Black History Month 2023 – Celebrating the Life and Contributions of Charles Hamilton Houston

Feb 15, 2023

Charles Hamilton Houston was an American lawyer and educator instrumental in laying the legal groundwork that led to U.S. Supreme Court rulings outlawing racial segregation in public schools.  He fought for justice in all its dimensions.

  • Education – Houston graduated Amherst in 1915 at the age of 20 and, as the only black student in his class, was elected Valedictorian.  He then taught English at Howard University for two years.
  • Path to Law School Houston served in the United States Army in France and Germany in World War I, and briefly as a Judge Advocate. In this role, he defended a black soldier wrongfully prosecuted.  He later said this experience led to him becoming a lawyer: “I made up my mind that if I got through this war I would study law and use my time fighting for men who could not strike back.”  When the war ended, he said “my battleground is in America, not France.”
    • First black member of the editorial board of the Harvard Law Review.
  • Attorney Houston founded his own law firm and later became Dean of Howard University Law School, and trained future United States Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.  He was also Special Counsel to the NAACP.
  • Civil Rights Activist Houston was widely regarded as the most influential civil rights lawyer prior to his death in 1950. The Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education resulted, in part, from his efforts in the 1930s and 1940s to document racial disparities in education and to debunk the myth of “separate but equal.” He even took a camera across South Carolina to document unequal conditions in schools.  In 2009, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp in his honor as one of 12 civil rights pioneers.
  • Connection to the U.S. Supreme Court Former United States Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall was personally mentored by Houston, a collaboration between two very different men as described in the book “Root and Branch.”  Current Justice Elena Kagan was the “Charles Hamilton Houston Professor of Law” at Harvard Law School, a chair named in his honor.

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