Black History Spotlight
By Alana R. Glover
Charles Hamilton Houston was born on September 3, 1895, in Washington, D.C.[ii] After an impactful legal career spanning 25 years, he passed away on April 22, 1950.[iii] Houston was a legal giant and great scholar who graduated from Amherst College as one of six valedictorians and the only Black student in the class of 1915.[iv] After graduating, he taught briefly at Howard University before joining the army to fight in World War I.[v] Following his discharge from the army, Houston attended Harvard Law School and became the first Black student chosen to serve on the Harvard Law Review editorial board.[vi] After graduating from Harvard, Houston took time to study at the University of Madrid and was later admitted to the District of Columbia Bar. Immediately after being admitted to the Bar, he began practicing law with his father.[vii]
Later, from 1929-1935, Houston served as Vice Dean of Howard University Law School.[viii] At the time, the University-trained “almost a quarter of the nation's black law students,” including Justice Thurgood Marshall.[ix] Houston became most notable for his work as counsel for the NAACP.[x] Through his persistent and steadfast advocacy for the rights of Black Americans during that time, Charles Hamilton Houston earned the title, “The Man Who Killed Jim Crow.”[xi] Two of his major victories, which laid the foundation for the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education, were Pearson v. Murray (1936) and State ex rel. Gaines v. Canada (1939). In Murray, Maryland’s highest court held that the University of Maryland School of Law could no longer exclude Black students.[xii] In Gaines, the U.S. Supreme Court held that Missouri could not exclude Black students from the state law school because there was no comparable option for Black students to gain a legal education.[xiii]
These cases were only a few of Houston's many successes throughout his career.[xiv] Houston served as lead counsel or co-counsel in nine cases before the Supreme Court.[xv] He was successful in seven of those cases.[xvi] It has also been noted that “he established over seventy precedent-setting appellate decisions in state and federal courts.”[xvii] In addition to his successes in the courtroom, he was also “chair of the NAACP Legal Committee for most of his career, while also serving on the board of the American Civil Liberties Union, [and] vice president of the National Lawyers Guild[.]”[xviii] An accomplished researcher, Houston created a “data bank on bias in America,” for Howard University School of Law Library, by compiling resources from across the U.S. on race and segregation.[xix] Likewise, when Houston, and several black lawyers, were denied membership in the American Bar Association, he became a founding member of the Washington Bar Association in 1925.[xx] As the vice president of the National Lawyers Guild in 1937, Houston became “the first African American to serve as an officer of a racially integrated bar association in the nation's history.”[xxi]
Charles Hamilton Houston was a legendary legal advocate. He paved the way for many well-known attorneys, such as Maryland's own Thurgood Marshall, Juanita Jackson Mitchell, Clarence Mitchell, Jr., and many others.[xxii] Justice Thurgood Marshall served as the first Black Solicitor General and Black Supreme Court Justice.[xxiii] Juanita Jackson Mitchell was the first Black woman to attend the University of Maryland School of Law and the first Black woman admitted to practice law in Maryland.[xxiv] Clarence Mitchell, Jr., served as a leader for the NAACP and advocated for desegregation in Washington, D.C.[xxv] As a result of Clarence Mitchell Jr.’s work with the NAACP and numerous other acts to help further civil rights efforts, he received the Medal of Freedom from President Jimmy Carter, one of the nation’s greatest honors.[xxvi] Today, The Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse in Baltimore, Maryland, still stands in his honor.[xxvii] These attorneys, who were guided by and worked alongside Houston, exemplify the power and strength of Houston’s mentorship. Although Charles Houston passed away by 1950 at the age of fifty-four, his impact lives on through the precedent he set and attorneys he trained as “social engineers” for generations to come.
Ms. Glover is an associate practicing civil litigation at Goldberg Segalla .
[i] Liz Mineo, The Civil Rights lawyer who paved the path, The Harvard Gazette, (May 16, 2018),
[ii] The Editors of the Encyclopedia of Britannica, Charles Hamilton Houston, Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Charles-Hamilton-Houston (last visited Feb. 20, 2022).
[iv] See id.
[v] Id; see also Charles Hamilton Houston, NAACP, https://naacp.org/find-resources/history-explained/civil-rights-leaders/charles-hamilton-houston (last visited Feb. 20, 2022).
[viii] Charles Hamilton Houston (1895-1950) Biography, Brown@50, http://law.howard.edu/brownat50/BrownBios/BioCharlesHHouston.html (last visited Feb. 20, 2022).
[xiv] José Felipé Anderson, Genius For Justice 8 (2022).
[xviii] Id at 9.
[xix] Michael Kohler, Charles Hamilton Houston and His Civil Rights Brain Trust, WETA, https://boundarystones.weta.org/2021/03/24/Charles-hamilton-houston-and-his-civil-rights-brain-trust (last visited Feb. 24, 2022).
[xx] http://www.wbayld.org/about (last visited Feb. 234, 2022).
[xxi] José Felipé Anderson, Genius For Justice 9 (2022).
[xxii] See id at 188 ̶ 89.
[xxvii] NAACP, supra note v.