicant from a state-supported all-white law school. Houston also argued Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1, 68 S. Ct. 836, 92 L. Ed. 1161 (1948). In the Shelley decision, the Court held that a clause in a real estate contract prohibiting the sale of property to nonwhites could not be enforced by state courts. Houston was widely praised for the thorough and sometimes painstaking preparation of his legal briefs and his impassioned oral arguments before the Court.

In 1940, Houston left the NAACP to return to private practice in Washington, D.C., though he remained a member of the NAACP's national legal committee. He was succeeded as special counsel by Thurgood Marshall, a colleague at the NAACP whom he had taught at Howard and who later became the first African American justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. Houston remained active in civil rights work, winning before the U.S. Supreme Court two cases that struck down racially discriminatory practices by the railroads: Steele v. Louisville and Nashville Railroad Company, 323 U.S. 192, 65 S. Ct. 226, 89 L. Ed. 173 (1944), and Tunstall v. Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, 323 U.S. 210, 65 S. Ct. 235, 89 L. Ed. 187 (1944).

In 1944, Houston was appointed by President franklin d. roosevelt to the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC). He resigned the following year after a dispute with President Harry S. Truman over alleged discriminatory hiring practices on the part of the Capital Transit Company, of Washington, D.C. Capital Transit Company was the transportation system in Washington, D.C. Houston alleged that it engaged in discriminatory policies by not hiring black workers or promoting current black workers to positions as bus operators or streetcar conductors. The FEPC wanted to issue a directive ending discrimination. Truman did not respond to Houston's efforts to have the directive issued, so Houston resigned from the FEPC. Truman finally did respond, maintaining that, because Capital Transit had earlier been seized under the War Labor Dispute Act because of a labor dispute, enforcement of the order ending discrimination should be postponed.

"Whether elected or appointed, public officials serve those who put and keep them in office. We cannot depend upon them to fight our battles."
—Charles Hamilton Houston

After battling heart disease for several years, Houston died in Washington, D.C., on April 22, 1950, at the age of fifty-four.

Further readings

Elliott, Stephen P., ed. 1986. A Reference Guide to the United States Supreme Court. New York: Facts on File.

Fairfax, Roger A., Jr. 1998. "Wielding the Double-Edged Sword: Charles Hamilton Houston and Judicial Activism in the Age of Legal Realism." Harvard Blackletter Law Journal 14 (spring): 17–44.

Jones, Nathaniel R. 2001. "The Sisyphean Impact on Houstonian Jurisprudence." University of Cincinnati Law Review 69 (winter): 435–51.

McNeil, Genna Rae. 1983. Groundwork: Charles Hamilton Houston and the Struggle for Civil Rights. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.

Smith, J. Clay, Jr, and E. Desmond Hogan. 1998. "Remembered Hero, Forgotten Contribution: Charles Hamilton Houston, Legal Realism, and Labor Law." Harvard Blackletter Law Journal 14 (spring): 1–16.

Witt, Elder, ed. 1990. Guide to the U.S. Supreme Court. 2d ed. Washington D.C.: Congressional Quarterly.


Powell v. Alabama.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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